Betty Comden Remembered Through Song, Song and More Song

News   Betty Comden Remembered Through Song, Song and More Song
The memorial for Broadway lyricist Betty Comden, who died on Nov. 23, 2006, was subtly different from other such events. For one, there were no speakers, save for Lauren Bacall, who made some opening remarks. Ms. Comden was remembered solely through her music, with one singer after another stepping up to the microphone and delivering one of the many songs she penned with longtime partner Adolph Green, and a variety of composers including Jule Style, Cy Coleman and Leonard Bernstein.
Betty Comden at the opening of The Public Theater revival of On the Town.
Betty Comden at the opening of The Public Theater revival of On the Town. Photo by Aubrey Reuben

Another difference was less apparent, unless you paid close attention to the guest list. Bacall, Phyllis Newman, Carolee Carmello, Barbara Cook—these were all women. One of the few female songwriters to make a lifelong career in the Broadway theatre was honored solely by members of her sex.

Some of those women were re-creating roles they had originally played in Comden shows. Newman, who was married to Green, performed "I Was a Shoo-in," the lament of former beauty queen Martha Vail, the role she won a Tony Award for in 1961's Subways Are for Sleeping. Behind her was a projection of a photo still from the production, showing a svelte, beautiful Newman wearing nothing but a towel. Newman looked at the picture, turned to the audience and quipped, "What happened?"

Leslie Uggams, who won a Tony Award for her work in Comden's Hallelujah, Baby!, was also on hand, singing a heartfelt, emotional rendition of "My Own Morning." In addition to Newman, a further touch of family (well, artistic family, anyway) was added to the proceedings when Amanda Green, Adolph and Newman's daughter, sang "If You Hadn't, But You Did" from Two on the Aisle.

The performance began with Beth Leavel, Karen Ziemba and Stephanie J. Block singing what is perhaps Comden and Green's most famous lyric: "New York, New York." Sisters Ann Hampton Callaway and Liz Callaway paired on "Neverland" from Peter Pan, and Carmello interpreted "I'm Going Back" from Bells Are Ringing.

Lucie Arnaz delivered "One Hundred Easy Ways" from Wonderful Town. That Bernstein show was also represented by "Ohio," sung by Judith Blazer and Mary Testa. Testa appeared in the most recent Broadway revival of Comden's On the Town, which includes the songs "I Can Cook Too," sung at the Majestic Theatre event by a wheelchair-bound Lillias White, and "Some Other Time," rendered, sans mike, by Cook. One other number from On the Town was also offered. Prior to Cook's performance, a grainy tape of an old television program showed an ebullient couple — the women with high, full cheekbones, the man with an unruly shock of black hair —performing "Carried Away" with comic abandon, a young Cy Coleman providing accompaniment in the background. Their voices weren't spectacular or highly trained, but their enthusiasm and timing couldn't be beat. They were Comden and Green themselves, performing a number they created in the original production of On the Town. Their winsome wackiness and joie de vivre captured better than anyone on the Majestic Theatre stage what a Comden and Green song was all about.

The ceremony ended with a sing-along of "Make Someone Happy" from Do Re Mi, the song's lyrics projected on a screen. "Make someone happy," the lyrics ran, "Make just one someone happy/And you will be happy too."

Betty Comden did, and she was.


Great Women Salute a Great Woman: Betty Comden — in the words of Comden and Green was presented Sept. 18 at Broadway's Majestic Theatre. The memorial was free and open to the public.
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