04 Comden and Green I

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Hi, this is Paul Lazarus. In the 1980s, I produced and hosted a radio series called Anything Goes, a celebration of the American musical theater. Now, the Broadway Podcast Network is bringing back these shows. This two-part look at the work of writers Betty Comden and Adolph Green originally aired in 1986. I had the good fortune of working with Betty and Adolph on “Follies in Concert” at Lincoln Center. They were delightful, performing “Rain on the Roof” and I vividly remember Stephen Sondheim coaching them to get closer and closer during their stage kisses.

This is ANYTHING GOES, a Celebration of the American Musical Theater--past present and future. I’m your host, Paul Lazarus. Today, the first of two parts on the career of co-lyricists Betty Comden and Adolph Green. Comden and Green have written the lyrics and often the books for some of Broadway’s most fervently remembered shows: ON THE TOWN, BELLS ARE RINGING, WONDERFUL TOWN, PETER PAN, ON THE TWENTIETH CENTURY, and many more. Their legendary wit and style have delighted audiences for more than 40 years.

“NEW YORK, NEW YORK” (Original Broadway Cast)
“OHIO” (Rosalind Russell and Edie Adams)
“IF YOU HADN’T BUT YOU DID” (Dolores Gray)
“CAPTAIN HOOK’S WALTZ” (Cyril Ritchard)

Betty Comden and Adolph Green got their first taste of showbusiness in the early 1940s.

Party with Comden and Green:
Green: Our careers began quite accidentally many years ago. We were a small group of unemployed actors and ex-students who happened to stumble down the steps of a little village club in Greenwich Village called the Village Vanguard. And this was a very lucky accident for me because I found myself suddenly with two remarkable young ladies, one on each side of me. On one side, Betty Comden, and the other, Judy Holliday.

Comden: I was very lucky too. We called ourselves The Revuers, and at the beginning, we were doing other people’s material. No one had explained to

us that you’re supposed to pay royalties for that sort of thing. And that’s how our writing began really, out of necessity. We realized we couldn’t afford to buy material, so we chipped in and bought a pencil. And that’s really the way we began to write, and very soon, audiences were coming down those stairs to the little cellar in Greenwich Village, and they were growing and growing, and it got more and more successful. So much so that within one year we had climbed up sixty-five dizzying flights above Radio City into the glamorous rainbow room.

Green: And less than six months later we were back at the Village Vanguard!

From the days when they were known as The Revuers, here’s Comden & Green singing “The Reader’s Digest.”

“THE READER’S DIGEST” (Betty Comden and Adolph Green)

Party with Comden and Green:
Comden: All through our years as The Revuers, there was one person in constant attendance in the audience, and that was our old friend Leonard Bernstein, and he had a great deal to do with what happened to us next.

Green: Ah yes, our little act was floundering on the West Coast, we were about to sink slowly into the Pacific Ocean unnoticed, un-mourned by the entire world. And yet just one year later, our first show had opened on Broadway. While we were slipping into the ocean, Leonard Bernstein had become famous overnight as the assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic, and he had written his first ballet, “Fancy Free,” with that brilliant young choreographer Jerome Robbins. And they were besieged by offers of all kinds, and several young Broadway producers came to them and said, “why don’t you do an entire show, a whole Broadway musical comedy?” And Leonard said he knew just the people to do the book and lyrics: us. And these producers said, “Well gee, they’re satirists and all that, but do those kids have any heart?”

Comden: This was our first chance to write real songs. Up ‘til then it had been satirical numbers and sketches. And now it was the whole score and book for our first musical, ON THE TOWN, which was the first for Leonard and also the first for Jerome Robbins, and the first for the young designer-producer Oliver Smith. And I guess it was the thousandth and first for our father-image and terrific director, George Abbott. The very first thing we did was to look for the underlying theme or motto for the whole show, and we found that in the opening number.

“NEW YORK, NEW YORK” (Original Broadway Cast)

Paul: Many reviews start out about ON THE TOWN with “most original musical since Oklahoma.” Now, with the benefit of hindsight, what do you feel is unique and original about ON THE TOWN?

Green: There’s one thing that makes it always unique and that is it’s the only light-hearted musical which involved young people with the kind of score that Leonard Bernstein writes.

Comden: It’s a symphonic score and there really – since then there hasn’t been a show like that. I mean, Leonard’s written other shows but not on a subject like that.

Paul: Pairing it with sort of everyday life although seen from a comic standpoint.

Comden: With big music. Complex modern music as George Abbott used to say, I like that Prokofiev stuff.

“NEW YORK, NEW YORK” (Original Broadway Cast)

Comden: Those are things that one was aware of in wartime, the fact that there were Navy yards and shipyards and there were people working, and doing that kind of work and that the ships came in every day. And the Navy

yard was an active rather romantic place rather involved with the history of those times. And so though the show is a funny show, there is the underlying poignancy of course of twenty-four hours and not knowing what lies beyond.

“SOME OTHER TIME” (Betty Comden)

Betty Comden singing “Some Other Time.” After ON THE TOWN came BILLION DOLLAR BABY, the 1945 musical Comden and Green wrote with composer Morton Gould.

Comden: It was a very sort of sardonic look at the false values – not to sound too pretentious – of the late 20s and what was happening. And we didn’t play up the gaiety and the sort of hacha-hacha jazz age. In terms of the story, it was a very strong story in a way of a ruthless girl who’s trying to get somewhere and then she steps over everybody to get there, and then at the end she gets her ideal, which is this billionaire. But she gets him the day of the crash and at the wedding the announcement’s the Black Friday, the 1929 crash. And you see this billionaire at the end of the show, she’s giving away her bracelets and throwing her diamonds, bracelets and rings to her friends.

Green: The newsboys are rushing up the aisle saying “Montague wiped out!”

Comden: And you see him on his hands and knees trying to pick up her jewelry and salvage it and save it.

Green: That’s the end of the show.

Comden: So the audience didn’t go out feeling thrilled. A lot of people remember that show. Hal Prince remembers seeing that show and he always says it had a big influence on him. The show to this day has people who admire it and remember it because it was a very special kind of show, a very unusual show.

Adolph Green sings “Broadway Blossom” from BILLION DOLLAR BABY.


AD BREAK (TRT 16:41)

You’re listening to ANYTHING GOES with Paul Lazarus. TWO ON THE AISLE in 1951 brought Comden and Green together with composer Jule Styne, who proved to be a valued collaborator for the next three decades.

Green: We first got together with Jule, it was, to us, an impossible interview until we started working together. We’re such different worlds. Jule really represented success.

Comden: And Tin Pan Alley. I mean, Sammy Cahn and he had written huge hits.

Green: And they’d written some very successful shows including GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES and HIGH BUTTON SHOES. But we felt we’d be mis-mated and we were very wrong. We started having fun together instantly.

TWO ON THE AISLE was a revue, not a musical comedy and it presented special problems.

Party with Comden and Green:
Comden: We faced this revue together. And you know a revue has no characters and there’s no story you have to worry about, so it’s really quite simple. All you have to do is write twenty-five terrific numbers from standing position.

Green: Well, we felt ourselves very lucky indeed because we had two outstanding stars: Bert Lahr and Dolores Gray. Truth to tell, we had started writing the show with a completely different lady in mind. A lady whom we

love, adore, admire to this day, Lena Horne. Now here’s one of the numbers we had written originally for Lena Horne.

“IF YOU HADN’T BUT YOU DID” (Dolores Gray)

WONDERFUL TOWN in 1953 was based on the play, “My Sister Eileen.” It reunited Comden and Green with composer Leonard Bernstein.

Comden: We got together immediately, and we did write a score in four weeks.

Green: We found an approach right away of putting it back into the 1930s, which the book wasn’t at that time. It was contemporary.

Paul: Why that choice?

Comden: Of the 30s? Because that was the era I think in which the girls actually did come to New York. And it was an era—it was the middle of the Roosevelt era, the Depression, but also hope and young people pouring into the village.

Comden: It was a time of great vitality.

Green: And Lenny started playing Bum-ba-dump-ba-bump and we said yes that’s it!

Comden: The Eddy Duchin Vamp, which sort of spoke with the 30s. When we got the musical idea of the Eddy Duchin Vamp and the idea of swing and the whole color of the music of that period, the show took on a shape and a reality.


WONDERFUL TOWN told the story of two sisters from Ohio, played by Rosalind Russell and Edith Adams, set off to the big city with high hopes.

Party with Comden and Green:
Green: “The first day they arrive in New York they are utterly miserable. They find themselves trapped. Stuck in a terrible little Greenwich Village basement, a sort of rat-infested room. And all their money has been stolen from them, and boy they wished they never left home.”

“OHIO” (Rosalind Russell and Edie Adams)

“CAPTAIN HOOK’S WALTZ” (Cyril Ritchard)

Comden and Green’s next musical on Broadway was PETER PAN, starring Mary Martin and Cyril Ritchard. The show, which began its out-of-town tryout with a score by Moose Charlap and Carolyn Leigh, eventually enlisted the talents of Styne, Comden, and Green.

Comden: We tried to figure out what the show needed, what was lacking, and the first thing was one overall emotional song that was, that had to be the theme of PETER PAN and of course the first thing we wrote was Neverland. It just needed some simple expressive thing about people’s longings, and we wrote that together. Beautiful melody and words all sort of happened at the same time. We knew it had to be about Neverland, that we got from Barry.

Green: We tried to get to the essence of what Barry was after and to make the audience feel that this was the overall feeling of the show, to let them in on it immediately.


Mary Martin singing “Never Neverland.” In the second part of our conversation with betty Comden and Adolph Green, we’ll follow their careers from BELLS ARE RINGING to the present.

You’ve been listening to part one of a two-part retrospective of book writers and lyricists, Betty Comden and Adolph Green. Sound mixing by David Rapkin.

Associate producer Jeff Lunden. Anything Goes – Backstage with Broadway’s Best – is produced and hosted by Paul Lazarus. For more information and bonus materials visit anythinggoespl.com. If you enjoyed this episode, be sure to rate and follow us. Thanks for listening.

Betty Comden and Adolph Green, famed musical theatre writing team discuss their careers. Authors of arguably the best film musical ever, SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN, and countless Broadway musicals including PETER PAN, TWO ON THE AISLE, and WONDERFUL TOWN recall how their career began with THE REVUERS singing satirical songs at the Village Vanguard, and their notable collaborations with legendary composers Jule Styne, Morton Gould and Leonard Bernstein. The lyricist, book writers offer an inside look at the process behind some of their biggest hits and perform some of their own songs from BILLION DOLLAR BABY and ON THE TOWN. They also recall working with Broadway stars like Bert Lahr, Lena Horne, Dolores Gray, Judy Holliday and working with venerable director George Abbott. Part one of a two-part retrospective on their storied career.

Featured songs: “The Reader’s Digest,” “New York, New York,” “Some Other Time,” “Broadway Blossom,” “If You Hadn’t But You Did,” “Christopher Street,” “Ohio,” “Captain Hook’s Waltz,” and “Never Neverland.”

Originally produced and broadcast in 1986. For more information go to AnythingGoesPL.com or BPN.FM/AnythingGoes. Theme music arranged by Bruce Coughlin. Sound mixing by David Rapkin. Associate producer Jeff Lunden. Anything Goes – Backstage with Broadway’s Best – is produced and hosted by Paul Lazarus.


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