by Alix Cohen
Betty Comden (1917-2006) and Adolph Green (1914-2002) collaborated for six immensely fertile decades resulting in 18 musicals, 9 screenplays and their own high spirited performing. Some of our most beloved musicals stemmed from the couple’s professional partnership.
Today, Harvey Granat’s guests are Green’s daughter, Tony nominated lyricist/composer Amanda Green, journalist/author Andy Propst, whose book They Made Us Happy-Betty Comden & Adolph Green’s Musicals and Movies makes him a valued contributor, and top tier vocalist Jeff Harnar, whose latest show. Carried Away celebrates the musical collaborators. As always David Lahm ably provides piano styling.
Introduced in 1938, Comden and Green’s “first brush with fame” (Harvey Granat) came by way of forming a song and skit group called The Revuers intending to simply perform. “They were not writers when they walked into The Village Vanguard,” Green notes. Propst tells me the two started authoring their own material when Comden discovered they’d have to pay royalties. “Betty would joke they all “chipped in for a pencil” and started writing their own stuff. “ When dust settled, the group consisted of Comden, Green, Judy Tuvim (Judy Holiday) and Leonard Bernstein, whom Green had met at summer camp.
Reputation established downtown eventually propelled the pair to a weekly NBC radio show in which they presented comedy and guest vocalists. Integrating unrelated songs into a cohesive format helped develop book writing skills.
Green’s close friendship with Bernstein and, apparently Jerome Robbins, led to an offer to author book and lyrics for a musical based on the ballet Fancy Free. While they were at it, the multi-talented duo wrote themselves sizeable parts. 1944’s On the Town (music Leonard Bernstein) was a big success. Granat sings “Lucky To Be Me” appearing modest, surprised, pleased. Green was quoted as saying he was “able to buy a couple of suits, galoshes, and get his teeth fixed.” Two succeeding musicals were not successful.
Next stop, Hollywood. Good News, The Barclays of Broadway, and the film version of On the Town followed. The latter was a hit despite a boycott by Bernstein upset much of his music was replaced by that of MGM Golden Boy Roger Edens. Jeff Harnar prefaces sharing two important songs cut from the film by a rendition of Comden and Green’s prescient “Les Miserables”: Jean Valjean no evil doer/Stole some bread ’cause he was poor/A detective chased him through the sewer/The End. (As it appeared in The Revuers)
The artist then performs “Lonely Town” with velvet poignancy and a wryly suggestive rendition of “I Can Cook Too,” (replete with male pronoun),winding his way through the delighted audience, up close and personal, in faces and on laps. “I can ba-ba-ba bake someone happy,” he sings. ‘Great. “Can you imagine what a star he’d be if he could get over his shyness?” quips Granat.
The treasured Singin’ in The Rain won Outstanding Screenplay, but was only a modest success at the time. “All we know,” Adolph Green said at the start, “is that at some point in the rain, someone would be out and singing about it.” If you haven’t seen this film, there’s a hole in your cultural background as wide as The Hudson River.
From Propst’s book, Granat learned that among their screenplays was the one for Auntie Mame. The author shares an anecdote from Comden’s memoir citing the origin of Mame’s trying to demonstrate a pressure cooker and destroying a kitchen. (They turned down Gypsy to write Mame.)
The partners used everything. Bells Are Ringing (music Jule Styne) was ostensibly inspired by a basement answering service they passed. “Why the lesser known Sidney Chaplin for its male lead?” Granat asks. Green tells us her father had a love affair with Charlie Chaplin. He and Comden suggested the actor’s son, Robbins disagreed. A deal was made, if by New Haven, the director decided Chaplin wasn’t keeping up, their choice would be replaced. He wasn’t. “One of the things I found again and again was their loyalty to people,” Propst adds.
Granat’s medley of “Just In Time,” “Long Before I Knew You,” and “The Party’s Over” is simply lovely. He sings with respect and out of experience. Feelings are empathetic, delivery pristine. “I think of this show as a box of chocolates, one tastier than the next,” he says smiling.
Our host asks Green if she knows her father’s favorite work? She posits On the Town and On the Twentieth Century. Granat comments Comden and Green’s career took off after their first Broadway show and wonders how they dealt with “the valleys.” “He and Betty met every day to keep things going no matter what,” Green’s daughter recalls. When asked how they worked together, she replies the door was closed and she can only address snacks that went in.
Robbins’ first directing job was Peter Pan. Comden and Green added 5 songs to the score and finessed the script at his request. One of these was the eternal “Never Never Land.” Granat leads, we follow. I’d conjecture there isn’t a person in the audience who doesn’t have memories of the musical.
A well known anecdote about Subways Are for Sleeping finds David Merrick combating mixed reviews by rounding up private citizens who shared their names, buying them dinner, giving them tickets, and filling a full page ad with their quotes.
“Was your dad disappointed never to have worked with Irving Berlin or Cole Porter?” Granat asks. “They had done a screenplay for what was, in essence, the second Irving Berlin songbook, Say It With Music,” Propst tells us, “but it never got made.” “Help, Help, Hooray!” a musical The Skin of Our Teeth also languished, much to their disappointment. Moviemaking changed in the 1960s.
From Do, Re, Mi (music Jule Styne) we hear “Make Someone Happy” which Granat says may best epitomize what Comden and Green were about. The vocalist looks around the room as he sings doling out humble advice. It’s affecting.
“They were mythmakers, creating an image of their world so gaudy and mysterious that one is dazzled by the surface and unquestioning of what lies beneath.” John Lahr
Event Photos-Stephen Sorokoff
Songs & Stories with Harvey Granat
Comden & Green
Special Guests: Tony nominated lyricist/composer Amanda Green
Journalist/Author Andy Propst: They Made Us Happy-Betty Comden & Adolph Green’s Musicals and Movies
Vocalist Jeff Harnar, Pianist David Lahm
92Y at Lexington Avenue- https://www.92y.org/
November 14, 2019
NEXT: December 12 at noon
Hammerstein Before Rodgers with Will Hammerstein and a Special Guest Vocalist