"New York, New York,
a helluva town
The Bronx is up and the Battery's down
The people ride in a hole in the ground
New York, New York, it's a helluva town."
Although most New Yorkers and millions of Americans know that lyric, few associate it with Betty Comden, who died in New York at the age of 91. Her life not only chronicles a history of the Broadway musicals I grew up with, but also an era that allowed many of us to believe in the beauty and power of New York, as well as that melancholy feeling many of us hold as we look back on a period when life was indeed simpler.
Betty Comden was born Basya Cohen on May 3, 1917 in Brooklyn. Her father's real last name, however, was Astershinsky Simselyevitch-Simselyovitch, which due to the whim of an Ellis Island clerk, became Cohen. Despite Basya meaning "daughter of God," she was tired of kids calling her "Bossie" and changed her first name to Betty – never Elizabeth. Since her last name had no history in the family, she combined it with her grandmother's name Emden, to become Betty Comden. The daughter of Leo, a lawyer, and Rebecca, a teacher, she attended Erasmus Hall High School and studied drama at New York University, graduating in 1938. Along the way, she also had nose surgery to make herself more stage-worthy and, I suspect, "less ethnic." She writes of it in her autobiography Offstage (1995): "It wasn't grotesque. It wasn't gigantic. It wasn't even particularly long. It did have a bump on it. My family said it made me look distinguished looking. At the time it was still a fairly unusual thing for your average NYU student – or anyone else, for that matter – to do."
When she was still a student at NYU, Comden met another aspiring actor, Adolph Green. Together with Green's friend, a young musician named Leonard Bernstein, and Judy Tuvim, who later changed her name to Judy Holliday, they formed "The Revuers" in 1938, becoming a most successful cabaret act at Max Gordon's legendary Village Vanguard. Thus began the creative partnership of Comden and Green, ultimately considered the longest running writing team in Broadway and Hollywood history. While part of the Revuers, they realized their true forte was lyrics.
Soon after, the pair was contacted by Bernstein and choreographer Jerome Robbins, who thought that their ballet "Fancy Free" had the makings of a Broadway show. The result, On the Town, the story of three sailors on shore leave in New York, opened in 1944 and was a smash. The pair's lyrics echo the sounds and vibrancy of the city I grew up in, featuring scenes on the subway, the Museum of Natural History, and even taxicabs. Later becoming a successful movie, On the Town remains a classic. For a small boy from the Bronx, the songs spoke of a city I loved; a city with energy, beauty, and an era when we all thought anything and everything was possible. Years later, when I would return to New York on vacation from medical school in Kentucky, I recall having that same sense of urgency and excitement as those three sailors on leave. I, too, hoped to find love in a 24 hour period in the Big Apple. I loved the city's energy and inhaled the city's smells after spending time in a sleepy town like Louisville.
Comden and Green wrote many more successful shows including Wonderful Town (1953) featuring the classic "Why did I ever leave Ohio" ("Why oh why oh why oh, why did I ever leave Ohio?"). Legend has it that this show, in collaboration with Bernstein, was written in only four weeks! Bells Are Ringing (1957) reunited Comden and Green with Judy Holliday, and featured the song "Just in Time":
"Just in time, I found you just in time, before you came my time was running low.
I was lost, the losin' dice were tossed, my bridges all were crossed, nowhere to go."
Other Comden and Green Broadway musicals include On the Twentieth Century (1978), The Will Rogers Follies (1991) and, of course, Peter Pan (1956). Hollywood collaborations were equally successful, yielding such classics as The Band Wagon (1953) and Singin' in the Rain (1952), voted one of the best film musicals of all time.
Already possessing a shelf-full of Tony Awards, Comden and Green were among the recipients of the Kennedy Center honors in 1991, as well as a two-night program at Carnegie Hall in 1999, in which they were saluted by their peers.
Although many people erroneously thought they were married, Comden and Green met daily for more than fifty years. "We stare at each other," Ms. Comden said in a 1977 interview with the New York Times. "We meet, whether or not we have a project, just to keep up a continuity of working. There are long periods when nothing happens, and it's just boring and disheartening. But we have a theory that nothing's wasted, even those long days of staring at one another. You sort of have to believe that, don't you? That you had to go through all that to get to the day when something did happen. Adolph Green died in 2002, and a memorial service was held in his honor at the Shubert Theatre. While reminiscing about her long-time partner, Comden remarked: "It's lonely up here." Legend has it that often they could finish each other's sentences without missing a beat.
Both Comden and Green felt that the lyric and story were far more important than the music. Their lyrics could capture the many moods of New Yorkers and their lifestyle.
Consider this melancholy verse from "The Party's Over":
"Now you must wake up, all dreams must end
Take off your make-up the party's over
It's all over my friend."
Or this more hopeful lyric from "Neverland":
"I have a place where dreams are born and time is never planned.
It's not on any chart, you must find it with your heart,
Never, never land."
And perhaps my favorite line when I am feeling out of sorts, having wasted time, from "Some Other Time":
"Where has the time all gone to
Haven't done half the things we want to
Oh, well, we'll catch up
Some other time."
Comden's autobiography recounts her friendships with Lauren Bacall, Charlie Chaplin, Groucho Marx, and of course Bernstein. It was customary for the Comden and Green families to spend Passover with the Bernstein family at the Dakota building in New York City. I can only imagine the stories, songs and jokes at those Seders. Though not a particularly observant Jew, Comden seemed informed by a Jewish frame of mind—a wise-cracking, down-to-earth, cultural "at homeness" with which I very much identified.
I was lucky enough to see some of the Comden and Green musicals. My neighbor in the Bronx, Sarah Osterman, listened non-stop to show tunes and encouraged all of us to see as many musicals as we could. Hence, I recall seeing Carol Burnett in Fade Out-Fade In. In in 1964, and Phil Silvers in Do Re Mi in 1960. The songs of Comden and Green planted the seeds of my love for Broadway, and my continuing love for New York. Getting tickets to the newest and hottest show on Broadway is still something I crave.
I did get to meet Betty Comden and Adolph Green on the mezzanine level of New York's Gershwin Theatre at a performance of the On The Town revival in 1998. It was intermission, and I saw them standing with friends. Never being shy, I asked them to sign my Playbill, which remains somewhere up in our attic awash with lots of other memorabilia. I asked Ms. Comden if she was happy with the new production. She smiled at me, and said: "Look around, New Yorkers have had a love affair with this show since 1944. We couldn't be happier." I do believe she was right.
The legacy of Betty Comden will remain as long as there are people who appreciate great lyrics, have a love for musical theatre and film, and find in their hearts "a place where dreams are born."
Learn more about Betty Comden in This Week in History.