Remembering Betty Comden

Special Features   Remembering Betty Comden The late lyricist and librettist was a Broadway poet who arrived "Just in Time."
Betty Comden at the opening of On the Town
Betty Comden at the opening of On the Town Photo by Aubrey Reuben

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When pop-operas such as The Phantom of the Opera, Les Misérables and Miss Saigon were the rage in musical theatre in the 1980s, lyricist-librettist Betty Comden — whose first Broadway hit, On the Town, had premiered some 40 years earlier — was asked what she thought of the "new" musicals.

She raised an eyebrow and replied, "I don't have anything to say about new musicals. We're writing new musicals. We are new musicals."

The "we" was Comden and her longtime writing and performing partner, Adolph Green, who, in 1991, would indeed make a new musical — The Will Rogers Follies, which earned them and composer Cy Coleman a 1991 Tony Award for Best Score (beating out Miss Saigon, incidentally).

Comden, who died Nov. 23, 2006, at 89, would have likely also balked at being called an institution or an inspiration — both she and Green, who predeceased her by four years, regarded such terms as signals of obsolescence. Nevertheless, Comden was an important, rare creature in 20th century American musical theatre — a woman writer in a boys' club. Prior to 1960, you could count on one hand the women writing Broadway musicals — among them, Comden, lyricist–librettist Dorothy Fields and lyricist Carolyn Leigh. The era of Lynn Ahrens, Carol Hall, Lucy Simon, Marsha Norman, Susan Birkenhead, Lisa Lambert and Amanda Green (Adolph's daughter) was yet to dawn.

Comden and Green, who contributed books and/or lyrics to some 18 Broadway shows from 1944–91 and counted "The Party's Over," "Make Someone Happy" and "Just in Time" among their standards, never revealed who contributed what words in their 64-year collaboration, a partnership that also included screenplays for "Singin' in the Rain" and "Auntie Mame."

"He didn't 'write,'" Will Rogers librettist Peter Stone once observed, "that wasn't his job. She wrote. He added madness, inspiration. Together, they added up to one person."

If Green was the antic imp, it's natural to conclude that Comden was the conjurer of the searching, romantic lyrics in their Big Three shows, On the Town (1944), Wonderful Town (1953) and Bells Are Ringing (1956).

For On the Town, they concocted choice roles for themselves. It happened to be Comden's character, Claire, who introduced the rueful "Some Other Time," singing:

Where has the time all gone to?
Haven't done half the things we want to.
Oh, well, we'll catch up
Some other time.

Was that a woman's voice or a man's? Comden or Green? Both?

Tony Award–winning Ragtime lyricist Lynn Ahrens, who was on the Dramatists Guild Council while Comden and Green were still active members, told Playbill shortly after Comden’s death, "I have a feeling she never thought for one moment about being the 'woman lyricist' in the room. She just walked in and sat down."

(Kenneth Jones is managing editor of Playbill.com. Reach him at kjones@playbill.com.)

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