Betty Comden and Adolph Green


Andy Probst’s new book, They Made Us Happy: Betty Comden and Adolph Green’s Musicals and Movies (Oxford University Press, ISBN-10: 0190630930) is, a simply sensational, pleasurable addition to anyone’s theater library, because its subjects are two of Broadway’s greatest librettists and lyricists.

Betty Comden (1917-2006) and Adolph Green (1914-2002) are -- like Rodgers and Hammerstein -- responsible for making dynamic changes to the structure and style of the American Musical, and among their 18 stage works are On The Town, Wonderful Town, Bells Are Ringing, On the 20th Century, The Will Rogers Follies, Applause, Do Re Mi, Subways Are For Sleeping, as well as the screenplay for Singin’ in the Rain, arguably, the greatest movie musical of all time. They adapted that movie for the theater in the early 1980s, too. For a fast introduction to Comden and Green themselves, a televised edition of their popular revue, “A Party with Comden and Green” is available on YouTube.

Born within three years of one another in different boroughs of New York, they met in the late 30s and became fast friends. Along with Judy Holliday, Alvin Hammer, John Frank and Leonard Bernstein, they created The Revuers, a musical comedy troupe that became the featured act at the Village Vanguard. Eventually they moved up to the Rainbow Room and to Radio City Music Hall. Many of their routines parodied movies, the theater and topical issues of the day. But they’d soon leave their original digs because Broadway came calling.

On the Town

Their first project was to make, Fancy Free, Bernstein’s ballet about three sailors on a day’s leave in New York into a full-length musical. Comden and Green provided the book and lyrics and played featured roles in On the Town – he as Ozzie, she as Claire de Loon. The score includes “New York, New York (it’s a Helluva town),” “Lonely Town,” “I Can Cook, Too,” and “Some Other Time.” Co-starring Nancy Walker (as Hildy, the cab driver) and directed by the legendary George Abbott, the show opened a year after Oklahoma, playing 462 performances. The MGM film stars Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, Jules Munshin, Betty Garrett, Ann Miller and Vera Ellen, but only three songs from the score made it into the movie, but On the Town remains one of the finest move musicals produced by the Arthur Freed Unit.

Wonderful Town

At this point, Comden and Green were in demand on both coasts. At MGM, they wrote screenplays for Good News, The Barkleys of Broadway, The Band Wagon and Its Always Fair Weather. In between they returned to Broadway for Wonderful Town.

Based on Ruth McKinney’s magazine stories, which had been adapted into the play and film My Sister Eileen, Wonderful Town starred Rosalind Russell as Ruth and (in her Broadway debut), Edie (as Edith) Adams as Eileen, sisters who move from Ohio to Greenwich Village in the 1930s. In real life, Eileen would eventually marry Nathaniel West, author of The Day of the Locust. (The newlyweds would perish in a car accident on the day following F. Scott Fitzgeralds’ death) Bernstein’s fine score included “Ohio,” “The Wrong Note Rag”, “Christopher Street,” “One Hundred Easy Ways (to Lose a Man)” and “Swing.” A smash hit both on Broadway and London, Wonderful Town was never filmed, but a 1958 television version is available on YouTube. (If you venture to Gay Street in Greenwich Village, the sisters lived in the basement at #14. In the basement of #16, the marionette, Howdy Doody was invented).

The Band Wagon

When Arthur Freed hired Comden and Green to write a script that celebrates the work of Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz, the result was The Band Wagon. Directed by Vincente Minnelli, it featured Nanette Fabray and Oscar Levant as stand-ins for Comden and Green, authors of a new musical; Jack Buchanan, plays an Olivieresque theatrical wunderkind and Cyd Charisse stars opposite Fred Astaire in this clever movie musical.

Using music from the original stage version of The Band Wagon (which had starred Astaire and his sister, Adele) with choreography by Michael Kidd, the film is an utter delight. “Shine on your Shoes,” “I Love Louisa” and “That’s Entertainment” are highlights of this terrific film. Fabray especially shines when she performs “Louisiana Hayride.” Sadly, the studio didn’t know what else to do with her, so she worked, instead, on the stage and television.

Bells Are Ringing

I’ve written about this musical before. Comden and Green returned to the theater, working, this time, and (frequently after) with composer Jule Styne (Gypsy, Funny Girl). Bells Are Ringing was written for their great friend and fellow Revuer, the remarkable Judy Holliday. A woman of exceptional talent, she won an Oscar for her performance in the film edition of Born Yesterday. Having spent time in Hollywood, she was yearning to return to the stage, and this brilliant show features a book and lyrics by Comden and Green at their very best. The plot focuses on Ella Peterson, who works for her cousin’s answering service, Susanswerphone.

Warned continually not to become involved in clients’ lives, she creates various personae for different customers. For a little boy she’s Santa Claus and gets him to eat his spinach; she dispenses health advice for an opera singer; encourages a songwriting dentist to deterring his employment, and as she tells us in song, she’s in love with playwright Jeff Moss (“Plaza 0-4433”). As Millicent Scott, she helps him get past writer’s block.

Two great theater songs come from Bells Are Ringing: “The Party’s Over” and “Just in Time.” Judy Holliday bested Julie Andrews, nominated for My Fair Lady, at the Tony Awards that year. Vincente Minnelli directed the film adaptation, which preserves Holliday’s performance and helped cement Dean Martin’s place in musical film.

With Jule Styne

When Styne’s musical version of Peter Pan starring Mary Martin and Cyril Ritchard was in trouble out of town, Comden and Green were called in to work as show doctors, and Peter Pan is every bit as wonderful as the original play. Working beside Moose Charlap and Carolyn Leigh, among their contributions are “Hook’s Lament,”Mysterious Lady” and the exquisite ballad “Never Never Land.” The show is frequently produced. Sandy Duncan starred in the 1979 revival which played 554 performances on Broadway, while both the Mary Martin and Cathy Rigby versions of this classic are available on YouTube.

Auntie Mame

Under the pen name Patrick Dennis, a writer named Edward Everett Tanner (whose own fascinating life is covered in Eric Myers’ Uncle Mame) published his novel, Auntie Mame. Auntie Mame cronicles the story of Mame Dennis, a Bohemian who raises her nephew, Patrick, from the end of the 1920s, through the Depression and into the late 1940s. With a cast headed by Rosalind Russell (followed by Greer Garson, Beatrice Lillie and Sylvia Sidney), Auntie Mame was THE hit of the 1957 season. At Russell’s request, a year later, Comden and Green found themselves preparing the screenplay at Warner Bros. The play is episodic, the pair made the story work for the movies. With Coral Browne, Roger Smith, Forrest Tucker and Peggy Cass supporting Russell under Morton de Costa’s direction and with clothes by Orry-Kelly, Auntie Mame remains a special treat, (and far superior to the musical film starring a miscast Lucille Ball). While the movie, Russell and Cass, the direction and costumes were nominated for Oscars, surprisingly, the screenplay was not!

A Party With...

The pair returned to New York, where another project was waiting, this one for themselves alone. Both writers were self-avowed “hams,” so they brought stories and songs about their lives to the stage of the Cherry Lane Theater off-Broadway for the joyous revue, A Party with Betty Comden and Adolph Green. Due to sellout crowds, the show moved uptown and was recorded. The pair updated and revived the show in 1977 and 1999.

Life Offstage

In 1942, Betty Comden married designer and businessman Steven Kyle. They had two children and remained together until his death in 1979. Adolph Green was married to Allyn Ann McLerie, who starred in Irving Berlin’s musical, Miss Liberty onstage and opposite Doris Day in the popular movie musical, Calamity Jane. The marriage lasted 8 years. In 1960, he married actress Phyllis Newman. Like Comden, the couple had two children and remained together until his death. Newman passed away on 15 September 2019 at the age of 86.

Qualified Hit #1

In the mid-1950s, Do Re Mi, a short novel by Garson Kanin was brought to the attention of David Merrick. The tale of a small-time con man in the jukebox industry, had already been made into the movie, The Girl Can’t Help It, a vehicle for Tom Ewell and Jayne Mansfield that barely resembled the original story. Kanin’s stepson, Jones Harris managed to obtain the rights and Kanin wrote a narrative script. Comden and Green shaped lyrics that tip the audience off to elements of plot and character. Phil Silvers and Nancy Walker led the cast and it played 400 performances during the 1961-62 season, making it a qualified hit. The shows’ breakout hit, “Make Someone Happy” has become a standard. Richard Burton was the recipient of the Tony Award that year for Camelot, but kindly told the press that he thought it should have gone to Silvers, (who would accumulate a pair of Tonys himself).

A Trio of Failures

Not everything the pair wrote was a hit. Subways Are for Sleeping by Edmund G. Love, is a collection of sketches about Manhattan’s homeless. David Merrick acquired the rights. Savaged by the critics, it was intended as a darker New York fairy tale. Sydney Chaplin and Carol Lawrence played the leads, but Orson Bean and Newman had the showier roles and outshone the stars. The show closed after 232 performances, and at the Tony Awards, Newman -- who performed much of the show clad only in a towel -- bested Barbra Streisand, nominated for I Can Get It for You Wholesale.

Despite Carol Burnett’s presence, Fade Out-Fade in (1964) was an, old-fashioned Hollywood satire whose time had passed. Had it been tongue-in-cheek, the show may have worked but Fade Out-Fade In never found an audience.

It was unwise to consider Thornton Wilder’s play, The Skin of Our Teeth material for a musical to start with, but along with Leonard Bernstein and Jerome Robbins, the team tried. Robbins suggested Zero Mostel and Ethel Merman to star (imagine that clash of egos!), and while Comden and Green managed to write a decent script and lyrics, Bernstein was at a loss as to the style of music needed. Eventually the project was abandoned.

Qualified Hit #2

Hallelujah, Baby! is more of a curiosity than a good idea for a musical. Arthur Laurents intended it as a chronicle of the African American struggle for the first half of the 20th Century. As time pass, the characters don’t age. The principal character, whose mother is convinced she can only survive as a maid, finds a career in show business and is later challenged by the Civil Rights movement. Hallelujah, Baby! was written for Lena Horne but it became Leslie Uggams’ Broadway debut. Three months after the show closed, it collected Tony Awards for Comden, Green, Styne, Uggams and for Best Musical of 1967-68.

All About Bacall                                                                                        

The 1970s were the time of huge transitions in musical theater. This would become the era of both Stephen Sondheim and nostalgia. Revivals, revues and hip new material were giving Me-generation audiences new reasons for going to the theater with shows like No, No, Nanette, Irene, Two Gentlemen of Verona, Company and Follies.

At a party hosted by Green and Newman, Charles Strouse and his writing partner, Lee Adams, heard Lauren Bacall sing and decided to write a musical for her. The project they chose was All About Eve. This classic film features Bette Davis and Anne Baxter in the Best Picture winner from 1950. Bacall was perfect for the role of Margo Channing.

The show featured future TV star Bonnie Franklin, Guthrie actor Len Cariou as Bill and Penny Fuller as Eve. Applause, as it was titled, the story of a younger actress using an older star as a stepping-stone to fame got an update that commented on theater and life at the time. When Bacall took the show on the road, life imitated art. Anne Baxter, the original Eve, took over the role of Margo. A TV version of the London production, co-starring Larry Hagman as Bill is available on YouTube.

On the Twentieth Century

Around this time, an updated revival of A Party with returned to Broadway.

But the idea to transform Charles MacArthur and Ben Hecht’s comedy, Twentieth Century into a musical came about. As anyone who’s seen the film version starring John Barrymore and Carole Lombard knows, this is an air-tight script so it wouldn’t be an easy project. Cy Coleman wasn’t sure about the score, but Harold Prince, Sondheim’s chief collaborator, produced and directed it.

Set aboard the luxury train, due to Comden, Green, Coleman and director Harold Prince, On the Twentieth Century starred John Cullum as Oscar Jaffee, the egomaniacal producer looking for his next project. Madeline Kahn played Lily Garland, Jaffee’s protégé, who’s now a movie star (Due to ongoing health problems, Kahn was replaced by Judy Kaye). Kevin Kline played her oafish lover and Imogene Coca was featured as an over-the-top evangelist.

The show opened in time to win five Tony Awards, including Best Book, Music and Lyrics. A recent revival starred Peter Gallagher, Kristin Chenowith and Andrea Martin. The musical is top-of-the-line Comden and Green and needs a local production.

The Will Rogers Follies                                                                                

By the early 1990s, Comden and Green were honored for their contributions to theater and film and among these tributes were the Kennedy Center Honors, National Board of Review Award for Distinction in writing and the WGA Laurel Award for Screen Writing Achievement. They both appeared in the charming film, Garbo Talks, received both the Tony and the Drama Critics Circle Award for their last musical, The Will Rogers Follies.

The idea of a musical about “Oklahoma’s favorite son,” of Cherokee descent, who was a film star, folksy commentator syndicated in 4,000 daily newspapers and Presidential Candidate was a smart one. Directed and choreographed by Texas native Tommy Tune, the subtitle of the show is “A Life in Revue,” and explores Rogers’ life as it might have been told onstage by Florenz Ziegfeld. Observed, from a theater seat by Wiley Post, (who would perish alongside Rogers in a 1935 plane crash) and by Ziegfeld himself (on Broadway his voice was recorded by Gregory Peck), The Will Rogers Follies has the look of a Ziegfeld production, but with fewer people. (There are more women than men in the cast). The score (music by Cy Coleman) features songs with titles familiar to Rogers: I Never Met a Man I Didn’t Like, Give a Man Enough Rope and Our Favorite Son.

John Denver was first cast, but left for other commitments, so Oscar winning actor and singer Keith Carradine took the role. Dee Hoty played Betty Blake, Rogers’ wife. Dick Latessa played several roles including Rogers’ father, Clem and Cady Huffman was Ziegfeld’s favorite. When the show went on tour, Mac Davis and then Larry Gatlin played Rogers, Mickey Rooney played Clem. Both Lisa Niemi (Mrs. Patrick Swayze) and Marla Maples played Ziegfeld’s favorite at Broadway’s Palace Theater, where this dynamic show ran almost a thousand performances.

The Will Rogers Follies is a superb musical which is rarely produced. Casting requires more women than men and 4 children, and it would be a fine edition to any theater’s playbill. (hint, hint, nudge nudge)

As I was writing this piece, so many songs played in my head. I listened to the CDs of Bells Are Ringing, On the 20th Century and The Will Rogers Follies and watched The Band Wagon, especially the extras which talks about the making of the film.

The world is a happier place because of Betty Comden and Adolph Green, and the book They Made Us Happy by Andy Probst, honors and celebrates their astounding careers.

Headshot of Steven LaVigne
Steven LaVigne

Steven LaVigne is a director, playwright and reviewer. He’s worked with such local theaters as Classics Lost 'n' Found Theater Company, Twig Theater and Powderhorn Theater Arts, where his collection of Icelandic Folk Tales, Inside Snaefellsjokull Volcano was presented this summer. He loves to travel as well.