A High-Wire Act of Words
Tony-winning duo Comden and Green receive Kennedy Center Honors
WASHINGTON — THEY are two witty people who have been lashed to each other for half a century by the silk ropes of show biz. And they've loved every minute of it. Almost.Together Betty Comden and Adolph Green have harvested five Tony Awards writing book and lyrics for shows ranging from "On the Town" to the current "The Will Rogers Follies" to the very appropriate "Applause." They had lots of applause the night they were honorees at the Kennedy Center Honors gala, which is to be televised Thursday on CBS. Just before the honors, they plunked themselves down on a flowered couch at the Ritz-Carlton and talked about their almost half-century high wire act of words. Comden and Green have been together longer than most marriages. They never work separately. "It's true," says Ms. Comden. "We meet every day," says Mr. Green. She says: "We still do. We keep a continuity going. If we're working on a project, certainly we meet every day, and sometimes a lot more.... We keep meeting and trying to think of what to do next.... A lot of time is spent in staring and feeling glum. We meet for hours, and then when we're really working, 24 hours a day. We started together so long ago when we were in a nightclub act, that it's like breathing." Interviewing these two writers at once is an extraordinary experience, like interviewing twins, or hearing separate parts of a two-part concerto, or a Bach fugue. They think alike, or at least in harmony, but they do not look alike. She is slender, dainty as a figurine, with fawn brown hair and eyes, and a subtle intensity. He is genial as a Santa Claus, with a turned-up mouth quick to smile, a ruddy, light tan, and silver-fox hair. A somewhat round guy who wears a blast of a scarlet silk tie, a shirt with a matching stripe, a tan jacket, and gray pants. She is wearing a red scarf and a black pantsuit. Are their personalities complementary, like red and green? "Like Comden and Green," she puns. They both laugh delightedly, like kids. "We have some things that overlap, and some things that are complementary. I don't know how to analyze it because at the end of the day I'm not sure who wrote what," she says. He: "And what we do is a combination of despair and enthusiasm. And luckily it seems to have come out as more happy...." She: "More on the side of enthusiasm...." Are there any little working wrinkles to watch out for? Does one of them crunch radishes at lunch, the other say "We're never going to get it done, it's not going to work?" He: "We say it all the time." He adds that they never eat lunch together. Comden says: "We're largely in despair a lot of the time. It is hard. This show ["The Will Rogers Follies"] took many years to put together. We weren't sure it would ever get on." He says: "Anything we worked on, including [the films] 'Singin' in the Rain' and 'The Band Wagon,' we thought we'd never get...." She: "It seemed insoluble...." He continues: done." She: "There were times when it seemed as though we would never solve it. I think all writers have that problem." They mutter and groan together briefly. Sometimes they answer a question simultaneously, in the same words. Sometimes one starts a sentence, and the other finishes it. Or they both take turns saying a word or two so it's like transcribing plaid voices. And because they are wordmeisters, it's occasionally like two thesauruses chatting. As Comden points out, "We've both had long and happy marriages." She has a daughter by her marriage to Steven Kyle, who died two years ago. Green says, "A wonderful man." Green has two children, Adam and Amanda, by his marriage to Phyllis Newman. They have sometimes used their families as buffers in their partnership, says Comden. COMDEN and Green are both born New Yorkers, who started in show biz together in an act called "The Revuers" at the Village Vanguard with Judy Holliday. Leonard Bernstein caught their act, wouldn't rest till he'd snared them to write the book and lyrics as well as perform in the antic show he and Jerome Robbins were doing in 1944, "On the Town." It was an instant hit. A string of stage and movie hits has snapped like firecrackers behind them, including movies such as: "The Band Wagon,On the Town," "Good News,The Barkleys of Broadway," and "Singin' in the Rain." And the Broadway successes: "Wonderful Town,Subways are for Sleeping," "Hallelujah, Baby!On the Twentieth Century," and this year's "The Will Rogers Follies." One of their most challenging jobs was to write the screenplay for what looked like "Singin' in the Deluge." They were inundated with a trunkful of songs from the silent-film period of the show. Green says their producer, Arthur Freed, had been a successful lyricist and Nacio Herb Brown had written "billions of successful songs" and our assignment was to write "Singin' in the Rain" using all these songs. We had the title, but we had no story. There was nothing." Comden: "We were handed a pile of sheet music, really. And the admonition, we always say, was that somewhere we knew there had to be a scene where it would be raining, and someone would be singing. But that's all we had to start with." Through all the years, their signature lyrics have always been sophisticated (whether funny or romantic) original, full of eclat. They wrote in "On the Town" of New York being an incredible town where "the Bronx is up and the Battery down/ The people ride in a hole in the ground." And five decades later, in "Follies," they had the sauce to rhyme politicians and morticians, Napa Valley and Schubert Alley. They took Will Rogers's most memorable line, "I Never Met a Man I Didn't Like," and turned it into a mellow song portrait. Their lyrics still sting softly. In "No Man Left for Me" candidate Rogers's wife sings: "All I do is sit and stare at a snapshot and an empty chair." When they're asked what is the secret of a good musical today, Comden and Green answer almost simultaneously. He says: "Something the audience will come to see." She says: "Something the audience wants to come to." And how in these days of hit shows about cats and rollerskates and lakes under the stage have they done it without some kind of gimmick? She says: "I still think material will win out if it's good and the audience is entertained or absorbed and in any way uplifted...." He rumbles, "and uplifted and left happy ... fulfilled." THE duo has one cardinal rule: "Don't try to remember who wrote what. Is that a good rule?" she asks. "That's a very, very good rule," he reassures her, adding: "And at the end of a rainbow is a black pit." Laughter. She: "Shows you our general outlook." I answer, "And yet people write and speak about how optimistic your work is...." He says: "Yes, right.And how upbeat and joyful," I remind them. She says: "Yes, it has a kind of belief in life, that's true." He says: "We're very glad that.... that qualit y has come through. It's a field [where] there's something to feel good about." She says: "Well I think whatever ups and downs, and downs, and downs we've had, it's so exciting that we could get this award while we're still functioning writers, and that we have a good show running now." He says: "Sure." Comden says: "I mean the fact that we have this continuity has to give us a certain faith in what can happen in the life ... and yet I guess we still feel potential, we want to do more." He says: "Right." She: "We always say we're going to make good some day." He adds: "And it's only half-kidding. We really want to make good in a big way." She: "And do better."