Bway Stars Sing and Reminisce in Tribute to Adolph Green, the Eccentric Who Made People Happy

News   Bway Stars Sing and Reminisce in Tribute to Adolph Green, the Eccentric Who Made People Happy Betty Comden, standing center-stage at the Dec. 3 memorial tribute to her late partner, Adolph Green, admitted to a hushed crowd at the Shubert Theatre that it felt lonely up there by herself.

Betty Comden, standing center-stage at the Dec. 3 memorial tribute to her late partner, Adolph Green, admitted to a hushed crowd at the Shubert Theatre that it felt lonely up there by herself.

Lonely, of course, because she and Green had been acting and writing partners for more than 60 years, first working in the late 1930s in a comedy troupe called The Revuers, which included their pal, Judy Holliday. Green, whose work with Comden would later include acting on Broadway (On the Town) and writing screenplays ("Singin' in the Rain," "The Band Wagon," "Auntie Mame"), librettos ("Applause," "On the Twentieth Century," among others) and lyrics ("Bells Are Ringing," "The Will Rogers Follies," "Wonderful Town"), died at the age of 87 on Oct. 24.

Comden was briefly alone on stage at the crowded celebration of Green's life, but she was not alone in her affection for the man billed that afternoon as eccentric, vivacious, intelligent, wild and a little crazy. Arthur Laurents, who had written Hallelujah, Baby! with Comden and Green said, "Adolph had no small emotions."

During a two-hour celebration of Green's life, held the day after what would have been his 88th birthday, stars of the Broadway stage sang his songs and friends and colleagues recalled his qualities, often reminding friends and fans that Green was wonderfully weird, and always a performer at heart.

Green's widow, the actress Phyllis Newman, who met Green at the Shubert Theatre when she auditioned to play Holliday's standby in Bells Are Ringing, opened the Dec. 3 tribute and sang "Lucky to be Me," from On the Town, backed up by Jonathan Dokuchitz, Norm Lewis and Jesse Tyler Ferguson, who appeared throughout the celebration (which was supervised by Walter Bobbie, produced by Maria Di Dia and Sam Ellis, and music directed by Eric Stern). The afternoon was billed as a "party" for the man who so loved to gather with friends in Manhattan — the "wonderful town" he so loved. "I auditioned for Adolph and Betty and Jule Styne, and I got the job," Newman told the crowd. "I hung around the theatre a lot and I was instantly attracted to Adolph, but I was intimidated by his age and his success, his reputation as an intellectual and his mind-boggling eccentricity. But finally, he asked me out for a date. This is true — I spent the entire night before the date memorizing titles and authors. He took me across the street to Sardi's, 'the showman's paradise,' as he used to call it, and I was very very nervous. When the waiter came over, I said, 'I'll have a scotch on the rocks — with ice please.'"

Among those who spoke Dec. 3 were Kevin Kline (a Tony winner from On the Twentieth Century), who read from a Lewis Carroll poem; Sandy Duncan, who sang "Never Never Land," one of several songs Comden and Green wrote for Peter Pan; Bernadette Peters, who sang "Some Other Time" with Newman; Donna Murphy, who reprised her Encores! rendering of "One Hundred Easy Ways" from Wonderful Town; Judy Kaye, who sang "Learn to be Lonely," from A Doll's Life, with composer Larry Grossman at the piano; Faith Prince, who sang "The Party's Over" and "I'm Goin' Back," from Bells Are Ringing; composer Cy Coleman, who sang "Never Met a Man I Didn't Like," from The Will Rogers Follies; Joel Grey, who sang the Comden-Green-Andre Previn song, "I Like Myself" from the film, "It's Always Fair Weather"; Kristin Chenoweth, who sang "If" from Two On the Aisle; and Marc Shaiman, who sang "Mamouska," the obscure song he co-wrote with Comden and Green for an "Addams Family" movie. Green and Newman's son, Adam, who did not become a performer despite his breeding, bravely sang "Hook's Waltz," the antic song from Peter Pan that his father had co-written with Comden and Styne. The elder Green had often performed the song in the revue, A Party With Betty Comden and Adolph Green. Adam's performance, wild and crazy and aping his father's caffeinated choreography, got one of the strongest ovations of the tribute.

"Eccentric" was the common word used throughout the tribute to Green. Even daughter Amanda said so, when she related the story of the time she played her recording of "Daddy's Shoulders," a sentimental song she had written about him. The moment was too intimate for Amanda to look at her father as the song played, telling a mini life story of a father and daughter who gave each other their shoulders for support over the years. When the song was through, with tears in her eyes, she looked over at her father. He was sound asleep, she said.

Lauren Bacall recalled sitting at a table with Green at a party. He turned to those around him and snapped, "Just because I'm blind and deaf, it's no reason not to talk to me!"

The director Harold Prince said, "I first got to know Adolph when I was hired on as assistant stage manager of Wonderful Town. We were at the Shubert in New Haven, and I heard a terrible noise from the lobby and I went to see what was up. There was Adolph, on all fours, banging his head against the floor. Apparently, Chodorov and Fields, the two gentlemen who wrote the book for Wonderful Town, had gone to [director George] Abbott and insisted that a number be put into that show for the entire men's chorus wearing identical striped blazers, white trousers and straw boaters. Even in frustration, Adolph was a performer."

Peter Stone, who penned the book to The Will Rogers Follies: A Life in Revue, said this: "It's very hard to imagine a world without Adolph Green in it. I half expect him during this afternoon to pop up from behind the piano and say, "Just kidding!'"

When Stone and Cy Coleman invited Betty Comden and Adolph Green aboard to write The Will Rogers Follies, he was eager to see how Comden and Green worked. "Up until then," Stone told the audience, "I'd always wondered about the nature of Betty and Adolph's remarkable collaboration. I had known they'd gotten together virtually every workday of their creative lives, almost always at Betty's place — spending the afternoon hours either working on a current project, cooking up a new one or sometimes just sitting around waiting for an inspiration. The nature of their collaboration was complicated by the fact that unlike such famous musical theatre partnerships as Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Loewe, the Gershwins, where one wrote the music and the other the lyrics, Betty and Adolph both did the same thing: They both wrote the lyrics and they both wrote the screenplays. Therefore, the question couldn't help but arise: When you listen to their songs, or watch their films, which one wrote what? I discovered something so strange, when spoken aloud it sounds utterly fantastic: Adolph Green might have been the only writer in all of history who never wrote. Betty's the one who jotted everything down, Adolph jotted absolutely nothing down. I never saw him use a pen or pencil, let alone a typewriter. It would have been useless for him to even try to type because he was not on direct speaking terms with any sort of mechanical object. That included the corkscrew, the eggbeater and the doorbell. ...From these observations, one would be tempted to conclude this collaboration was a lopsided affair, with Betty doing most of the work and Adolph doing most of the rest, of which there wasn't any. But this would have been not only unfair, it would have been totally inaccurate. ...Yes, the form and structure came from Betty, so did style and sensibility. Then what, you might ask, did Adolph do? The answer is, the madness. The sheer, outlandish, surreal, weird, goofy, uniquely Adolphian madness. This was a marriage between Dorothy Parker and all five of the Marx Brothers rolled into one."

"When we started out and we had a nightclub act, we played a lot of terrible places," Comden told the crowd. "One night, I remember clearly, we were at some very awful club and we did our act and the people didn't listen, didn't laugh — they barely sat there. We were slinking off to our dressing room, and then we heard two very light claps. And Adolph said, 'They want MORE!' Judy Holliday and I held onto his arm and tried to keep him from going back on..." She added, "He was a creature who could have been composed only out of his own head. ...He had acres and acres of literature in his mind...I didn't have to go to reference books much. We had a marvelous life together as collaborators and friends."

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Green, a native New Yorker from the Bronx, made a name in show business starting as a scrappy downtown actor songwriter in a 1930s sketch-comedy group called The Revuers, which included Comden and Judy Holliday.

He and Comden continued acting but honed their writing skills to create musical comedies over the next six decades that were light, breezy love letters to their native city. They gathered Tony Awards and international attention along the way.

With their pal composer Leonard Bernstein, they created On the Town (1944), for which they penned book and lyrics, inspired by the Jerome Robbins-Bernstein ballet, Fancy Free. The tale of three sailors on leave in Manhattan and the girls they meet included two choice roles for the writers — sailor Ozzie and student Claire de Loone. The couple's song, "Carried Away," was preserved on cast albums, and would be sung into the 1990s in Comden and Green's continuing specialty act, A Party With Betty Comden and Adolph Green. Their career reminiscences and songs (them singing with piano) are preserved on two separate cast albums of A Party, which are treasured by fans.

On the Town was viewed as one of several groundbreaking shows in which character was explained and explored through dance. The score also includes the memorable song, "Some Other Time," plus the brassy anthem, "New York, New York," in which the city is described as "a helluva town" where "the Bronx is up and the Battery's down." (For the M-G-M movie version, the lyric was cleaned up as "a wonderful town.")

That song would be a harbinger for their other New York set musicals: 1953's Wonderful Town (for which Mr. Green and Comden penned lyrics to Bernstein's music), 1956's Bells Are Ringing (a vehicle for Holliday set to Jule Styne's music, with book and lyrics and original idea by Mr. Green and Comden) and 1961's Subways Are for Sleeping (which starred Newman, who snagged a Tony, and had book and lyrics by Comden and Green).

Their screenplays for the M-G-M color musicals "Singin' in the Rain" and "The Band Wagon" are famous for their craft and wit. They also penned screenplay and lyrics for the film, "It's Always Fair Weather."

Comden and Green were known for meeting every day and discussing ideas for new works. Their writing was refined by each other and blended into one voice.

"He was an inspired person," Will Rogers Follies librettist Peter Stone told Playbill On-Line shortly after Green's death. "He didn't write — that wasn't his job. [Betty Comden] wrote. He added madness, inspiration. He added what was really their recognizable — almost surreal — type of humor. Not that she didn't have it, she is still extremely funny and a knowledgeable writer. He was an imp, and it was the impishness that ultimately distinguished their work. Together, they added up to one person. I think Adolph was basically a performer who had this special thing...he was touched in an odd way. There was a quality of sketch humor to their work that doesn't exist anymore in musical theatre."

Taking a break from rehearsals for his new Off-Broadway revue, White Tie and Tails, Tommy Tune, who staged The Will Rogers Follies, said, "Aside from my deepest respect for Adolph's work, I adored his personal sense of style.  He was always impeccably turned out! Adolph had an abstract sense of humor, which shows up in his lyrics but more in his life. It was always fun to be in Adolph's company. I will miss him very much."

Their many projects included painful flops (Bonanza Bound, in which Green also appeared in its tryout, Billion Dollar Baby, A Doll's Life) and Tony Award-winning hits (Applause, The Will Rogers Follies). It seemed that from almost every show they wrote, a pop hit would emerge. Their catalog includes "Lucky to be Me," "Make Someone Happy," "A Little Bit in Love," "Ohio," "Just in Time," "The Party's Over," "Long Before I Knew You," "Never Never Land," "Comes Once in a Lifetime," "I'm Just Taking My Time," "My Own Morning," "Never Met a Man I Didn't Like," "Look Around" and more.

With Comden, who survives him, Green co-wrote the book to Applause, and the pair contributed to Do Re-Mi, Two on the Aisle, Peter Pan, Say, Darling, Fade Out — Fade In, Hallelujah, Baby!, A Doll's Life and The Will Rogers Follies.

In an interview in the 1980s, Green bristled and said he didn't like being quoted giving opinions on the new trend of pop musicals because he was still a vital writer, not a sage. "We're writing new musicals," he said. In 1991 he and Comden proved they were indeed writing "new musicals" when they (and composer Cy Coleman) won the Best Score Tony Award for The Will Rogers Follies: A Life in Revue.

Coleman said from London, upon hearing the news of Green's death, "It's a very sad day."

Green, though slowed by age, never seemed to lose his love of performing. He sang and acted Pangloss in 1989 concert versions of what Bernstein considered a definitive draft of Candide, captured on CD, shortly before Bernstein died. As late as 1999 Comden and Green were still performing a version of their career retrospective, this time at the hip Joe's Pub at The Public Theater.

In recent years, On the Town and Bells Are Ringing received short-lived Broadway revivals. In 2002, a special 50th anniversary edition of "Singin' in the Rain" was released in a two-DVD format, with a two-CD soundtrack reissue, as well. Green's Hollywood credits with Comden include the screenplay to "Auntie Mame," lyrics for "Take Me Out to the Ball Game," screenplays for "The Barkleys of Broadway" and "Good News" (for which they also wrote the song, "The French Lesson," with frequent film collaborator composer Roger Edens).

"He was an authentic eccentric," Arthur Laurents said, adding that Green was working in recent weeks on a rewrite of 1968's Hallelujah, Baby!, the Styne Comden-Green-Laurents musical comedy survey of black entertainment in America. The show won the 1968 Best Musical Tony Award and won the songwriters a Best Score Tony, as well.

Green was a Tony winner as early as the fourth annual Tonys, in 1954, when Wonderful Town was named Best Musical. Applause, with a score by Charles Strouse and Lee Adams, won Best Musical in 1970. The Comden-Green-Coleman score to On the 20th Century won Best Score and Best Book in 1978. Even their flop, A Doll's Life, a musical imagining of what happened to Ibsen's Nora after she left A Doll's House, earned nominations for Best Book and Score in 1983.

Comden and Green were nominated for Best Book for the Broadway stage adaptation of "Singin' in the Rain," in 1986. Green later admitted it was a project they grudgingly adapted; he felt the picture was perfect and didn't necessarily belong on stage, but said he felt it was going to be adapted anyway, with or without him and Comden.

Green's musical comedy librettos and songs often showed the writers' roots in sketch comedy, much to the delight of the crowd. There were sections of their shows that seemed to spring from the world of sketch comedy — set pieces you imagine could fit snugly on "The Carol Burnett Show" or Sid Caesar's "Your Show of Shows."

In Subways Are for Sleeping, for example, Newman played a former beauty queen who recites a "musical dramatic playlet" about the Civil War that is still hilarious on the cast album, and is credited as helping win Newman the Tony in 1962. In Bells Are Ringing, Judy Holliday's character, Ella, does a vaudeville turn — part Jolson, part Irish melodrama — to avoid a police detective, in a song called "Is It a Crime?"

And in the little-known Fade Out — Fade In, about an usher who becomes a movie star, Carol Burnett sang a song called "You Mustn't Feel Discouraged," a spoof of cloying Shirley Temple songs.

In A Party, Green himself performed the hilarious country-flecked square-dance spoof of corporate check-kiting schemes, "Swing Your Projects," from Subways Are for Sleeping. The song, and Green's fiercely manic delivery of a corrupt businessman, is a mini-play in itself.

Among their numbers in A Party, seen Off Broadway, on Broadway and in special engagements around the country, were old songs from the days of The Revuers, including "The Reader's Digest," in which classics were boiled down to one-sentence blurbs such as "Jean Valjean, no evil doer, stole some bread 'cause he was poor; a detective chased him through a sewer — the end!" (representing Victor Hugo's "Les Miserables").

Until recent years, their Party turns included Green and Comden vigorously jumping up and down, playing peasants "gamboling on the green" in one sketch. At those shows, audiences raised on The Second City and "Saturday Night Live" were given a window into the topical comedy of a time when a sailor sweetly kissed a girl in a city that seemed full of graspable dreams.

— By Kenneth Jones