Betty Comden

Lyricist and librettist whose musicals included 'Singin' in the Rain' and 'On the Town'
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Elizabeth Cohen (Betty Comden), lyricist, librettist and actress: born New York 3 May 1917; married 1942 Stephen Kyle (died 1979; one daughter, and one son deceased); died New York 23 November 2006.

With her writing partner Adolph Green, Betty Comden wrote the scripts and lyrics for some of the finest musicals to grace the Broadway stage and cinema screen. They wrote what is possibly the wittiest and most consistently amusing of all musical screenplays, Singin' in the Rain (1952), and their other successes included such shows as On The Town (1944) and Wonderful Town (1953) (both with the composer Leonard Bernstein), and the outstanding film musicals Good News (1947) and The Band Wagon (1953).

Comden and Green were also noted for their acumen and ability to "fix" troubled shows. In his book Say, Darling (1957), loosely based on his experiences in adapting his novel The Pajama Game for Broadway, Richard Bissell wrote, "At least once per hour around this business somebody says 'Betty and Adolph', it's kind of a nervous habit." Moreover, Comden and Green were talented performers, who began their careers as writer-performers with a group that also included the future star Judy Holliday, for whom they were to tailor the musical Bells are Ringing (1956).

Later, the pair would perform their own material in a successful stage show they titled A Party with Comden and Green, first performed on Broadway in 1958, including such routines as "Catch Our Act at the Met", satirising the impresario Rudolf Bing's attempts to popularise opera, and a collection of famous works as they might be condensed by Reader's Digest ("Jean Valjean, no evil-doer, stole some bread 'cause he was poor, A detective chased him through a sewer, The End").

Although good friends as well as perfectly matched collaborators (even they could never say afterwards who wrote what), they were both married to other people, Comden to the businessman Stephen Kyle (who died in 1979). Green had two unsuccessful marriages prior to a union with Phyllis Newman in 1960 that lasted until his death in 2002.

Comden and Green were particularly noted for writing about New York - their songs included the anthem to the town "New York, New York" ("a helluva town, the Bronx is up and the Battery's down") - and both were New Yorkers, Betty born in Brooklyn in 1917. Her father was a lawyer and her mother a teacher. An A-grade student at Brooklyn Ethical Culture School and Erasmus High, she said that she "backed into" the theatre after casually deciding to take a dramatics course at New York University, where she met Green.

In 1938 their friend Judith Tuvim (later Judy Holliday) persuaded them to join her in forming a night-club act with two other men, and as the Revuers they appeared at the Village Vanguard (in Greenwich Village) in a show which had the audience, according to one critic, "alternately spellbound and helpless with laughter". A possibility of wider fame came when 20th Century-Fox gave them roles in the film Greenwich Village (1944), but their routines were cut and they can only be glimpsed, with Comden having one line of dialogue as a hat-check girl.

But the same year Leonard Bernstein (a regular customer at the Vanguard) and the choreographer Jerome Robbins decided to make their 20-minute ballet Fancy Free into a Broadway musical. "Lenny said he knew just the people to write the book and lyrics," Comden said. "The producers came to see us and we got the job . . . We wrote in two very good parts for ourselves." The show, On the Town, was a great hit, with the critic Louis Kronenberger praising "the best book of a musical since Pal Joey". Comden said:

Instead of behaving like professionals and going in the stage door, we'd always go through the lobby so we could see the snake-line of people buying tickets. Before, we were nightclub performers, but now we were Broadway writers. We knew our lives would change. All our successes were special in different ways, but this first one was a miracle. It changed our lives forever.

Bernstein was to describe them as "the most musical, sensitive, the wittiest, sharpest, dearest people", and in 1953 they were to write the lyrics for Bernstein's second Broadway hit, Wonderful Town, which starred Rosalind Russell.

In the meantime they had written the show Billion Dollar Baby (1945, music by Morton Gould) and the revue Two on the Aisle (1951) with Bert Lahr and Dolores Gray, one sketch depicting Gray shooting her lover then listing all the reasons why, in a breathless solo with the accent on the word "If" ("If I had not seen you take Geraldine on the lake in your flat-bottomed skiff . . . If you had not left me home when you had two seats for South Pacif . . .") The show's music was by Jule Styne, with whom the pair collaborated on the musical they wrote for Holliday, Bells are Ringing, which included the hit songs "Just in Time" and "The Party's Over", and a show-stopping 11 o'clock number for Holliday, "I'm Going Back".

With Styne, they also wrote songs for Peter Pan (1954), including the plaintively beautiful "Never Never Land"; Do Re Mi (1960), a vehicle for Phil Silvers, with the hit ballad "Make Someone Happy", with Max Bygraves playing the Silvers role in London; and Subways are for Sleeping (1961), an under-rated score that included a wistful ballad about career girls, "Girls Like Me", and a show-stopping number about a talent contest winner, "I Was a Shoe-in", introduced by Green's wife Phyllis Newman. Hallelujah, Baby (1967), also with music by Styne, was an ambitious chronicle of black people's struggle over the years.

In 1970 Comden and Green wrote a stage adaptation of All About Eve, titled Applause and starring Lauren Bacall, though unusually they wrote only the libretto, not the lyrics (Charles Strouse and Lee Adams wrote the score), and with music by Cy Coleman they wrote book and lyrics for the operetta-styled On The Twentieth Century (1978) and the lavish Will Rogers Follies. They also adapted Singin' in the Rain for the stage in 1985.

Their screenplays included a witty revamping of the Thirties collegiate musical Good News (1947), for which their new songs included "The French Lesson" (music by Roger Edens); the film version of On The Town (1949), for which they wrote new lyrics, including a title song and Ann Miller's "Prehistoric Man"; The Barkleys of Broadway (1949), the last film to partner Fred Astaire with Ginger Rogers (though it was conceived as a vehicle for Astaire and Judy Garland); and The Band Wagon (1953), a classic that comes close to rivalling Singin' in the Rain for sheer pleasure, with Fred Astaire playing a fading Hollywood star for whom a Broadway vehicle has been devised by his writer friends (Nanette Fabray and Oscar Levant in roles said to be modelled by Comden and Green on themselves).

Their masterwork Singin' in the Rain had been a particular challenge, for the producer Arthur Freed had given them simply the title and the request that they come up with a project to utilise the catalogue of songs he had composed with Nacio Herb Brown. The pair also wrote the screen version of Auntie Mame (1957) for their friend Rosalind Russell, and It's Always Fair Weather (1955), a virtual sequel to On The Town, with Gene Kelly, Dan Dailey and Michael Kidd as three former army pals reuniting after 10 years and finding they now have little in common. André Previn wrote the score, with lyrics by Comden and Green.

Comden, who can be heard with Green on two cast albums of On The Town (the original cast selections plus a studio recording conducted by Bernstein) and two of their "Party" revue (the original and a revival), also made a solo vocal album in 1963, giving lovers of musical theatre a treat by recording songs from rare shows by the Gershwins (Treasure Girl) and Rodgers and Hart (Chee Chee).

On screen, Comden had an intriguing cameo role in Sidney Lumet's Garbo Talks (1984), about a dying woman's wish to meet the legendary star. With skilful make-up and photography, Comden played the silent role of Garbo and looked remarkably convincing. She acted on stage in Wendy Wasserstein's play Isn't It Romantic? (1983) and she also had a role in James Ivory's movie about the New York art world, Slaves of New York (1989).

Inevitably, she is said to have been devastated by the death in 2002 of Green, whose partnership with her she once described as "a kind of radar". "If I am ever without Adolph," she once said, "it will simply be because he has been run over by a truck."

Tom Vallance