'Singin' in the Rain' Screenwriter, Lyricist Dies at 89
She and partner Adolph Green won multiple Tonys
Comden died Thursday of heart failure at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, her longtime attorney and executor Ronald Konecky told the Associated Press.
Comden and Green were best known for their work on Broadway, where they collaborated with composers Leonard Bernstein, Cy Coleman and most often with Jule Styne.
They amassed seven Tony Awards, starting in 1953 with the musical "Wonderful Town," a romantic comedy that starred Rosalind Russell and was based on the play "My Sister Eileen."
They also wrote the screenplays for such classic movie musicals as "Singin' in the Rain" in 1952 and "The Band Wagon" in 1953.
"Betty and Adolph could write lyrics that are so painfully real and that connect so naturally with [being] human," Broadway lyricist and composer Jerry Herman, a longtime friend, told The Times on Friday.
Their musical style ranged from "adorable" and "madcap" to "gorgeous," Herman said. "Betty and Adolph had an astonishing versatility."
"Make Someone Happy," from the Broadway musical "Do Re Mi" (1960) is "one of the greatest lyrics they ever wrote," said Herman, the composer and lyricist for "Hello, Dolly!" "More than anyone else, Comden and Green represent an era."
A number of their Broadway musicals, including "On the Town" (1944) and "Subways Are for Sleeping" (1961), captured "the spirit of New York at its best," said Miles Kreuger, president of the Institute of the American Musical in Beverly Hills.
"Comden and Green were the Bards of Manhattan," Kreuger said Friday. "They brought a level of wit and charm to their writing."
Comden's longtime friend, Phyllis Newman, the singer-actress and widow of Adolph Green, called Comden "a beautiful, talented, graceful, witty woman" in an interview with The Times on Friday.
"Betty always said she sat down and typed while Adolph walked around the room chewing gum," Newman recalled of Comden's answer to how the duo worked.
That answer played down Comden's talents.
"Both Betty and Adolph were extremely intelligent, witty, cultured and cultivated people," Newman said.
She was born Elizabeth Cohen in Brooklyn, New York. Her father Leo was a lawyer, her mother a schoolteacher.
She graduated from New York University, where she studied drama. In the late 1930s she met Green, another aspiring actor, and they quickly became constant companions.
"Most people assumed they were married," said Kreuger, who met the team in the 1950s. "They went everywhere together."
They were not romantic partners, however. Comden married businessman Steven Kyle in 1942. The couple had two children: Susanna and Alan. She is survived by her daughter.
In the late 1930s, Adolph Green's friend Judy Tuvin (later known as the Oscar-winning actress Judy Holliday) brought in Comden and Green to perform with her in a satiric nightclub act at the Village Vanguard in New York City.
The troupe wrote their own dialogue, music and lyrics and provided their own costumes and stage props. They were called the Revuers and they performed on a weekly radio show in the early 1940s, as well as at Radio City Music Hall in New York and the Trocadero Nightclub on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles.
In 1944, Bernstein approached Comden and Green about working with him on a bigger project. He wanted to extend a ballet titled "Fancy Free," with music by Bernstein and choreography by Jerome Robbins, into a Broadway musical.
The result was the smash hit "On the Town," about sailors on leave in Manhattan during World War II.
Along with the book and lyrics, Comden and Green created acting parts for themselves in the musical. She played Claire de Lune, an anthropologist who meets Ozzie (Green) at the Museum of Natural History.
"We had our credo," Comden said in a 2005 interview with the Sunday Telegraph of London. "Music and dance and book must be all of one piece and never stop telling the story, each number being part of the action." Nothing "cheap and crummy."
Comden and Green teamed with Bernstein again in 1953 for "Wonderful Town," based on the romantic comedy "My Sister Eileen." This time they won a Tony Award.
Some of Comden's biggest hits of the 1950s came out of Hollywood. Along with "Singin' in the Rain" starring Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds and "The Band Wagon" with Fred Astaire, she and Green wrote the screenplays for "It's Always Fair Weather" with Kelly (1955) as well as some of the lyrics for the films. They also wrote the screenplay for "Auntie Mame" starring Russell (1958).
In the 1950s, Comden and Green were called in to write additional music for the Broadway production of "Peter Pan" starring Mary Martin (1954). Their song "Never-Never-Land" from the show is one of their most haunting works.
Comden's stage credits from the 1950s also include the Broadway hit "Bells Are Ringing" (1956) with lyrics by her and Green and music by Styne.
Other successful collaborations with Comden, Green and Styne included "Do Re Mi," which opened on Broadway in 1960.
The lyricists worked with Styne again on "Hallelujah, Baby" which won them a Tony in 1968.
They collected yet another Tony for the Broadway show "Applause," starring Lauren Bacall. This time they were awarded for book (the show's scenario) of the year, in 1970. The show's lyrics were by Lee Adams.
Legendary composer Cy Coleman teamed with Comden and Green for "On the Twentieth Century," which won the lyricists a Tony in 1978. They also wrote lyrics to Coleman's music for "The Will Rogers Follies" (1991), with choreography by Tommy Tune. Another Tony award-winner, the show ran on Broadway for almost 1,000 performances.
A number of show tunes with lyrics by Comden and Green have been recorded far from Broadway by singers including Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett and Judy Garland, who helped make songs such as "The Party's Over," "Just in Time" and "Make Someone Happy" some of the most familiar to generations of fans.
One of Comden's most recent public appearances was at the memorial service for Green soon after his death in October 2002 at age 87.
The event at the Shubert Theater in New York City commemorated their 60-some years together and was widely reported on at the time.
"It's lonely up here," Comden said when it was her turn to say a few words. "It was always more fun with Adolph."