Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Betty Comden

While I was out last week I missed that Betty Comden had died. She was one of my favorite theatre people. She and Adolph Green (they weren't married, though a lot of people thought so) worked together for six decades and provided some of the brightest entertainment ever seen in Hollywood or Broadway.

They started out working in a satirical troupe along with Judy Holliday. Their friend Leonard Bernstein asked them to write the book and lyrics to his first Broadway musical, On The Town (1944). It's probably the best score they ever helped create. They also starred in the show, and the cast album (made years later) shows their vibrant personalities. They made it as writers, but they were born performers.

They moved to Hollywood where they wrote the screenplays for two of the greatest musicals ever, Singin' In The Rain (1952) and The Band Wagon (1953). Too often the plots in Hollywood musicals were excuses to set up numbers, but these stories could stand on their own. Fred Astaire claimed when they read him their Band Wagon script they did such a good job he feared he and his cast wouldn't be able to top them.

But their hearts were always on Broadway, and that's where they spent most of their career, winning several Tonys. Among their hits were Wonderful Town (1953), Bells Are Ringing (1956) starring their old pal Judy Holliday, Applause (1970), On The Twentieth Century (1978), and The Will Rogers Follies (1991).

While they didn't perform in these shows, they did have a show of their own, a delightful one where they told stories and sang songs. It was called A Party With Betty Comden & Adolph Green, which is a pretty fair description. They first played it on Broadway in 1958, and revived it numerous times.

I never met Betty Comden, but I once had the chance. In the 80s, Comden and Green wrote A Doll's Life, their biggest flop. The concept for the musical was we'd follow the life of Ibsen's Nora after she left her Doll's House. (Sounds pretty bad, but then who'd want to see a musical about a phonetics teacher, or a gang war?) The expensive Harold Prince production closed after five performances. I just happened to be walking around the Broadway district at the time when I saw them moving out. I was pretty sure I saw Betty Comden standing at the stage door, talking to some cast members. I thought about going up to her, but what could I say?

Here's what I could have said. "Thanks for bringing joy to millions, especially me."


Blogger Irene Done said...

Tonight (Wednesday) it looks like Turner Classic Movies is running her movies. First up is On The Town, followed by Singin' In The Rain.

I once took my mother to a screening of Singin' In The Rain where Betty Comden and Cyd Charisse answered questions from the audience before the film's start. Two things we noted: Miss Charisse's legs are still gorgeous and Betty Comden was the real charmer. I was totally star-struck.

4:31 PM, December 13, 2006  
Blogger LAGuy said...

I've never heard anyone say a bad word about Betty or Adolph. Everyone knew them and everyone said they were the most charming people around.

10:47 PM, December 13, 2006  

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