Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



Betty Comden (b 3 May 1917; d 23 November 2006) and Adolph Green (b 2 December 1914; d 24 October 2002), one of the most successful lyricist/librettist teams of all time, New Yorkers who worked together inseparably after they met at New York U. and formed a club act performing their own songs. The Revuers included John Frank, Alvin Hammer, Judy Holiday and Comden and Green, who wrote the material because they had no money to buy any; they opened in 1939 at the Village Vanguard and rescued owner Max Gordon from penury. Leonard Bernstein often played piano. They moved downtown to Gordon’s less bohemian club, the Blue Angel, where they got a Hollywood offer: the 1944 film Greenwich Village was a stinker, their parts were tiny and Green’s was cut altogether. They returned to New York separately, and Green was despondent when he reached Grand Central Terminal, but Comden was waiting for him, holding a sign that said 'Adolph Green Fan Club' (they later put that moment into a film, The Band Wagon in 1953, where Fred Astaire played a dancer down on his luck). Meanwhile they worked with Bernstein on On The Town '44 (e.g. 'Lonely Town'; they were also in the cast) and Wonderful Town '53, with Morton Gould on Billion Dollar Baby '45, and with Jule Styne on ten shows into the '80s including Bells Are Ringing '56, with their old friend Holiday.

They wrote musical films for Arthur Freed at MGM, including their first screenplay Good News '47, The Barkleys of Broadway (reuniting Astaire and Ginger Rogers), Take Me Out To The Ballgame (with Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra) and the film version of On The Town, again with Kelly and Sinatra, all in 1949, but they were disgusted that Hollywood threw out most of Bernstein’s music. Nearly all the songs from Singin’ In The Rain '52 came from earlier Freed musicals, and Comden and Green wrote 'Moses Supposes' and 'Make 'Em Laugh', but their wonderful screenplay helped to make it one of the best-loved movie musicals of all time: a believeable story with the songs fitting like the fingers on a glove. (Cole Porter allowed them to use his melody 'Be A Clown' for 'Make 'Em Laugh'.) More screenplays included It’s Always Fair Weather ’55, Auntie Mame ’58; more shows were Two On The Aisle ’51, Peter Pan ’54, Do Re Mi ’60, Subways Are For Sleeping ’61 and Applause ’70. A rare flop was A Doll’s Life ’82, a musical sequel to Ibsen’s A Doll’s House: they wrote both book and lyrics; it closed in four days.

Their unique talent was for writing shows about New Yorkers, but they wrote a great many songs: Styne worked with several lyricists, but Comden and Green's lyrics included those for Bells Are Ringing: 'Just In Time', 'The Party's Over', 'Long Before I Knew You'. Adolph appeared in many shows; they both played in On The Town and in their own revue A Party With Betty Comden And Adolph Green '58, revised '77. He sang in Bernstein's concert performance of Candide at the Barbican in London '89. Four years after they met they had both married other people, but they worked together at one or the other’s home almost every day for decades, even when they didn’t have a show in the works. He tried to give her all the credit, but she said she could not imagine life without the collaboration. 'Alone, nothing,' Green once said; 'Together...Mr Words and Miss Words.' Andy Propst's biography, They Made Us Happy (2019), Willard Spiegelman wrote in the Wall Street Journal, 'shows how snappy, daring and brave they were. And what fun they had.'