Legendary Songwriter Betty Comden Dead at 89

Obituaries   Legendary Songwriter Betty Comden Dead at 89
Betty Comden, the award-winning lyricist and librettist who — with writing partner Adolph Green — created such iconic New York musicals as Bells Are Ringing, Wonderful Town and On the Town, died Nov. 23 at New York-Presbyterian Hospital. She was 89.
Betty Comden at the opening of On the Town
Betty Comden at the opening of On the Town Photo by Aubrey Reuben

The New York Times reports that the cause of Ms. Comden’s death was heart failure.

Born Elizabeth Cohen in Brooklyn, Ms. Comden teamed up with the late Green early in her career for a partnership that would last six decades. She and Green first hit the town in a sketch-comedy group called The Revuers, which also featured the late Judy Holliday. (It was for Holliday that the duo created the 1956 musical Bells Are Ringing; Holliday won a Tony Award for her performance and later repeated her role as Ella Peterson in the screen version of the classic musical.) They would go on to write several musicals that were love letters to her native city.

The Comden and Green outlook on life was easily identifiable: more sentimental than cynical; whimsical bordering on daffy; and making full use of the many cultural and tempermental contrasts within New York's citizenry. Their books were directly descended from the loopy, madcap plotlines of 1920s and 1930 Broadway musicals, while displaying more craftsmanship and disclipline.

Much of the nuts-and-bolts work was done by Ms. Comden. Librettist Peter Stone, speaking about how Comden and Green worked together, once told Playbill, "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. . . . 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."

Critic Harold Clurman once wrote of the two: They "are frequently crude and gauche. Yet once in a while they can burst into a crazy improvisation which replaces judgment with the bubbling enthusiasm of kids who are wholly delighted to discover that not only the emperor but the entire court is naked. Betty Comden and Adolph Green just can't get over the exhilaration of not being grown up." Comden and Green also enjoyed success as screenwriters. Although they only wrote ten films, their scripts include "Singin' in the Rain" as well as the Oscar-nominated "The Band Wagon" and "It's Always Fair Weather." Other titles included "Take Me Out to the Ball Game," "Auntie Mame," "Good News," "What a Way to Go!" and "The Barkleys of Broadway."

In "The Band Wagon," which concerned the creation of a Broadway-bound show, they created a version of themselves in bookwriters Lester and Lily Martin (played by Oscar Levant and Nanette Fabray). In the movie, the characters were endlessly ebullient, bickered and made up on a regular basis, and wrote new plots and songs overnight. The characters were also married, and those Ms. Comden and Mr. Green never were, they were so inseparable in the public imagination, many thought they were a couple. (Mr. Green was long married to actress Phyllis Newman. Ms. Comden was married to businessman Steven Kyle, who died in 1979.)

Comden and Green also worked closely with their friend Leonard Bernstein, who had often accompanied them during their Revuers days. With Bernstein they created two of their best-known works, On the Town — a tale of three sailors on leave in Manhattan that boasted such tunes as “New York, New York,” “Lucky to Be Me” and “Lonely Town” — and Wonderful Town — the story of two sisters from Ohio who find themselves over their heads in Greenwich Village. That musical gave the world such songs as “Ohio,” “A Little Bit in Love,” “A Quiet Girl” and “It’s Love.”

It was Bernstein who gave the duo their big break. The composer called on his friends when he began working on a musical version of Jerome Robbins' ballet Fancy Free. The show needed a libettist-lyricist. The couple got the job and On the Town proved to be a hit when it opened in 1944 and a springboard for their career. It also contained what may be the lyricists' most famous song: "New York, New York." To this day, few songs are as closely associated with life in Gotham.

The other musicals for which the writing team — who also performed an acclaimed specialty act throughout the years entitled A Party With Betty Comden and Adolph Green — penned book and/or lyrics include Bells Are Ringing; On the Twentieth Century; Hallelujah, Baby!; Applause; Peter Pan; A Doll's Life; Do Re Mi and The Will Rogers Follies.

In 1991 Comden and Green were both awarded the Kennedy Center Honors. The duo also racked up numerous Tony Awards: 1953 (Wonderful Town wins Best Musical Tony), 1968 (Hallelujah, Baby! wins Tonys for Best Musical and Best Composer and Lyricist), 1970 (Applause wins Tony for Best Musical), 1978 (On the Twentieth Century wins Tonys for Best Original Score and Best Book of a Musical) and 1991 (The Will Rogers Follies wins Tony for Best Original Score).

Among the plethora of songs that came from the pens of Comden and Green are "Make Someone Happy," "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" and "Look Around.”

Betty Comden was born Elizabeth Cohen on May 3, 1917, in Brooklyn, to Leo Cohen, a lawyer, and his wife Rebecca, a teacher. She attended Erasmus Hall High School and later studied drama at New York University. She had dreams of an acting career and changed her name from Cohen to Comden and, according to the New York Times, has nose surgery. She had some early acting jobs with the Washington Square Players.

Haun also interviewed both Comden and Green in 1998, as the revival of On the Town was set to hit the New York stage. Both were overjoyed by the show's reemergence. Said Ms. Comden, "Just say that we’re thrilled to see it again and that we’re working on a new show. We go on, that’s all. That’s the best thing to say."

Ms. Comden had two children: a son Alan, who died in 1990, and a daughter Susanna Kyle, who survives her.

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