With her co-lyricist and co-writer, Adolph Green who died in 2002, aged 87, Betty Comden, who died on November the 23rd, wrote some of the most memorable shows and films of the mid twentieth century. In losing her, we have lost yet another of those very rare things – a lyricist who was effortlessly literate and could, by turns, be droll, subtle, brassy and high-spirited.
When people think of Singing in the Rain they rarely think of Comden and Green, but it was they who that wrote the ingenious script that gave the film its impetus.
If people think of the stage version of On the Town(1944), they probably are think the powerfully energetic Leonard Bernstein score, in which he catches the ebullient spirit of New York, but fail to realise that that Comden and Green had provided Bernstein with lyrics that not only fitted the music but added an extra dimension.
Those who have seen the 1949 film starring Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra film version of that show will probably remember the Comden and Green lyrics better because they were there hitched not to Bernstein’s music but, at producer Arthur Freed’s insistence, to music by Roger Edens.
In 1953 they had big film hit with The Band Wagon, starring Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse. Then in 1955 their screenplay for It’s Always Fair Weather (1955), the Stanley Donen/Gene Kelly directed musical satire which starred Kelly, Dan Dailey and Cyd Charrise, received an Oscar nomination – unusual for a musical – but lost out to William Ludwig and Sonya Levien who won for their screenplay for Interrupted Melody, the screen biography of the Austrailian singer Marjorie Lawrence.
The Comden and Green partnership’s finest hour came with Bells are Ringing (1956), a show which starred long time associate Judy Holliday and saw them write with Jule Stein and at least three songs that have now become standards, and examples of popular lyric-writing at its best. Just In Time, Long Before I Knew You and The Party’s Over are, as some would say the business. “Now you must wake up/All dreams must end/Take off your makeup/The party’s over/It’s all over, my friend” don’t sound very poetic when read, but when sung the words express such longing and regret that it’s difficult not to be moved.
In Comden’s obituary in The Guardian, Christopher Hawtree, speaking of Comden and Green, summed their relationship up this way
Their writing partnership made for something so strong that it was flexible enough to adapt to the needs of the most diverse composers; indeed, it was a helluva pen.
So it was; so it was.