The collaborative relationship has become a ubiquitous force in the authorship of stage and film musicals, to such a degree that many individual lyricists and composers are fated to go down in history as one half of a lifelong partnership -- from Rodgers & Hart to Kander & Ebb. This particularly applies to film and stage librettist, playwright, and occasional film scenarist Betty Comden, forever associated with writing partner Adolph Green. By teaming up with Green, Comden chose to share her fame, but in so doing, co-created such seminal works as Singin' in the Rain, On the Town, and Bells Are Ringing, and forever altered the face of the Broadway and Hollywood musical. The Comden-Green catalogue of tunes never fails to astonish; with such titles as "New York, New York," "It's Love," "Just in Time," "Some Other Time," and "The Party's Over," it reads like a cruise through the Great American Songbook.
Born on May 3, 1917, in Brooklyn, NY, to an attorney father and a schoolteacher mother, Elizabeth Cohen attended Erasmus Hall High School and then enrolled as an undergraduate drama student at New York University, where she took the stage name Betty Comden, had rhinoplasty to render herself more "suitable" for the Broadway stage, and performed with the Washington Square Players. During this period, Comden became acquainted not only with Green, but with John Frank, Alvin Hammer, and Judy Holliday.
Fast friends but never romantically involved with one other, Comden and Green moved jointly to Greenwich Village and persuaded several of the aforementioned colleagues, including Holliday and an aspiring composer named Leonard Bernstein, to form a cabaret troupe christened "The Revuers." The thesps -- neophytes at the time -- then boldly marched up to Max Gordon, owner of the legendary Village Vanguard (c. 1939), and pitched the act to him. He bought it instantly, and club attendance shot skyward. The titles of early Revuers sketches included "The Baroness Bazuka" (an operetta) and "The Banshi Sisters."
The triumph of the Vanguard gig yielded a film contract, and the Revuers headed west in the early '40s, where they landed parts in Greenwich Village (1944), a now forgotten musical directed by Walter Lang and starring Don Ameche and Carmen Miranda. The blink-and-you-miss-it nature of the onscreen appearances drove Comden and Green straight back to New York, where they resumed club dates. The bookings were short-lived, however, for an offer instantly materialized to work on a major theatrical production. Bernstein called and referenced his co-authorship, with Jerome Robbins, of a new ballet about life in the Big Apple called "Fancy Free." Bernstein and Robbins believed -- correctly -- that they could send the show straight to Broadway, but needed a couple of hands to write the book and lyrics. Comden and Green seized the opportunity; the four artists retitled the work and emerged weeks later with On the Town, a now infamous production about three sailors on shore leave in Manhattan. The musical's popularity skyrocketed after its timely debut in the winter of 1944, selling mass numbers of tickets and running from December 28, 1944, to February 2, 1946. It also created a new song standard; months after its premiere, thousands of New Yorkers could be heard humming the tune: "New York, New York, a helluva town -- the Bronx is up and the Battery's down. The people ride in a hole in the ground...." Comden and Green doubled up with roles in the production, as the anthropologist Claire de Loone and Ozzie the sailor.
Comden and Green followed it up with a sophomore Broadway musical, Billion Dollar Baby, with a score by Morton Gould, choreography by Jerome Robbins, and the direction of George Abbott. The production debuted on December 21, 1945, and though it failed to attract a sizeable audience on par with On the Town, it did last seven months, wrapping on June 29, 1946.
Deeply impressed, Tinseltown beckoned once more, and a spate of successful musicals followed, with Comden and Green as lyricists and occasional scenarists. These included Good News (1947), starring June Allyson, Morris Ankrum, Tom Dugan, and Connie Gilchrist; The Barkleys of Broadway (1949), with Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire; and On the Town, an adaptation of the 1944 stage show -- this one starring Frank Sinatra, Gene Kelly, and Jules Munshin. As directed by Kelly and Stanley Donen, that film gained a historical footnote also, for being the first Hollywood movie musical to carry cameras out onto the actual streets of Manhattan and stage production numbers among the civilians.
Comden and Green landed their two broadest and most enduring cinematic successes, however, during the '50s. The seminal 1952 musical Singin' in the Rain marked the first, and by far the most important. This comic elegy to Hollywood's transition from silents to talkies, which reunited the librettists with On the Town collaborators Kelly and Donen, has since become one of the most historically important and beloved motion pictures in film history, and topped the 1988 National Film Registry preservation list and the 1998 AFI list for the 100 Greatest American movies of all time, alongside the iconic Wizard of Oz, Citizen Kane, and Casablanca.
The second triumph arrived one year later, in the form of Vincente Minnelli's 1953 The Band Wagon. Though somewhat overshadowed by An American in Paris, Gigi, and Singin' in the Rain, the picture has earned a fond place in the hearts of critics and musical lovers, and, like its Comden-Green-Kelly-Donen predecessor, received the National Film Registry classification (in 1994). The story, which bears marked thematic similarities to Singin', tells of a down-and-out Hollywood actor (Fred Astaire) who makes an admittedly choppy transition to Broadway and romances a ballerina (Cyd Charisse). The Band Wagon yielded such standards as "I Guess I'll Have to Change My Plan," "That's Entertainment," and "A Shine on Your Shoes," and netted a Best Screenplay Oscar nomination for Comden and Green.
Comden and Green also returned to Broadway throughout the '50s, penning the lyrics for such acclaimed productions as Two on the Aisle (1951), Wonderful Town (1953), and Bells Are Ringing (1956). The pair adapted the latter as a hit movie musical in 1960, directed by Vincente Minnelli and starring Judy Holliday as a telephone operator who becomes implicated in the lives of her clients and falls for a bumbling playwright (Dean Martin).
For the remainder of the 1960s, '70s, and '80s (and into the early '90s), Comden and Green largely abandoned film but remained active on stage, with varying degrees of success. Their authorship during this period includes such productions as Subways Are for Sleeping (1961), Fade Out -- Fade In (1964), Hallelujah, Baby (1968), Applause (1970), On the Twentieth Century (1978), the disastrous A Doll's Life (1982, a musical continuation of the story in the Henrik Ibsen play), and the Broadway sensation The Will Rogers Follies (1991), starring Keith Carradine.
That same year, Comden and Green received the 1991 Kennedy Center Honors for their enduring contributions to the American stage and screen musical. In 1999, innumerable Broadway legends, including Elaine Stritch and Brian Stokes Mitchell, performed a musical salute to the pair at Carnegie Hall. And in response to Green's October 2002 death, a legion of Broadway heavies turned out to pay homage to the beloved lyricist.
Throughout her life, Comden occasionally acted, alone, in non-musical dramatic roles on the big and small screens. These included Greta Garbo in the haunting final scene of Sidney Lumet's Garbo Talks (1984), Mrs. Wheeler in James Ivory's 1989 Slaves of New York, and the voice of Linda in a 1994 episode of the NBC series Frasier. She also published a 1995 memoir, Off Stage, which touched only fleetingly on her professional experiences but meditated at length on her childhood, her son Alan's drug addiction and bout with AIDS, and her marriage to designer Steven Kyle in 1942, which lasted until his death in 1979.
After several years of professional inactivity, Betty Comden died of heart failure in her native Manhattan on November 23, 2006. She was 89. ~ Nathan Southern, Rovi