Comden is back in 'Town'
Betty Comden's smiling face reflects the late-afternoon sun flooding her high-rise apartment as she recalls her illustrious partnership with co-writer and lyricist Adoph Green.
The pair wrote lyrics for "Wonderful Town," one of Broadway's most beloved scores, which is enjoying a sparkling new revival at Broadway's Al Hirschfeld Theatre. Ms. Comden vividly recalls getting the assignment to write the musical.
"George Abbott called and asked if Adolph and I could write a score in five weeks," she laughs, mimicking the way the director barked the question.
When she told Mr. Green about the project, a musical based on the witty short stories of writer Ruth McKinney, they headed over to visit composer Leonard Bernstein to enlist him in the venture.
"No sooner were we in the door, than the phone rang," Comden recalls. "It was Abbott. 'Is it yes or is it no?' "
When that offer came in 1952, the duo had already established themselves as one of Broadway's and Hollywood's leading writing teams, having penned the lyrics for "On The Town," "Hallelujah, Baby," and the screenplay for "Singin' in the Rain." The commission for "Wonderful Town" reunited them with Bernstein, their composer for "On The Town," and, she adds, "we all loved the challenge of doing it so quickly. Lenny liked the idea of using as much music from the '30s as possible, from the famous Eddie Duchin vamp to the Conga."
Set in the bohemian Greenwich Village of 1938, the story follows the big-city adventures of Ruth Sherwood, an intellectual type bent on forging a writing career, and her beautiful sister Eileen, an aspiring actress.
Together, they endure living in a basement apartment rocked by subway blasting, weeklong diets of spaghetti and meatballs, hordes of Brazilian sailors, and a steady stream of suitors who pursue Eileen and ignore her sister. Rosalind Russell created the role of Ruth. The revival stars Donna Murphy. "Donna is a brilliant performer," Comden volunteers. "As an actress, singer, and dancer, I've never seen anyone better. She's marvelous."
She adds that she's been back to see the show several times, "because it's a first-rate production, in every way."
Betty Comden's apartment, filled with Tony Awards, Hirschfeld originals, and photos of great performers of the past half century, is a testament to her Broadway career. Her initiation into the world of writing came in the late '40s, when Green, Comden, Judy Holliday, and a few other performers fashioned a group called The Revuers. She continued to work with Green for almost 60 years until his death last year.
"We both did half the thinking, and I wrote it all down," she says with a nod. "I had foolishly learned to type, and Adolph was too smart to learn!"
The pair contributed to "Will Rogers' Follies," "Peter Pan," and "Auntie Mame." Their screenplay for the MGM musical "It's Always Fair Weather," which starred Gene Kelly as one of three World War II army buddies who reunite only to discover they have little in common, was nominated for an Oscar. "Adolph and I came up with the idea on a train from New York to the Coast, and it was to be a show. But when Gene heard about it, he said, 'oh, no, I want this for a movie!' "
Having worked with Bernstein on a few shows, she looks back now to note that "he was a unique genius. Nobody could copy him, because he was in such a class by himself." But she's quick to add that "when it came to writing, it was all three of us."
These days, she says, "there's very little interest in getting the rhymes right. I think it came out of the rock era, much more than anything that's happened in theater. It's puzzling to me how they could not know a rhyme, or care."
All their work reflects a clever use of words, such as rhyming "double malts," "family vaults," "Epsom salts" and "learn to waltz" in "Wonderful Town."
Her favorite piece, though, is "Some Other Time," from "On The Town."
"This one we had to write in Boston, writing most of the night," she recalls. "We were in the window of a music store, because that was the only place we could find a piano we could use. We needed a special song, and we found it there, in that window, in the middle of the night."