The American musical theater has lost another legend: screenwriter, songwriter, and performer Betty Comden, who died on Thanksgiving day at age 89. She was best known for her partnership with Adolph Green — who died in 2002 — with whom she collaborated on Broadway shows like On the Town and movie musicals like Singin’ in the Rain. (The duo frequently partnered with Jule Styne, penning lyrics for Styne’s songs in Two on the Aisle, Do Re Mi, Subways Are for Sleeping, Fade Out-Fade In, and Hallelujah, Baby!) Don’t know Comden’s stuff? These CDs and DVDs are essential for your collection.
Bells Are Ringing (1960)
Vincente Minnelli directed the stage-to-screen version of this farcical romance starring Dean Martin and Judy Holliday, who was reprising her Tony-winning turn as a lovelorn answering service operator. BEST KNOWN FOR ”Just in Time,” which has been covered by (among others) Tony Bennett, Nina Simone, Rosemary Clooney, Bobby Darin, Frank Sinatra, and Barbra Streisand.
On the Town (1949)
C&G’s first Broadway musical premiered in 1944; this lavish MGM adaptation cut way too much of the Comden-Green-Leonard Bernstein score, but it’s tough to quibble with a cast that includes Frank Sinatra, Gene Kelly (who co-directed with Stanley Donen), Ann Miller (in a role Comden originated on stage), and Betty Garrett. The NYC location shots are stunning. BEST KNOWN FOR What’s been dubbed ”the other ‘New York, New York’,” the one that goes ”New York, New York, a helluva town/The Bronx is up, but the Battery’s down,/The people ride in a hole in the ground/New York, New York, it’s a helluva town.”
Singin’ in the Rain (1952)
Another Kelly-and-Donen-directed classic, scripted by Comden and Green. (Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown wrote the songs.) Nearly all of Lina’s (Jean Hagen) lines — ”What’s the big idea?” — are winners.
The Band Wagon (1953)
An ol’ let’s-put-on-a-show movie about a musical with more drama in the wings than on the stage. (Stagehand: ”This show has more scenery than Yellowstone National Park!”) A by now hackneyed story, but this Minnelli-directed flick — featuring Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse — is a can’t-miss.
Comden and Green were lifelong New Yorkers, and it showed in productions like On the Town and this sisters-in-the-city comedy. The original 1953 production starred Rosalind Russell (who also headlined the C&G-scripted film Auntie Mame); the 2003 revival was toplined by Donna Murphy. Either recording is terrific. BEST KNOWN FOR NYC-specific songs like ”Christopher Street” and ”Ballet at the Village Vortex,” plus kicky C&G-Bernstein tunes like ”One Hundred Easy Ways” and ”Wrong Note Rag.”
On the Twentieth Century
Madeline Kahn (a.k.a. egomaniac leading lady Lily Garland) was reportedly fired from the production, but she can be heard on the cast recording of this 1978 under-the-radar C&G showbiz-centric show — often considered C&G’s best work (Cy Coleman composed) — along with Imogene Coca, John Cullum, and Kevin Kline. Note: Comden stepped in for Coca briefly during the Broadway run. BEST KNOWN FOR ”I Rise Again,” ”Never,” and the gorgeous ”Together.”
A Party With Betty Comden and Adolph Green
The original 1958 version — which they performed at the Golden Theatre — is much harder to find than the 1997, but this a more complete two-disc set. BEST KNOWN FOR The duo performing their hits, their flops, and everything in between, set to the music of Bernstein, Styne, André Previn, and more.