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They made a 'Wonderful' team

Betty Comden prepares for a 50th-anniversary revival of 'Wonderful Town' without her late partner, Adolph Green.

November 15, 2003|Michael Kuchwara | Associated Press

NEW YORK — For the first time in more than 60 years, it's Comden without Green.

Hard to believe. Especially around Broadway, where a revival of "Wonderful Town," the buoyant New York City musical Betty Comden and Adolph Green wrote with Leonard Bernstein half a century ago, is getting ready to open.

Yet since the death last year of her writing partner, Comden has carried on alone, attending rehearsals of "Wonderful Town" and working on a new book about her legendary collaboration with the effervescent Green.

"It was Adolph's favorite show of ours," she says now. "Everything came together: the songs, the characters and the stories. He would be so happy that it's being done again.

"We usually met at my place because that's where most of the records of our work were. I miss him desperately. I really do. We were so close."

Their collaboration included more than a dozen Broadway musicals -- from "On the Town" in 1944 to "The Will Rogers Follies" in 1991 -- and at least two motion-picture classics: "Singin' in the Rain" and "The Band Wagon." They also performed stints of their own, from a Greenwich Village club act called the Revuers in the late 1930s and early 1940s to a stylish, two-person show, appropriately titled "A Party With Betty Comden and Adolph Green."

"They were on the same track and thought a lot about the same things," says Phyllis Newman, Green's widow. "They had different senses of humor, actually. My husband's was much more out there and antic. Betty's is more sophisticated and quiet.

"They met every day of their lives. That was a huge thing -- to keep meeting -- whether they had a new project or didn't have a project. They were always working and trying to find one."

These days, "Wonderful Town" and her memories of Green have Comden's complete attention, she says.

Comden sits at a corner table in Sardi's, the venerable theater-district restaurant where caricatures of stage notables grace the walls. Of course, Comden and Green are there. Together, naturally.

She is dressed elegantly: tan jacket, high-necked black sweater, a delicate gold brooch and gold shell earrings. At 88, Comden speaks slowly yet deliberately and with a soft, almost shy laugh as she recalls the frantic birth pains of "Wonderful Town," which first opened on Broadway on Feb. 25, 1953.

The involvement of Comden, Green and Bernstein was born out of director George Abbott's desperation. The musical, based on Ruth McKinney's short stories for the New Yorker and the play "My Sister Eileen," tells the story of two sisters from Ohio who come to New York in 1935 to make it big. Rosalind Russell was set to star as Ruth and Edie Adams was hired to play her sister, Eileen. With rehearsals only five weeks away, the original composer and lyricist didn't work out and were paid off.

Director George Abbott put in a desperate call to Comden for help with a new score. She and Green raced to Bernstein's apartment to talk over the offer. During their discussions, the phone rang and the no-nonsense Abbott growled, "Well, is it 'yes' or is it 'no'?"

"Yes" it was, and five weeks later, Abbott had his new music and lyrics.

Writing that fast didn't faze the trio. "Lenny was an old friend by that time. We had done 'On the Town' with him some years before," Comden recalls.

"The three of them had this incredible mixture of goofiness and brilliance and total devotion to the craft and seriousness about the work," says Bernstein's son, Alexander. "They loved being with each other."

The revival cast is headed by Donna Murphy in Russell's role and Jennifer Westfeldt as the winsome Eileen. The production was born in May 2000 at City Center where a version starring Murphy was done at "Encores! Great American Musicals in Concert" to rave reviews.

On Broadway at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre, "Wonderful Town" will be directed by Kathleen Marshall and feature a 24-piece, on-stage orchestra, one of the largest on Broadway, so Bernstein's melodies will get their proper due.

Comden, for one, can't wait for the opening. "The cast is marvelous. There is so much talent on that stage. I just know it will be great."

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