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Comden and Green: It's Always Fair Weather

David Barbour has a chat with the venerable team, about to be honored by the Lyrics & Lyricists series of the 92nd Street Y. logo
This year, there are two ways of looking at April 15. It can be a day of stress for those who, having not yet filed their tax returns, will anxiously try to beat Uncle Sam's deadline. Or it can be a day of celebration for those who opt to attend The Songs of Betty Comden and Adolph Green, the latest installment of the Lyrics & Lyricists series at the 92nd Street Y. (Income tax slackers, take heart: the show will also be performed on April 16 and 17).

This L&L tribute to Comden and Green is a felicitous event that marks the convergence of two long-running New York institutions. Founded in 1970 by Hadassah Markson, Lyrics & Lyricists is the great-grandaddy of the many celebrations of the American songbook that have proliferated throughout Manhattan--among them, Lincoln Center's American Songbook, Carnegie Hall's American Popular Song Celebrations, and City Centers Encores! Great American Musicals in Concert. Comden and Green were covered during L&L's long-ago first season, along with E. Y. "Yip" Harburg, Sheldon Harnick, Johnny Mercer, and Stephen Sondheim. This year's lineup has already featured Cy Coleman, Kander and Ebb, and Stephen Sondheim, and will finish June 3-5 with Jerry Herman.

Barry Levitt, current artistic director of Lyrics and Lyricists, says that the Comden and Green program will be fairly broad-based. There will, of course, be many songs from the pair's classics, including On the Town (1944), Wonderful Town (1953), Peter Pan (1954) and Bells are Ringing (1956). There will also be items from less successful efforts such as Subways Are For Sleeping (1961) and Hallelujah, Baby! (1967), both of which have highly entertaining scores; and from It's Always Fair Weather (1955), one of the most unique musicals in film history. Performing the songs will be Brigid Brady, Mark Hardy, Jeff Harnar, Jan Neuberger, and K.T. Sullivan, with special appearances by Polly Bergen and Billy Stritch. Rex Reed acts as narrator.

Even to a longtime show fan, the sheer duration of the team of Comden and Green is a remarkable thing. Their Broadway career extends from On the Town in 1944 (by which time they were five-year veterans of Manhattan's nightclubs) to The Will Rogers Follies in 1992; just last season, they contributed a new libretto for Die Fledermaus, at the Metropolitan Opera. And, if they have anything to say about it, there's more to come on Broadway.

In conversation, Comden and Green are unsentimental, dryly amusing, and focused--as they have been for over six decades--on the work. When I say that On the Town has a rather odd structure for a musical, with long ballet sequences, a blend of symphonic and popular music, and extended comedy scenes, Comden laughingly replies: "We had never written a show before; we didn't know any better." Green adds, "We were too silly to be conventional." Speaking of It's Always Fair Weather, with its sharp satire on Madison Avenue and its darkish portrait of three ex-servicemen suffering from middle-aged discontent, Comden notes that the script was conceived to be a Broadway show--"but when we told Gene Kelly the story, he said, 'I've got to do it as my next picture.'"

Asked to discuss their distinctive brand of humor, Comden says, "We're on the same wavelength of what makes us laugh and what makes us angry." Throwing in a little nightclub shtick, Green adds, "There must be some rappaport there, which goes back to our nightclub days." Comden: "We wrote and performed. Both careers started at the same time." Green: "We weren't so certain that anyone would ever listen to us. We worked only sporadically during out nightclub career, I'm afraid. Some places, we were bonfires; and some places, we were totally ashes." Comden: "Yes. Total death." (When it comes to overlapping dialogue, the Lunts had nothing on Comden and Green). Still, they concede, their nightclub work gave them strong ears for what does and does not work in front of an audience.

One of the reasons for the team's continuing popularity is that, in recent years, their work has been so frequently revived. Last season alone, there was the (admittedly unsuccessful) revival of On the Town and the (very successful) Encores! concert staging of Do-Re-Mi ("We loved what they did with that show," says Comden); also, the Film Forum held a Comden and Green retrospective. Next month, Encores! presents Wonderful Town with Donna Murphy in the Rosalind Russell part. And there are plans afoot for a revival of Bells are Ringing, in which Judy Holliday enjoyed the success of her career--both onstage and in film. Although Bells might seem to be hopelessly identified with Holliday, Green notes that "after it closed on Broadway, it played around the country the most of any show we were ever involved with." For the revival, Comden says, with certainty, "We want to get somebody wonderful. And we will."

But don't think the team is living in the past; they're forging ahead with a new project. After 60-plus years, what keeps them going? Comden: "It's what we do. We get up and say, we've got to write another show. That's what we're trying to do now. We can't talk about it because it's in such an unformed shape, but we're still meeting everyday." When I tell them I'm glad they're working on a new show, Green responds, "I'll be even gladder when it gets on." Comden adds, "When it's actually playing--that'll be a good feeling." A sentiment we can all agree with.

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