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)

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer, Lord Alan Sugar, Karren Brady are returning for The Apprentice series 10

TV
Arts and Entertainment
There has been a boom in ticket sales for female comics, according to an industry survey

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Angelina Jolie and Winona Ryder star in 'Girl, Interrupted'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Ed Stoppard as Brian Epstein, Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Elliott Cowan as George Martin in 'Cilla'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Thomas Pynchon in 1955, left, and Reese Witherspoon and Joaquin Phoenix in Paul Thomas Anderson's adaptation of his novel, Inherent Vice

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Nicole Scherzinger will join the cast of Cats

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Fans were left surprised by the death on Sunday night's season 26 premiere

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Watson has become the latest target of the 4Chan nude hacking scandal

film
Arts and Entertainment
Lady Mary goes hunting with suitor Lord Gillingham

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Dunne, played by Ben Affleck, finds himself at the centre of a media storm when his wife is reported missing and assumed dead

film
Arts and Entertainment
Lindsay Lohan made her West End debut earlier this week in 'Speed-the-Plow'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Artist Nathan Sawaya stands with his sculpture 'Yellow' at the Art of Brick Exhibition

art
Arts and Entertainment
'Strictly Come Dancing' attracted 6.53 million viewers on Friday
tv
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant plays Detective Emmett Carver in the US version on Broadchurch

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor goes undercover at Coal Hill School in 'The Caretaker'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Ni , Rock of Rah, Vanuatu: The Ni live on one of the smallest islands of Vanuatu; Nelson flew five hours from Sydney to capture the 'isolation forged by their remoteness'
photographyJimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style
Arts and Entertainment
David Byrne
musicDavid Byrne describes how the notorious First Lady's high life dazzled him out of a career low
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.

    Italian couples fake UK divorce scam on an ‘industrial scale’

    Welcome to Maidenhead, the divorce capital of... Italy

    A look at the the legal tourists who exploited our liberal dissolution rules
    Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

    Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

    The vintage series has often been criticised for racial stereotyping
    An app for the amorous: Could Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?

    An app for the amorous

    Could Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?
    Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid. Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?

    Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid

    Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?
    Charlotte Riley: At the peak of her powers

    Charlotte Riley: At the peak of her powers

    After a few early missteps with Chekhov, her acting career has taken her to Hollywood. Next up is a role in the BBC’s gangster drama ‘Peaky Blinders’
    She's having a laugh: Britain's female comedians have never had it so good

    She's having a laugh

    Britain's female comedians have never had it so good, says stand-up Natalie Haynes
    Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LED lights designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows

    Let there be light

    Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LEDs designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows
    Great British Bake Off, semi-final, review: Richard remains the baker to beat

    Tensions rise in Bake Off's pastry week

    Richard remains the baker to beat as Chetna begins to flake
    Paris Fashion Week, spring/summer 2015: Time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris

    A look to the future

    It's time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris
    The 10 best bedspreads

    The 10 best bedspreads

    Before you up the tog count on your duvet, add an extra layer and a room-changing piece to your bed this autumn
    Arsenal vs Galatasaray: Five things we learnt from the Emirates

    Arsenal vs Galatasaray

    Five things we learnt from the Gunners' Champions League victory at the Emirates
    Stuart Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

    Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

    This deal gives England a head-start to prepare for 2019 World Cup, says Chris Hewett
    Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

    The children orphaned by Ebola...

    ... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
    Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
    The magic of roundabouts

    Lords of the rings

    Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?