Betty Comden

Writer, Performer
Betty Comden

Also known as: Basya Cohen

Female

Born: May 3, 1917
New York, New York

Died: November 23, 2006
New York, New York

Betty Comden, the award-winning lyricist and librettist who — with writing partner Adolph Green — created such iconic New York musicals as Bells Are Ringing, Wonderful Town and On the Town, died Nov. 23, 2006, at New York-Presbyterian Hospital. She was 89. The New York Times reports that the cause of Ms. Comden’s death was heart failure.

Born Elizabeth Cohen in Brooklyn, Ms. Comden teamed up with the late Green early in her career for a partnership that would last six decades. She and Green first hit the town in a sketch-comedy group called The Revuers, which also featured the late Judy Holliday. (It was for Holliday that the duo created the 1956 musical Bells Are Ringing; Holliday won a Tony Award for her performance and later repeated her role as Ella Peterson in the screen version of the classic musical.) They would go on to write several musicals that were love letters to her native city.

Obituary: The Comden and Green outlook on life was easily identifiable: more sentimental than cynical; whimsical bordering on daffy; and making full use of the many cultural and tempermental contrasts within New York's citizenry. Their books were directly descended from the loopy, madcap plotlines of 1920s and 1930 Broadway musicals, while displaying more craftsmanship and disclipline.

Much of the nuts-and-bolts work was done by Ms. Comden. Librettist Peter Stone, speaking about how Comden and Green worked together, once told Playbill, "Adolph Green might have been the only writer in all of history who never wrote. Betty's the one who jotted everything down, Adolph jotted absolutely nothing down. I never saw him use a pen or pencil, let alone a typewriter. It would have been useless for him to even try to type because he was not on direct speaking terms with any sort of mechanical object. . . . The form and structure came from Betty, so did style and sensibility. Then what, you might ask, did Adolph do? The answer is: the madness. The sheer, outlandish, surreal, weird, goofy, uniquely Adolphian madness."

Critic Harold Clurman once wrote of the two: They "are frequently crude and gauche. Yet once in a while they can burst into a crazy improvisation which replaces judgment with the bubbling enthusiasm of kids who are wholly delighted to discover that not only the emperor but the entire court is naked. Betty Comden and Adolph Green just can't get over the exhilaration of not being grown up."

Comden and Green also enjoyed success as screenwriters. Although they only wrote ten films, their scripts include "Singin' in the Rain" as well as the Oscar-nominated "The Band Wagon" and "It's Always Fair Weather." Other titles included "Take Me Out to the Ball Game," "Auntie Mame," "Good News," "What a Way to Go!" and "The Barkleys of Broadway."

In "The Band Wagon," which concerned the creation of a Broadway-bound show, they created a version of themselves in bookwriters Lester and Lily Martin (played by Oscar Levant and Nanette Fabray). In the movie, the characters were endlessly ebullient, bickered and made up on a regular basis, and wrote new plots and songs overnight. The characters were also married, and those Ms. Comden and Mr. Green never were, they were so inseparable in the public imagination, many thought they were a couple. (Mr. Green was long married to actress Phyllis Newman. Ms. Comden was married to businessman Steven Kyle, who died in 1979.)

Comden and Green also worked closely with their friend Leonard Bernstein, who had often accompanied them during their Revuers days. With Bernstein they created two of their best-known works, On the Town — a tale of three sailors on leave in Manhattan that boasted such tunes as “New York, New York,” “Lucky to Be Me” and “Lonely Town” — and Wonderful Town — the story of two sisters from Ohio who find themselves over their heads in Greenwich Village. That musical gave the world such songs as “Ohio,” “A Little Bit in Love,” “A Quiet Girl” and “It’s Love.”

It was Bernstein who gave the duo their big break. The composer called on his friends when he began working on a musical version of Jerome Robbins' ballet Fancy Free. The show needed a libettist-lyricist. The couple got the job and On the Town proved to be a hit when it opened in 1944 and a springboard for their career. It also contained what may be the lyricists' most famous song: "New York, New York." To this day, few songs are as closely associated with life in Gotham.

The other musicals for which the writing team — who also performed an acclaimed specialty act throughout the years entitled A Party With Betty Comden and Adolph Green — penned book and/or lyrics include Bells Are Ringing; On the Twentieth Century; Hallelujah, Baby!; Applause; Peter Pan; A Doll's Life; Do Re Mi and The Will Rogers Follies.

In 1991 Comden and Green were both awarded the Kennedy Center Honors. The duo also racked up numerous Tony Awards: 1953 (Wonderful Town wins Best Musical Tony), 1968 (Hallelujah, Baby! wins Tonys for Best Musical and Best Composer and Lyricist), 1970 (Applause wins Tony for Best Musical), 1978 (On the Twentieth Century wins Tonys for Best Original Score and Best Book of a Musical) and 1991 (The Will Rogers Follies wins Tony for Best Original Score).

Among the plethora of songs that came from the pens of Comden and Green are "Make Someone Happy," "Just in Time," "The Party's Over," "Long Before I Knew You," "Never Never Land," "Comes Once in a Lifetime," "I'm Just Taking My Time," "My Own Morning," "Never Met a Man I Didn't Like" and "Look Around.”

Betty Comden was born Elizabeth Cohen on May 3, 1917, in Brooklyn, to Leo Cohen, a lawyer, and his wife Rebecca, a teacher. She attended Erasmus Hall High School and later studied drama at New York University. She had dreams of an acting career and changed her name from Cohen to Comden and, according to the New York Times, has nose surgery. She had some early acting jobs with the Washington Square Players.

Haun also interviewed both Comden and Green in 1998, as the revival of On the Town was set to hit the New York stage. Both were overjoyed by the show's reemergence. Said Ms. Comden, "Just say that we’re thrilled to see it again and that we’re working on a new show. We go on, that’s all. That’s the best thing to say."

Ms. Comden had two children: a son Alan, who died in 1990, and a daughter Susanna Kyle, who survives her.

 

Roles

On the Twentieth Century
Mar. 12, 2015 - Jun. 7, 2015
Book
(Original)
 
    Lyrics
(Original)
 
Playbill Cover - On the Town On the Town
Oct. 16, 2014
Book and Lyrics
(Original)
 
Playbill Cover - Barbara Cook's Broadway! Barbara Cook's Broadway!
Mar. 28, 2004 - Apr. 18, 2004
Featured Songs with Lyrics
(Original)
 
Playbill Cover - Wonderful Town Wonderful Town
Nov. 23, 2003 - Jan. 30, 2005
Lyrics
(Original)
Who's Who
Playbill Cover - Elaine Stritch at Liberty Elaine Stritch at Liberty
Feb. 21, 2002 - May 26, 2002
Featured Songs with Lyrics
(Original)
 
Playbill Cover - Bells Are Ringing Bells Are Ringing
Apr. 12, 2001 - Jun. 10, 2001
Book
(Original)
Who's Who
    Lyrics
(Original)
Who's Who
Playbill Cover - Peter Pan Peter Pan
Apr. 7, 1999 - Aug. 29, 1999
Additional Lyrics
(Original)
 
Playbill Cover - Peter Pan Peter Pan
Nov. 23, 1998 - Jan. 3, 1999
Additional Lyrics
(Original)
Who's Who
Playbill Cover - On the Town On the Town
Nov. 22, 1998 - Jan. 17, 1999
Book
(Original)
Who's Who
    Lyrics
(Original)
Who's Who
Peter Pan
Nov. 26, 1991 - Jan. 5, 1992
Additional lyrics
(Original)
 
Playbill Cover - The Will Rogers Follies The Will Rogers Follies
May 1, 1991 - Sep. 5, 1993
Lyrics
(Original)
 
Playbill Cover - Peter Pan Peter Pan
Dec. 13, 1990 - Jan. 20, 1991
Additional Lyrics
(Original)
 
Playbill Cover - Jerome Robbins' Broadway Jerome Robbins' Broadway
Feb. 26, 1989 - Sep. 1, 1990
Additional text ("On The Town," "Billion Dollar Baby")
(Original)
 
    Featured Songs with Lyrics ("On The Town," "Billion Dollar Baby," "Peter Pan")
(Original)
 
Playbill Cover - Barbara Cook: A Concert for the Theatre Barbara Cook: A Concert for the Theatre
Apr. 15, 1987 - Apr. 26, 1987
Featured Songs with Lyrics
(Original)
 
Playbill Cover - Singin' in the Rain Singin' in the Rain
Jul. 2, 1985 - May 18, 1986
Lyrics for "Moses Supposes"
(Original)
 
    Screenplay
(Original)
 
    Book Adaptation
(Original)
 
Playbill Cover - A Doll's Life A Doll's Life
Sep. 23, 1982 - Sep. 26, 1982
Book
(Original)
 
    Lyrics
(Original)
 
Playbill Cover - Peter Pan Peter Pan
Sep. 6, 1979 - Jan. 4, 1981
Additional lyrics
(Original)
 
The Madwoman of Central Park West
Jun. 13, 1979 - Aug. 25, 1979
Featured Songs with Lyrics
(Original)
 
Playbill Cover - On the Twentieth Century On the Twentieth Century
Feb. 19, 1978 - Mar. 18, 1979
Book
(Original)
 
    Lyrics
(Original)
 
    Letitia Primrose Performer
(Replacement)
 
Playbill Cover - A Party with Betty Comden & Adolph Green A Party with Betty Comden & Adolph Green
Feb. 10, 1977 - Apr. 30, 1977
Performer
(Original)
 
Playbill Cover - Lorelei Lorelei
Jan. 27, 1974 - Nov. 3, 1974
New lyrics
(Original)
 
Playbill Cover - On the Town On the Town
Oct. 31, 1971 - Jan. 1, 1972
Lyrics
(Original)
Who's Who
    Book
(Original)
Who's Who
Playbill Cover - Applause Applause
Mar. 30, 1970 - Jul. 27, 1972
Book
(Original)
 
Playbill Cover - The 23rd Annual Tony Awards - 1969 The 23rd Annual Tony Awards - 1969
Apr. 20, 1969 - Apr. 20, 1969
Presenter Performer
(Original)
 
Playbill Cover - Hallelujah, Baby! Hallelujah, Baby!
Apr. 26, 1967 - Jan. 13, 1968
Lyrics
(Original)
 
Playbill Cover - Fade Out - Fade In Fade Out - Fade In
May 26, 1964 - Apr. 17, 1965
Book
(Original)
 
    Lyrics
(Original)
 
Playbill Cover - Subways Are for Sleeping Subways Are for Sleeping
Dec. 27, 1961 - Jun. 23, 1962
Book
(Original)
 
    Lyrics
(Original)
 
Playbill Cover - An Evening with Yves Montand An Evening with Yves Montand
Oct. 24, 1961 - Dec. 16, 1961
"Just in Time" lyrics
(Original)
 
Playbill Cover - Do Re Mi Do Re Mi
Dec. 26, 1960 - Jan. 13, 1962
Lyrics
(Original)
 
Playbill Cover - A Party with Betty Comden & Adolph Green A Party with Betty Comden & Adolph Green
Dec. 23, 1958 - May 23, 1959
Performer
(Original)
 
    Book
(Original)
 
    Lyrics
(Original)
 
Playbill Cover - Say, Darling Say, Darling
Apr. 3, 1958 - Jan. 17, 1959
Lyrics
(Original)
 
Playbill Cover - Bells Are Ringing Bells Are Ringing
Nov. 29, 1956 - Mar. 7, 1959
Lyrics
(Original)
 
    Book
(Original)
 
Playbill Cover - Peter Pan Peter Pan
Oct. 20, 1954 - Feb. 26, 1955
Additional Lyrics
(Original)
 
Playbill Cover - Wonderful Town Wonderful Town
Feb. 25, 1953 - Jul. 3, 1954
Lyrics
(Original)
 
Playbill Cover - Two on the Aisle Two on the Aisle
Jul. 19, 1951 - Mar. 15, 1952
Sketches
(Original)
 
    Lyrics
(Original)
 
Playbill Cover - Billion Dollar Baby Billion Dollar Baby
Dec. 21, 1945 - Jun. 29, 1946
Lyrics
(Original)
Who's Who
    Book
(Original)
Who's Who
Playbill Cover - On the Town On the Town
Dec. 28, 1944 - Feb. 2, 1946
Book
(Original)
 
    Claire DeLoone Performer
(Original)
 
    Lyrics
(Original)
 

Videos (1)

 

Inside the Playbill (9)

See more Who's Who

Awards


New York Drama Critics' Circle

Year Category Production Winner/Nominee
1991 Best Musical The Will Rogers Follies Winner
1953 Best Musical Wonderful Town Winner

Tony Award

Year Category Production Winner/Nominee
1991 Original Score The Will Rogers Follies Winner
1986 Book of a Musical Singin' in the Rain Nominee
1983 Book of a Musical A Doll's Life Nominee
1983 Original Score A Doll's Life Nominee
1978 Book of a Musical On the Twentieth Century Winner
1978 Original Score On the Twentieth Century Winner
1968 Composer and Lyricist Hallelujah, Baby! Winner
 
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