Songwriter Betty Comden; With Partner, Won 5 Tony Awards

Associated Press
Saturday, November 25, 2006

Betty Comden, whose more than 60-year collaboration with Adolph Green produced the classic New York stage musical "On the Town" as well as "Singin' in the Rain," died Nov. 23 of a heart ailment at New York Presbyterian Hospital-Columbia. She was 89.

On Broadway, the team of Comden and Green (the billing was always alphabetical) worked most successfully with composers Leonard Bernstein, Jule Styne and Cy Coleman. The duo wrote lyrics and often the books, or dramatic story lines, for more than a dozen shows, many of them built around such stars as Rosalind Russell, Phil Silvers, Carol Burnett and Lauren Bacall.

They won five Tony Awards, with three of their shows -- "Wonderful Town," "Hallelujah, Baby!" and "Applause" -- winning best musical. They received the Kennedy Center honors in 1991.

Ms. Comden and Green were never married to each other, although many thought they were, considering the longevity of their working relationship.

"We don't divide the work up, taking different scenes," Ms. Comden once said of her partnership with Green, who died in 2002 at 87. "We sit in the same room always. I used to write things down in shorthand. I now sit at the typewriter. Adolph paces more. A lot of people don't believe this, but at the end of the day we usually don't remember who thought up what."

The best Comden-and-Green lyrics were brash and buoyant and full of quick wit, best exemplified by "New York, New York," an exuberant hymn to their favorite city. Yet even the songwriters' biggest hits -- "The Party's Over," "Just in Time" and "Make Someone Happy" -- were simple, direct and heartfelt.

It was "On the Town" that introduced the team to Broadway in 1944. The story of three sailors on a 24-hour leave in wartime New York was tailor-made for the time. The music was by Bernstein, an old friend of Green's. Ms. Comden and Green wrote the book and lyrics, including two roles for themselves.

Ms. Comden was born Elizabeth Cohen in Brooklyn on May 3, 1917, and changed her name when she entered show business. She graduated from New York University in 1938, the same year she met Green.

Along with a teenage Judy Holliday (then known as Judy Tuvim), they formed a troupe called the Revuers, which performed in nightclubs. Out of necessity, they began writing their own material.

When their next two musicals after "On the Town" failed, Ms. Comden and Green left New York for Hollywood, where they found a home at MGM. They wrote screenplays for "Good News," starring June Allyson and Peter Lawford, and the 1949 film version of "On the Town," which sanitized the lyrics to "New York, New York." Yet the 1949 movie, starring Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly, was a huge hit.

At MGM, Ms. Comden and Green scored their biggest critical success, writing the screenplay for "Singin' in the Rain" (1952), which featured Kelly, Donald O'Connor and Debbie Reynolds. In 1953, they had another film hit with "The Band Wagon," starring Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse. Later that year, Ms. Comden and Green reunited with Bernstein on Broadway for "Wonderful Town."

A succession of collaborations with Styne followed, including Mary Martin's "Peter Pan" (1954), in which they augmented an existing score; "Bells Are Ringing" (1956), written for Judy Holliday; and "Do Re Mi" (1960), an otherwise forgettable play that introduced the song "Make Someone Happy."

One of their biggest Broadway successes was "Applause" (1970), a show for which they wrote the book but not the lyrics, tailoring the plot of the Bette Davis film "All About Eve" for Bacall.

Ms. Comden and Green had their share of stage flops, too, most notably "A Doll's Life," which had five performances in 1982.

But they bounced back in 1991 with their longest-running show, "The Will Rogers Follies," a Ziegfeld-styled retelling of the life of the famous humorist that ran 2 1/2 years and brought Ms. Comden and Green their fifth Tony Award. Keith Carradine played Rogers in the lavish production, which was directed by Tommy Tune and had music by Cy Coleman.

Throughout their partnership, Ms. Comden and Green performed together on stage, most notably in "A Party With Betty Comden and Adolph Green," which debuted on Broadway in 1958 and was periodically revived.

In her 1995 memoir "Off Stage," Ms. Comden described her friendships with many celebrities; her 37-year marriage to accessories designer Steven Kyle, who died in 1979; and the struggles with drug addiction and AIDS of her son, Alan Kyle, who died in 1990.

Survivors include a daughter, Susanna Kyle of New York.

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