Comden & . . .

Special Features   Comden & . . . As Broadway welcomes a new production of the joyous Wonderful Town, Betty Comden, one of its creators, looks back at how it all began — and at her beloved partner in crime, the late Adolph Green

Betty Comden at the opening of On the Town
Betty Comden at the opening of On the Town Photo by Aubrey Reuben

At what would be my last interview with Betty Comden and Adolph Green, I brought along a friend who was visiting from California. He had a copy of Betty's book, "Off Stage," and, after the interview, asked the two of them to autograph it.

Adolph's vision was failing, but he was an actor, too, and he knew he could bring it off. She did the honors first, writing "Best wishes, Betty Comden &," passed the book to Adolph, put the pen in his hand and gently placed his hand on the page being signed. He then, with predictable panache, scrawled "& Adolph Green."

That double ampersand touched me. If ever there was a sign — signs — of two people who'd spent all their professional lives looking after each other, finishing each other's sentences and lyrics, it was in this little slip of the pen. Theirs was the longest-running collaboration in show business history — 60 years and some change — stretching from 1939, when they joined Alvin Hammer and Judy Tuvim (later Holliday) onstage at the Village Vanguard as The Revuers, to the day before Adolph's demise in October 2002.

How this teamwork manifested itself in the practical/impractical matter of making theatre was not revealed until his memorial. Peter Stone, who would die six months later himself, admitted he'd been curious about how they meshed and got to see them in action when he wrote the book for the last Comden & Green Tony winner, The Will Rogers Follies.

"Adolph Green," he said, "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. . . . 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." The service, held at the Shubert (on December 3, a day after what would have been Adolph's 87th birthday), was a real party — a show-biz event that made the front page of The New York Times. Punctuating the reminiscences was the work itself, done by a Broadway Who's Who — among them Donna Murphy, reprising "One Hundred Easy Ways [To Lose a Man]," the Wonderful Town show-stopper she did in the City Center Encores! series that was the last Comden & Green that Adolph saw — and, basically, that is what's now on view at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre.

"It'll be very much like that," promised Betty recently. "The producers didn't want to expand it much, and I think that's wise. It was Adolph's favorite show of ours, and I'm glad he got to see it at Encores! He thought it was terrific. We both did. And we've got Kathleen Marshall back directing and choreographing and Donna Murphy in the lead."

She remembers as if it were yesterday — and it was 51 years ago — how Wonderful Town began. It began with a phone call from George Abbott. He was bringing Rosalind Russell back to Broadway in a musical version of her 1942 film, "My Sister Eileen," about two Midwestern sisters making it in Manhattan.

Joseph Fields and Jerome Chodorov, who had made the play and screenplay out of Ruth McKenney's autobiographical stories for The New Yorker, came up with a solid book, but the songs by Leroy Anderson and Arnold Horwitt drew thumbs down from all hands. Would, wondered Abbott, she and Adolph and a composer of their choice (she hastily suggested Leonard Bernstein) be willing to come up with a score in four weeks? Reason for the rush: Other commitments were breathing down his neck and Russell's.

The score came fast and furious and was great fun to do, but its sophistication canceled out the sentimentality the book writers were striving for. "There was more hysterical debate, more acrimony, more tension and more screaming connected with this play than with any other show I was ever involved with," Abbott wrote in his autobiography.

Betty remembers it well, too: "Chodorov and Fields wrote a very funny book — I won't take any credit away from them . . . but they were so possessive about [it] that they got mad at us because they didn't want the score to 'get in the way,' they kept saying. I remember the conga number finished, and then we started the next scene in the yard by having the people conga in. They got very upset and said, 'Now your number is over. Now the book begins.' In musicals, you're so happy to find segues like that, but they didn't really appreciate that."

Wonderful Town conga-ed off with eight Tonys that year, including Best Book, but they didn't give Tonys for lyrics back then, so Comden and Green settled for the reflected glory of Best Musical and Best Composer. It was a hit from the start in New Haven to the last of its 559 performances in New York.

Betty is delighted to have it back in this wonderful town again, but she dreads attending her first Comden & Green without Green. "I miss him terribly," she says. "I used to see him every day. He was a big part of my life, as I was of his." Her voice trails off as if she is expecting someone to finish the sentence . . .

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