Opting for Wit Over Sincerity

Betty Comden (1917–2006)

In 1962, after two decades apiece with Lorenz Hart and then Oscar Hammerstein, Richard Rodgers found himself flying solo—writing both music and words—for a show called No Strings. Must have seemed a bit lonely, eh? Not at all. Recalling the erratic first-night behavior of his first lyricist, Rodgers exulted, “You can’t imagine how wonderful it feels to have written this score and not have to search all over the globe for that drunken little fag.”

Most halves of most double acts have felt like that at one time or another. Which is why, from Gilbert and Sullivan to Martin and Lewis, showbiz partners rarely waited till death do them part. But Comden and Green stuck it out, all the way until that bleak day in November 2002, when Betty Comden found herself standing onstage at the Shubert Theatre for Adolph Green’s Broadway memorial service. “It’s lonely up here,” she said.

It must have been. In the preceding two-thirds of a century, they’d written hit shows (On the Town), hit films (Singin’ in the Rain), hit songs (“Just in Time”), and a lot of stuff that wasn’t so boffo but that they kept in their stage act out of parental affection, like the 1970s revue number sung by two schoolchildren in a brave new world where everything has been “simplified.” For example, instead of a penis or vagina, everyone now has a penina. And as Comden and Green would then sing:

Oh, nothing could be finer
         than to play with my penina
If you will show me yours-a, then
         I will show you mine-a.

Performing in the early 1990s, Comden and Green—pushing eighty but bouncing around the stage like a pair of gleeful schoolkids—seemed a far more startling glimpse of another world than the characters in the song: it was a vaudeville number for the age of political correctness. Who other than Comden and Green would write such a thing? They were writers who were always performers at heart: Fred Astaire recalled sitting in Arthur Freed’s office listening to them read through the script for The Barkleys of Broadway (1949) and fretting that he’d never be able to do the role as well as Green. In part because Oscar Levant and Nanette Fabray played them as a husband-and-wife writing team in The Band Wagon (1953), folks tended to assume they were married. “We are,” Betty would say. “But not to each other.” Still, their union lasted longer than most marriages.

They were showbiz professionals. Instead of sitting around waiting for the news to show up, they liked to be offered assignments—even if they didn’t always accept them. In the ’50s, with Leonard Bernstein, they were asked to adapt Pygmalion into a musical. They arranged a screening of the film—and liked it too much. “It’s too good,” said Betty. “Leave it alone.” Lerner and Loewe declined to leave it alone, and the result was My Fair Lady. Bernstein later came to them for West Side Story (1957), but they didn’t think it was their bag. “That wasn’t such a smart move, either,” Miss Comden recalled. At MGM, they didn’t have the luxury of being so picky.

Arthur Freed, the preeminent producer of musicals in the postwar era, had started out as a lyricist in the ’20s. One day in the early ’50s, he called Comden and Green into his office. “Kids, I want you to take all my old songs and make a picture out of them. We’re gonna call it Singin’ in the Rain.”

“All we knew,” Comden told me, “is that somewhere we’d have to have a scene where it was raining and a guy was singing.” “In it,” added Green. But that was enough to work with.

They seemed an odd couple when I first encountered them: Green a madcap elf full of manic energy, Comden a coolly elegant brunette. Even perched on the sofa arm with her pedal pushers dangling, she always looked poised. Whereas, even in a tux, Green always looked chaotic. In writing sessions, he paced, she typed.

They met seventy years ago, when Betty was a starry-eyed hick just arrived in the glittering metropolis from her dusty one-horse rural flag stop: Brooklyn. “Arriving in Manhattan from Brooklyn,” she wrote, “I felt like a kid from a small town, clutching her straw suitcases, and staring up at the Big Town for the first time. It was madly glamorous.”

It stayed that way. Comden and Green never tired of writing screen and stage valentines to “New York, New York / A helluva town”—by which they meant Manhattan. “The Bronx is up / And the Battery’s down”—and Brooklyn isn’t even on the map. As the predatory lady cab driver says to the sailors on the lam in On the Town (1944),

“I know a place across the Brooklyn Bridge where they’ll never find us.”



They turned to writing in their early twenties. They had formed a Greenwich Village nightclub act and, having no material, were forced to supply it themselves. The act was called the Revuers, and even though they were so-so performers and great writers, a part of Comden and Green continued to think of themselves as Revuers right up to the end. If you went to a showbiz party in New York or Hollywood and folks started drifting toward the piano, chances are it would be to hear Betty and Adolph, with Leonard Bernstein or Andre Previn or Cy Coleman at the keyboard, doing a couple of larky parodies.

Bernstein loved them because they were a mine of knowledge about great art but also a great laugh, a balancing act Lenny himself eventually lost the knack of. That spirit of literate knockabout—the highbrow lowbrow—was embodied in their song “Catch Our Act at the Met,” in which two vaudevillians celebrate Rudolf Bing’s showbiz­ification of the opera and contemplate making it big in all the leading roles:

You play Tristan, and I’ll play Isolde.
You play Rodolfo, and I’ll play Mimi.
You play Lucia, and I’ll play Sextet.
By Don Ameche?
No, Donizetti.

As a little girl in Brooklyn, Betty once tried to steal a pair of candlesticks from a local emporium. Caught in mid-heist, the shoplifter was forced to write an apology to the shop owners—her aunt and uncle—but signed it jauntily “Betty the Bobbed-Haired Bandit.” As she explained years later, “I opted for ‘wit’ over sincerity.”

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:

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.