All long-lived artistic partnerships come with an intriguing touch of mystery. Writing is usually such a solitary business that the very notion of a team creating viable work with a unified voice can be hard to fathom. Who wrote what in the plays of Kaufman and Hart? Which came first in the songs of Rodgers and Hammerstein, the music or the words? And when the partners cross the genders, the intrigue deepens. Throughout the collaboration of Betty Comden (1917–2006) and Adolph Green (1914–2002), it was widely believed that the two were married. Indeed, when they inserted characters very much like themselves in their screenplay for 1953’s The Band Wagon, those characters were married. In real life, they were—to other people, in both cases happily. And if there was ever a time when Comden and Green were romantically involved with each other, neither let anyone else in on the secret.
Theirs was a professional partnership that stretched across an astounding six decades. In that time, they wrote nine screenplays and worked on 18 Broadway musicals, and the now-standard songs for which they wrote the lyrics (all from their stage musicals) include “Just in Time,” “Make Someone Happy,” “New York, New York,” and “The Party’s Over.”
No less striking is that Comden and Green, who not only wrote but made their joint Broadway debuts with the libretto and lyrics to On the Town, were among the very last survivors of the golden age of the American musical. Their final show, The Will Rogers Follies, opened in 1991, when Green was 77 and Comden 74 (and won them a Tony), more than 50 years after they began writing sketches together in Greenwich Village. In all that time, neither ever discussed their working habits save in opaque generalities. “Everything is together,” Comden said. “We don’t divide the work up. We develop a mental radar, bounce lines off each other.”
But while they kept their methods to themselves, Comden and Green were otherwise forthcoming, so much so that they even starred in a two-person Broadway revue, A Party with Betty Comden and Adolph Green (1958, revived in 1977), in which they sang songs from their films and shows and talked about their tightly entwined lives as (in Green’s phrase) “Mr. Words and Miss Words.” This sparkling revue, along with their TV appearances, served as a reminder that they had launched their careers as cabaret performers, only starting to write their own material when they found that they would have to pay to sing songs by other people.
Between their own high-profile careers and their work with such equally famous collaborators as Leonard Bernstein, Fred Astaire, Lauren Bacall, Gene Kelly, André Previn, Jerome Robbins, and Rosalind Russell, it stood to reason that Comden and Green would someday attract the attention of a biographer. Now Andy Propst has written They Made Us Happy: Betty Comden and Adolph Green’s Musicals and Movies, whose subtitle indicates both its scope and its limitations.1 This book is not a biography per se but a narrative history of the professional lives of Comden and Green, one that contains only enough biographical detail to be intelligible. It also labors under a near-incapacitating handicap: They Made Us Happy contains no verbatim quotations from any of its subjects’ lyrics, scripts, or screenplays. Propst does not mention this fact in his brief preface, but his further failure to acknowledge Adam and Amanda Green, Adolph’s son and daughter, suggests that one or both of them chose not to give him permission to reprint excerpts from their father’s work. (Adam, the theater critic of Vogue, is reportedly writing a memoir of his father.)
In the absence of any other accounts of the twosome—save for Just in Time, the 1988 autobiography of Phyllis Newman, Green’s widow, and Off Stage, Comden’s own 1995 memoir—They Made Us Happy will have to stand as the existing source material for those wanting to learn more about the careers of Comden and Green. But it is far from the full-scale biography they deserve, and the enthusiastic and uncritical Propst is unable to supply analytical perspective on their stage shows and films—few of which, as it turns out, have withstood the test of time. The reasons why this is so merit closer consideration.
Like most of the finest golden-age songwriters, Comden and Green were the children of Jewish émigrés. (Her parents were from Poland, his from Hungary.) Both grew up in middle-class families, both fell in love with Broadway and Hollywood when young, and neither seems to have considered any other career save in passing. They initially pursued their youthful passion in different ways. Comden studied acting at New York University and performed in summer-stock productions. Green, a talented but as yet undisciplined college dropout, appeared in shows at Jewish adult summer camps, in the process meeting and striking up a lifelong friendship with Leonard Bernstein.
In 1938, Comden, Green, and a performer who would come to be known as Judy Holliday started a group called The Revuers that performed at New York’s Village Vanguard, attracting the notice of newspaper columnists who were charmed by their affectionate spoofery. In one routine, they pulled the leg of the then-popular Reader’s Digest with a song suggesting how that magazine might choose to condense classic novels of the past and the bestsellers of the present day. This is their three-line version of Gone with the Wind:
Scarlett O’Hara’s a spoiled pet,
She wants everything that she can
The one thing she can’t get is
After a string of failed attempts to break into the movie business, Comden and Green returned to New York to work on a new musical inspired by Fancy Free, Jerome Robbins’s 1944 ballet about sailors on leave in New York, for which Bernstein had written a jazzy orchestral score. Comden and Green transformed Fancy Free into On the Town, in which three sailors on a 24-hour pass (one of whom was played by Green) find love with a trio of young women (one of whom was played by Comden). The show was a hit, running for 462 performances and turning Bernstein, Comden, Green, and Robbins into stars.
On the Town was the work of a quartet of ambitious young artists who were mature enough to listen to and profit from the shrewd counsel of George Abbott, the show’s 57-year-old director. A hard-nosed Broadway veteran, Abbott helped Comden and Green expand the comic sketches that had been their specialty into evening-long arcs of dramatic tension and resolution. Like Bernstein and Robbins, they had been impressed by the underlying seriousness and structural soundness of Oklahoma! (which had opened on Broadway the year before) and were determined to write a similarly integrated musical that was at bottom no less emotionally expressive than that landmark show.
For all the screwball silliness of its plot, no one who saw On the Town could ignore the dark shadow that World War II cast across the stage. Gabey, Chip, and Ozzie have just one day in which to find their true loves before sailing off to war, and possibly to their deaths. We now think of Comden and Green primarily as light comedians—her character in the show was an anthropologist named Claire de Loone—but they were also equal to the challenge of writing the heart-piercing lyrics for songs like “Some Other Time,” in which the sailors and their girls remind one another of what each knows all too well: “When you’re in love / Time is precious stuff— / Even a lifetime isn’t enough.”
The commercial success of On the Town paved the way for Comden and Green to work in Hollywood, where they joined the legendary MGM musical-comedy production unit headed by Arthur Freed. They spent the next few years writing screenplays for such lightweight musical confections as Good News (1947) and The Barkleys of Broadway (1949). They also adapted On the Town for the screen (1949) in a version co-directed by Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen from which most of Bernstein’s score and virtually all of Robbins’s choreography were cut at the insistence of Louis B. Mayer, who hated the original show.
Not until 1952 did Comden and Green hit the target squarely by writing an original screenplay for Singin’ in the Rain, whose score consisted of older songs by Freed and Nacio Herb Brown. Singin’ in the Rain is now widely regarded as the best original musical ever made in Hollywood, and it established Comden and Green as major forces in the film industry—but only on that industry’s terms. Hollywood wanted them as screenwriters, not songwriters, so their work on The Band Wagon (1953) drew on the songs of Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz.
In order to pursue the other side of their art, songwriting, they had to go back to Broadway. They were called in at the last minute to write lyrics for Bernstein’s replacement score to Wonderful Town, a 1953 musical version of My Sister Eileen, a 1940 play about two sisters from Ohio who move to Greenwich Village in search of adventure. The show itself, which starred Rosalind Russell, was even more popular than On the Town, running for 559 performances. Bells Are Ringing (1956, book and lyrics by Comden and Green, music by Jule Styne), the story of a woman played by Judy Holliday who works for a New York answering service and falls in love with one of its subscribers, was also an immense hit. It produced one standard, “Just in Time,” a swinging ballad whose underlying optimism, expressed with sweet, simple verbal economy, is a quintessential expression of the songwriters’ philosophy: “For love came just in time / You found me just in time / And changed my lonely life / That lovely day.”
With the success of Wonderful Town and Bells Are Ringing, Comden and Green established the career pattern that they would follow for the rest of their lives. Comden described it as follows in the script for A Party with Betty Comden and Adolph Green: “Basically, we are writers of musical comedies for the stage and the screen. Sometimes we write the book and the lyrics, and sometimes just the book or just the lyrics, and sometimes we write screenplay and lyrics, and sometimes just the screenplay or the lyrics, and sometimes we perform.”
By then, though, their limitations had become clearer. Unlike Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, whose musicals were deliberately wide-ranging in setting and subject matter, Comden and Green were primarily interested in writing about New York City and the entertainment industry, no doubt because they knew about little else and had no particular desire to explore other aspects of American life—including the immigrant experience that had shaped their own early lives. Instead, they were reduced to such artistically null ventures as Applause, the 1970 stage version of All About Eve, a vehicle for Lauren Bacall to which they contributed a well-wrought but unmemorable book.
It is no less noteworthy that none of their attempts to write more “seriously” was more than modestly successful, least of all It’s Always Fair Weather (1955, music by André Previn), a screen musical about three veterans of World War II who cannot come to terms with postwar America. Except for On the Town, it was the only Hollywood musical for which they wrote both screenplay and lyrics. It’s Always Fair Weather, like such later collaborations with Styne as Subways Are for Sleeping (1961) and Hallelujah, Baby! (1967), showed that Comden and Green were out of touch with the changes in the tone of American culture that would soon inspire Stephen Sondheim to write musicals directly reflective of those same changes.
Time was not quite up for the partners, who collaborated with Cy Coleman on two more Broadway musicals, On the Twentieth Century (1978) and The Will Rogers Follies, that were both commercial hits. But neither show has had a successful revival life, in part because their scores were in large part lackluster pastiches of old-fashioned musical styles. Indeed, none of the musicals on which Comden and Green worked save for Peter Pan (1954), to which they contributed “additional lyrics,” is now professionally staged with any regularity. Perhaps most surprising of all, it is only in the present century that On the Town and Wonderful Town, their best stage musicals, have had successful Broadway revivals—a tribute to the beautifully balanced elements of the original productions, in which frivolity and feeling were held in exact counterpoise.
Doubtless Betty Comden and Adolph Green will be remembered longest for their work on Singin’ in the Rain and The Band Wagon. But even if none of their Broadway shows holds the stage, I am certain that the best of their songs will continue to be sung so long as human beings continue to fall in and out of love. To hear Tony Bennett and Bill Evans turn “Some Other Time” into a rueful tale of missed chances (“This day was just a token / Too many words are still unspoken”) is to know that the output of the longest-lived writing team in the history of American theater was more than just a barrel of laughs—and that the alchemy that made their partnership so happily durable will ever remain a joyous mystery.
1 Oxford, 288 pages