Famed Broadway Lyricist Betty Comden Dies at 89

Their 60-year collaboration was such that many believed Betty Comden and Adolph Green, whose musicals won five Tony Awards, were married.

Instead, the beautiful music they made together graced the stage and screen, and included the classic Broadway musical "On the Town" and the film "Singin' in the Rain."

Comden died Thursday of heart failure at New York Presbyterian Hospital-Columbia, said her longtime attorney and executor Ronald Konecky. She was 89.

"She was, in all respects, a very beautiful and legendary person," Konecky said. "She was a dynamic figure in the arts, theater and film."

On Broadway, Comden and Green (the billing was always alphabetical) worked most successfully with composers Leonard Bernstein, Jule Styne and Cy Coleman. The duo wrote lyrics and often the books for more than a dozen shows, many of them built around such stars as Rosalind Russell, Judy Holliday, Phil Silvers, Carol Burnett and Lauren Bacall.

Among their Tonys, three were for best musical for their shows "Wonderful Town," "Hallelujah, Baby!" and "Applause." The duo received the Kennedy Center honors in 1991.

"It's a kind of radar," Comden once said of her partnership with Green. "We don't divide the work up, taking different scenes. We sit in the same room always. I used to write things down in shorthand. I now sit at the typewriter. Adolph paces more. A lot of people don't believe this, but at the end of the day we usually don't remember who thought up what."

Green died in October 2002 at age 87.

The best Comden and Green lyrics were brash and buoyant, full of quick wit, best exemplified by "New York, New York," an exuberant and forthright hymn to their favorite city. Yet even the songwriters' biggest pop hits — "The Party's Over," "Just in Time" and "Make Someone Happy" — were simple, direct and heartfelt.

It was "On the Town," a musical comedy expansion of Jerome Robbins' ballet "Fancy Free," that introduced Comden and Green to Broadway in 1944. The story of three sailors on a 24-hour leave in wartime New York was tailor-made for the time.

The music was by Bernstein, an old friend of Green's. Comden and Green wrote the book and lyrics, including two plum roles for themselves.

Green, struggling to become an actor, met Comden through mutual friends in 1938 while studying at New York University.

They formed a troupe called the Revuers, which performed in the Village Vanguard, a club in Greenwich Village. Out of necessity, Comden and Green began writing their own material. Among the members of the company was a young comedian named Judy Tuvin, who changed her name to Judy Holliday when she got to Hollywood.

Comden and Green's next two musicals, "Billion Dollar Baby" (1945) and "Bonanza Bound" (1947) were not successful. Discouraged, they left for California where they found a home at MGM.

There, they wrote screenplays for "Good News," starring June Allyson and Peter Lawford, and the film version of "On the Town," which scrapped most of Bernstein's melodies, replacing them with music by Roger Edens. It even sanitized the lyrics to "New York, New York." Yet the movie, starring Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly, was a huge hit.

At MGM, Comden and Green also scored their biggest critical success, writing the screenplay for "Singin' in the Rain" (1952). The film placed No. 10 on the list of 100 best American movies of the century, compiled in 1998 by the American Film Institute.

In 1953, they had another film hit with "The Band Wagon," starring Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse. That same year, Comden and Green reunited with Bernstein on Broadway for "Wonderful Town," a musical version of "My Sister Eileen."

A succession of collaborations with Styne followed, including the 1954 Mary Martin "Peter Pan," in which they were brought in to augment an already existing score; "Bells Are Ringing" (1956), written specifically for Holliday, and "Do Re Mi" (1960), a raucous look at the jukebox industry.

One of their biggest Broadway successes was "Applause" (1970), a show for which they wrote the book but not the lyrics.

Comden and Green had their share of stage flops, too, most famously "A Doll's Life" (1982). It was a misguided attempt to figure out what Nora did after she slammed the door and walked out on her husband in Ibsen's "A Doll's House." The musical ran five performances.

Yet their longest running show, "The Will Rogers Follies," opened in 1991, a Ziegfeld-styled retelling of the life of the famous humorist.

Throughout their partnership, Comden and Green performed together on stage, most notably in their two-person show "A Party with Betty Comden and Adolph Green," which was first done on Broadway in 1958 and periodically revived over the years.

Comden was born in Brooklyn in 1917, Konecky said, the daughter of Leo and Rebecca Comden. Her father was a lawyer, her mother a schoolteacher. She graduated from New York University in 1938.

Comden married accessories designer Steven Kyle in 1942. He died in 1979. They had two children, Susanna and Alan; her son died in 1990.