MUSICALS / A couple of swells: John Lyttle meets Comden and Green, legendary writers of On the Town

Tired but content, Betty Comden and Adolph Green have just returned from rehearsals of On the Town at London's Barbican Centre. 'Great, great voices,' says Comden, proceeding to praise each cast-member by name. 'And we have the marvellous Tyne Daly in the part Nancy Walker originally played. She's brilliant, just brilliant.' Adds the dapper Green, unveiling his trademark wrap-around grin, 'Everything is going . . . wonderfully.'

Everything is also going full circle. On the Town's 1944 success marked Comden and Green's Broadway debut as authors and major-league lyricists, not to mention the first Great White Way appearances of the composer Leonard Bernstein and the choreographer Jerome Robbins. Forty-eight years on, here we are again, gathered together not only to applaud a prime example of seamless stagecraft - On the Town was and is a triumph of interlocking, complementary temperaments - but to celebrate a partnership that has lasted for more than half a century, perhaps the longest theatrical collaboration on record.

And what a partnership. Comden and Green - it's impossible to think of one without the other - flaunt legendary credits. Shuttling back and forth between Broadway and Hollywood they have written the lyrics, books or screenplays (sometimes all three) for Wonderful Town, Bells Are Ringing, Subways Are for Sleeping, Applause, On the Twentieth Century (stage), Good News, Singin' in the Rain, The Band Wagon and the astonishing, neglected It's Always Fair Weather, one of the most acidic, poignant musicals this side of Sondheim. If On the Town caught the desperate party mood of the Second World War ('Three sailors trying to live a lifetime in 24 hours,' comments Green), then the ironically titled Fair Weather captures the disillusioned mood of post- war slump: army buddies meet a decade after their glory days and detest one another.

'Oh, do you like it? So do we]' Comden laughs. 'It got great reviews but I don't think the MGM management understood, and audiences weren't going to musicals any more because of (withering pause) television. Also Gene Kelly wasn't the star he had been.'

'We did write it dark, definitely, definitely,' Green continues (the couple have an eerie habit of blending separate answers into a single stream of conversation). 'It's about the passing of time, friendship, disappointment. Fair Weather wasn't written to be up.'

'Actually,' Comden remembers, 'Fair Weather was to be our stage sequel to On the Town. We would have met the sailors 10 years later. We mentioned the idea to MGM and they said 'Give it to us.' So it never became the stage show we intended. Pity. It would have been good.'

It would certainly have been better than MGM's celluloid version of On The Town, which jettisoned the bulk of the Broadway tunes and went ruthlessly for leer, cheer and hyperactivity. 'Oh, a long sad story,' Comden agrees. 'The studio thought Leonard's 'symphonic' music was too obscure, that it wouldn't be popular. So they dropped, added, simplified. If only they had more faith in the score and in the undercurrent, which was meant to be bittersweet.'

In fact, despite a reputation for rhyming comedy patter and what the writer Mark Steyn has called 'fizz with froth and bubble', it's tempting to view the essential Comden and Green as bittersweet and, something more, as a discreet link between the confections of, say, Irving Berlin and the Worm-in-the-Big-Apple angst of Stephen Sondheim. No matter who writes the music, be it Jule Styne or Cy Coleman, running through their canon is a seam of blighted romanticism, a Big City sense of opportunities lost and loves vanished.

Urban jungle sophisticates wearing broken hearts on their sleeves, they began, aptly enough, in satirical revue, Greenwich Village-style (with Judy Holliday nee Tuvim), hoping to emulate the brittle anti-everything wit of the Algonquin Round Table. Common wisdom dictates that their second show, Billion Dollar Baby, flopped because the public wasn't ready for a musical about (of all things) the Wall Street crash. 'Baby was glamorous, and had chorus girls and a sense of fun, but it had this deliberate bleak side too,' Green shrugs. As did the disastrous A Doll's Life, a continuation of Ibsen's A Doll's House and a work wobbling wildly between genre imperatives - pretty people, lavish settings, happy endings - and rigorous observation of human foibles. Doll's run lasted barely a week.

In the partnership's best moments, however, those conflicting sensibilities magically mesh, although, instructively, it often takes a showbiz milieu or characters destined for lights, camera and action to facilitate the fusion: Fade Out, Fade In, Applause, On the Twentieth Century, Singin' in the Rain, The Band Wagon. A workable theory?

'Ah,' says Comden. Then, carefully, 'Let's say we don't like to theorise too much about what we do. But we certainly are conscious of what we do.' Which brings us to The Will Rogers Follies, currently wowing them on Broadway. 'It's a big, award-winning success,' Comden happily reports. 'It's part revue, part show and about an interesting man, a home- spun American star and philosopher. We're happy and proud because the theme is a man's character and what he meant to America.' Green clarifies: 'No spectacle for the sake of spectacle, no gimmicks, everything in the service of the show.'

A return to the musical's traditional values in other words. And a less than fond farewell to the technocrats who have recently dominated the form on both sides of Atlantic. Now mid-way through their seventies, Comden and Green have seen fashions come and go, surviving to witness their own enthronement as classics. The circle is complete: 48 years after On The Town hit the boards, the couple are back where they started - on top. Charmingly, they don't appear to have noticed. For suddenly Comden asks, 'When is this piece going in? We're doing our musical review, 'A Party with Betty Comden and Adolph Green', on Wednesday night and, well, we want to be sure people will turn up. They will, won't they?'

'A Party With Betty Comden and Adolph Green', 7.45pm, tonight, Barbican Hall, London EC1 (071-638 8891).

(Photograph omitted)

Arts and Entertainment
JK Rowling is releasing a new Harry Potter story about Dolores Umbridge
books
Arts and Entertainment
Don’t send in the clowns: masks and make-up conceal true facial expressions, thwarting our instinct to read people’s minds through their faces, as seen in ‘It’
film
Arts and Entertainment
Go figure: Matt Parker, wearing the binary code scarf knitted by his mother
comedy Mathematician is using comedy nights to teach and preach sums
Arts and Entertainment
Ryan Gosling in 'Drive'
filmReview: Ryan Gosling is still there, but it's a very different film
Arts and Entertainment
Urban explorer: Rose Rouse has documented her walks around Harlesden, and the people that she’s encountered along the way
books Rouse's new book discusses her four-year tour of Harlesden
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Orson Welles made Citizen Kane at 25, and battled with Hollywood film studios thereafter
film
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Franco Zeffirelli's production of 'Aida' at Milan's famed La Scala opera house
operaLegendary opera director in battle with theatre over sale of one of his 'greatest' productions
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Juergen Wolf won the Young Masters Art Prize 2014 with his mixed media painting on wood, 'Untitled'
art
Arts and Entertainment
Iron Man and Captain America in a scene from
filmThe upcoming 'Black Panther' film will feature a solo black male lead, while a female superhero will take centre stage in 'Captain Marvel'
Arts and Entertainment
The Imperial War Museum, pictured, has campaigned to display copyrighted works during the First World War centenary
art
Arts and Entertainment
American Horror Story veteran Sarah Paulson plays conjoined twins Dot and Bette Tattler
tvReview: Yes, it’s depraved for the most part but strangely enough it has heart to it
Arts and Entertainment
The mind behind Game of Thrones George R. R. Martin
books

Will explain back story to fictional kingdom Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Dorothy in Return to Oz

film Unintentionally terrifying children's movies to get you howling (in fear, tears or laughter)
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Robert James-Collier as under-butler Thomas

TVLady Edith and Thomas show sad signs of the time
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Dad's Army cast hit the big screen

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
JK Rowling is releasing a new Harry Potter story about Dolores Umbridge

books
Arts and Entertainment
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor finds himself in a forest version of London in Doctor Who episode 'In the Forest of the Night'
TVReview: Is the Doctor ever going stop frowning?
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from David Ayer's 'Fury'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift performs at the 2014 iHeart Radio Music Festival
music review
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Anderson plays Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders series two
tvReview: Arthur Shelby Jr seems to be losing his mind as his younger brother lets him run riot in London
Arts and Entertainment
Miranda Hart has called time on her award-winning BBC sitcom, Miranda
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
art
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

    The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

    Commons debate highlights growing cross-party consensus on softening UK drugs legislation, unchanged for 43 years
    The camera is turned on tabloid editors in Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter'

    Gotcha! The camera is turned on tabloid editors

    Hugh Grant says Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter' documentary will highlight issues raised by Leveson
    Fall of the Berlin Wall: It was thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell

    Fall of the Berlin Wall

    It was thanks to Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell
    Halloween 2014: What makes Ouija boards, demon dolls, and evil clowns so frightening?

    What makes ouija boards and demon dolls scary?

    Ouija boards, demon dolls, evil children and clowns are all classic tropes of horror, and this year’s Halloween releases feature them all. What makes them so frightening, decade after decade?
    A safari in modern Britain: Rose Rouse reveals how her four-year tour of Harlesden taught her as much about the UK as it did about NW10

    Rose Rouse's safari in modern Britain

    Rouse decided to walk and talk with as many different people as possible in her neighbourhood of Harlesden and her experiences have been published in a new book
    Welcome to my world of no smell and odd tastes: How a bike accident left one woman living with unwanted food mash-ups

    'My world of no smell and odd tastes'

    A head injury from a bicycle accident had the surprising effect of robbing Nell Frizzell of two of her senses

    Matt Parker is proud of his square roots

    The "stand-up mathematician" is using comedy nights to preach maths to big audiences
    Paul Scholes column: Beating Manchester City is vital part of life at Manchester United. This is first major test for Luke Shaw, Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao – it’s not a game to lose

    Paul Scholes column

    Beating City is vital part of life at United. This is first major test for Shaw, Di Maria and Falcao – it’s not a game to lose
    Frank Warren: Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing

    Frank Warren column

    Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing
    Adrian Heath interview: Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room

    Adrian Heath's American dream...

    Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room
    Simon Hart: Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

    Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

    Manuel Pellegrini’s side are too good to fail and derby allows them to start again, says Simon Hart
    Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

    A Syrian general speaks

    A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities
    ‘A bit of a shock...’ Cambridge economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

    ‘A bit of a shock...’ Economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

    Guy Scott's predecessor, Michael Sata, died in a London hospital this week after a lengthy illness
    Fall of the Berlin Wall: History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War

    Fall of the Berlin Wall

    History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War
    How to turn your mobile phone into easy money

    Turn your mobile phone into easy money

    There are 90 million unused mobiles in the UK, which would be worth £7bn if we cashed them in, says David Crookes