Post Mortem January/February 2007

Opting for Wit Over Sincerity

Betty Comden (1917–2006)

And so she did, for the most part. But beginning with Bells Are Ringing (1956), Jule Styne (at that time Broadway’s most successful composer) brought forth from Comden and Green a series of great lasting love songs. “They write with me like they write with nobody. Nobody!” Styne once told me with his customary understatement. “Sure, they can write funny, but all their best pop lyrics, they wrote with me!” Hard to disagree: “Just in Time,” “The Party’s Over,” “Make Someone Happy.” That last is one a remarkable number of songwriters love to cite as a favorite lyric:

Fame
If you win it
Comes and goes
In a minute
Where’s the real stuff in life to cling to?

I wonder whether Betty Comden ever asked herself that question. In 1995, she published a curious memoir called Off Stage. “Can you believe it?” another songwriter asked me in amazement and disgust. “Betty Comden’s written a book, and there’s nothing about her work in it!” To be sure, there were some platitudinous pen portraits of pals like Bernstein and Lauren Bacall. But the heart of the book was an account of her son’s descent into heroin addiction and death from AIDS. Her husband, Steven Kyle, had been a stay-at-home dad while she was off breadwinning in Hollywood and the West End, and in her book Miss Comden pondered whether her career had been at least a contributing factor in her son’s decline and death.

She once spoke to me about her tunnel vision when working on a new musical. “Someone says, ‘Did you hear? A nuclear bomb went off,’ and you think, ‘Gee, will that hurt us at the box office?’” In her book, she wondered whether she might be “more talented” at being a mother “now that I have lived it once,” and offered a fantasy chapter titled “Her Second Chance,” a kind of remake of her son’s life and problems as they might have turned out were she writing it within the conventions of stage and screen. The bleakly honest account of the loss of a child was a rare glimpse of a Betty Comden who was otherwise professionally cheery, and the fictional rewrite seemed a sad acknowledgment that, for all her claims about the “integrated musical” and its dramatic credibility, her chosen form was in the end unable to embrace the complete tapestry of life.

In their more ambitious work, Comden and Green liked to freight the wacky gags with some kind of subtext. As they saw it, On the Town was really about what everyone who’s lived through a war well understands: the peculiar intensity of the present tense. At a time of uncertainty, explained Comden and Green, their show was about “the poignancy of young people trying to cram a lifetime of experiences into a day.” And so, at the end of that day, three sailors and their three gals have no sooner fallen in love than they have to part:

Where has the time all gone to?
Haven’t done half the things we want to.
Oh well, we’ll catch up
Some other time.

It’s a catchpenny sentiment, but it’s enlarged by the situation—by the fact of the war. These sailors will kiss their girls and go away, and the “some other time” won’t be Thursday night or next weekend; there may, in fact, never be “some other time.” The show’s director was the Broadway veteran George Abbott, who helped make On the Town a hit for its neophyte composer, lyricists, choreographer, and producers. Years later, I put to him the points I made above—ordinary situation, ostensibly regular boy-meets-girl love song, but transformed into something deeper by the great geopolitical conflict in which they were caught up, their romance now shadowed by uncertainty, etc. Mr. Abbott, at the age of 106, snorted impatiently.

“We didn’t think about that,” he said. “We thought, ‘What’s funny?’”

Which isn’t a bad way to look at it. What’s funny? For six decades, Comden and Green were funny—onstage, on screen, on record, and in sung acceptance speeches (something of a specialized skill). At a time when Broadway musicals have lost their sense of humor, that’s an honorable legacy.

Mark Steyn is a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and other publications. He is the author of America Alone.
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