The Comden and Green Comeback
How the deceased comedy-writing team spawned four major projects in the 2014-2015 season.
Ticket holders pushed through the crowds of West 42nd Street to get into the American Airlines Theatre for the opening of the Broadway revival of On the Twentieth Century, a musical with a book and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green. Next door at the Lyric Theatre, the revival of Comden and Green's On the Town was celebrating five months of regular performances. Last November, Encores! hosted a new stage adaptation of The Band Wagon, Comden and Green's popular movie-musical, starring Fred Astaire. On December 4, NBC broadcast a live telecast of the team's Peter Pan, starring Allison Williams and Christopher Walken. What can explain this incredible deluge of Comden and Green in the past year?
"It seems as though it should be because my father's one hundredth birthday is this year, but I think it's just a coincidence," said Green's son, theater critic Adam Green.
His sister, Broadway composer Amanda Green (Hands on a Hardbody), is a little more mystical in her explanation: "This confluence of shows...it's like you've got to believe there's somebody up there."
Somewhere between divine intervention and coincidence lies the truth: There's something incredibly vital about Comden and Green's work, leading people to invest a lot of time and money toward bringing it back to stage and screen.
Granted, some of that has to do with their choice of collaborators. Comden and Green were talented lyricists, but they needed composers to set their words to music. For their Broadway debut, On the Town, they had one of the best: Leonard Bernstein. "Bernstein's music is glorious," opined Green. Bernstein, who straddled the worlds of Broadway and classical music, employed a huge symphonic sound for the musical about three American sailors on shore leave in New York City. The current revival features a 28-piece orchestra, the biggest on Broadway. "It's a tremendous pleasure for audiences to be able to hear that," said Green. The harmony of strings, woodwinds, and brass sounds like the Broadway of a bygone era, a rare treat for theatergoers accustomed to synthesizers and electric guitars.
Similarly, composer Cy Coleman employed a musical form in On the Twentieth Century that was already past its prime when the show premiered in 1978. "We didn't want to write a thirties musical, nor did we want a contemporary sound, like rock," Comden and Green wrote in The New York Times. "We talked about the characters with Cy Coleman, and soon we realized we were thinking in terms of an overblown, bravura musical style." In bringing this story of an old-school impresario Oscar Jaffee and his melodramatic star Lily Garland to stage, they landed on operetta.
It gave Comden and Green an opportunity to pen some of their funniest lyrics. For instance, in the song "Veronique" they imagine Lily Garland's breakthrough role, a French heroine who precipitated Otto von Bismarck's 1870 invasion of France by spurning his romantic advances:
Veronique, she wink an eye;
Veronique, the bullets fly;
Veronique, she close the door
And start the Franco-Prussian war.
With a bouncy patter reminiscent of Jacques Brel, this high-energy showstopper asks its audience to have a familiarity with both 19th-century European history and the laws of love. It takes a complicated geopolitical conflict and ridiculously chalks it up to personal foibles, as popular legend is wont to do (think Mrs. O'Leary's cow). "That is emblematic of what my father and Betty did," remarked Green. "They certainly would go for any low joke, but they also have these incredible highbrow references. Everything was fodder. I recognize a kindred spirit in The Book of Mormon."
Indeed, while that blockbuster musical has sent 21st-century audiences into hysterics by synthesizing a tribute to the Uncle Tom's Cabin ballet from The King and I, the story of Mormon prophet Joseph Smith, and amphibian copulation, Comden and Green's mixture of high and low culture wowed the literate and fun-loving audiences of the past century.
Their shared sense of humor derived from the longevity of their collaboration as much as their similar backgrounds. Born into middle-class Jewish families in the New York metropolitan area, Comden and Green began working together in the late 1930s and didn't stop until their deaths in the early years of the new millennium. "They always said that what kept them together was desperation and fear," explained Green, only half joking. He cited the time his father returned to New York empty-handed following a disastrous trip out to L.A. Comden greeted him at Grand Central station, holding a sign that said "Adolph Green fan club" (a conceit that would later make its way into their screenplay for The Band Wagon.) From then on, they knew that whether they would succeed or fail in show business, they'd do it together. "That moment exemplifies something about them," Green said, "a strange optimism in a time when there was nothing to be optimistic about."
Naturally, this was a partnership that began during the Great Depression. Comden and Green started their careers as members of a comedy act called The Revuers, which played Greenwich Village nightclubs before moving uptown and then onto the radio. "They really only started writing because no one was giving them parts," explained Green. They wanted to perform, and since they couldn't afford to pay royalties, they decided to write their own material.
Their early work with The Revuers would influence the way they would write for the rest of their careers. "They would perform the score themselves, as the actors, as they were writing a show," Green recalled, conjuring the backer's audition scene from The Band Wagon. "They understood what a performer would want, because they loved performing." They also starred in their first Broadway show, On the Town.
Comden and Green's history as performers deeply informed their work. Their willingness to take bold risks with form (writing in an operatic fashion for a story set on a train in the 1930s like On the Twentieth Century) paid off. A current parallel could be drawn with Lin-Manuel Miranda, a lyricist who also stars in his hit musical Hamilton (a hip-hop extravaganza about America's first Treasury Secretary). Comden and Green's blending of high and low references presages similar shows like The Book of Mormon. And as we emerge from one of America's longest recessions, there is something deeply resonant about Comden and Green's improbable optimism.
"With On the Town, none of them really knew what they were doing; but it turns out, it's good work and it lasts," Green remarked. "It's still fresh and funny and filled with this incredibly youthful spirit." It's that youthful spirit, that vitality, that is drawing producers, artists, and audiences back to the work of Betty Comden and Adolph Green.