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Lyricist Adolph Green's Influence Remains 100 Years After His Birth
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Lyricist Adolph Green's Influence Remains 100 Years After His Birth

Performing Arts

Lyricist Adolph Green's Influence Remains 100 Years After His Birth

Lyricist Adolph Green's Influence Remains 100 Years After His Birth
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Tuesday marks the 100th birthday of Adolph Green, the eccentric author and lyricist of "On the Town," "Peter Pan," and "Bells are Ringing."

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Today marks the centennial of the birth of one of the giants of Broadway and Hollywood, Adolph Green. With his writing partner of over 60 years, Betty Comden, he wrote the book and lyrics for Broadway hits such as "On The Town," "Bells Are Ringing" and "Peter Pan" as well as the screenplays for "Singing In The Rain" and "The Bandwagon." Green died in 2002, but his work is very much in the public eye right now. Jeff Lunden reports.

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: You may know this song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAKE SOMEONE HAPPY")

JIMMY DURANTE: It's so important to make someone happy. Make just one someone happy.

LUNDEN: You probably know this one.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE PARTY'S OVER")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Singing) The party's over. It's time to call it a day.

LUNDEN: And you certainly know this one.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NEW YORK, NEW YORK")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) New York, New York, a helluva town. The Bronx is up and the Battery's down.

PHYLLIS NEWMAN: He loved the life of New York. He loved every bit of it. He would have gone out every night and stayed out all night.

LUNDEN: That's Adolph Green's widow, Tony award-winning actress Phyllis Newman. She says her husband of over 40 years was, in her words, cuckoo - the kind of man who wore galoshes even when it wasn't raining.

NEWMAN: He came from another planet - the planet Adolph.

LUNDEN: He actually came from the Bronx, and it took him six years to graduate from high school.

NEWMAN: But he was a total expert on classical music, on movies - silent movies - on history, on geography. And then, when he'd be with his more macho people, he would then surprise them by knowing every prizefighter and who had won every fight. He was from another planet. And that's from whence came this incredible gift.

(SOUNDBITE OF REVUE, "A PARTY WITH BETTY COMDEN AND ADOLPH GREEN")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: The Reader's Digest.

LUNDEN: It was a gift that came by necessity. He wanted to be an actor, and in the early 1940s, he and Betty Comden and another aspiring actress, Judy Holliday, performed in a weekly revue in Greenwich Village. When they were told they would have to pay royalties, they came up with their own material.

(SOUNDBITE OF REVUE, "A PARTY WITH BETTY COMDEN AND ADOLPH GREEN")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Singing) Gone with the wind. Scarlett O'Hara is a spoiled pit. She wants everything that she can get. The one thing she can't get is Rhett.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN AND WOMAN: (Singing) The end.

LUNDEN: The shows attracted literati, as one well as one of Green's buddies from summer camp, a young composer and conductor by the name of Leonard Bernstein. With him, they wrote their first Broadway hit, "On The Town."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOME OTHER TIME")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Singing) Didn't get half my wishes. Never have seen you dry the dishes.

AMANDA GREEN: Never have I seen you dry the dishes. It's not like, I see moonbeams in your eyes.

LUNDEN: Adolf Green's daughter, Amanda, is a Broadway lyricist herself.

GREEN: It's just those details that people have when they're in love, but it's very specific and grounded in real day-to-day life and things that people experience. And I think that's why everybody relates to it so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOME OTHER TIME")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Singing) Oh well. We'll catch up some other time.

LUNDEN: "On The Town" features long ballet sequences with big orchestral music as well as silly vaudevillian comedy. And that's what Comden and Green are about, says John Rando, who's directed the show's current Broadway revival.

JOHN RANDO: This combination - this high-low is a hallmark of Comden and Green's work - that they can be so funny and yet be so elevated.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I CAN COOK TOO")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: (Singing) Some girls make magazine covers. Some girls keep house on a dime. Some girls make wonderful lovers, but what a lucky find I'm.

LUNDEN: For over 60 years, Betty Comden typed while she and Adolph hashed lyrics and dialogue, as she told me 2003, a year after Green passed away.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

BETTY COMDEN: ...Adolf used to come every day to meet with me. This went on for the rest of his life.

LUNDEN: They took their routine to Hollywood, where one of their assignments was to come up with a storyline for a set of pre-existing songs. They came up with a spoof of early Hollywood called "Singing In The Rain."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SINGING IN THE RAIN")

KATHLEEN FREEMAN: (As Phoebe Dinsmore) Now, let me hear you read your line.

JEAN HAGEN: (As Lina Lamont) And I can't stand him.

FREEMAN: (As Phoebe Dinsmore) And I can't stand him.

HAGEN: (As Lina Lamont) And I can't stand him.

FREEMAN: (As Phoebe Dinsmore) Can't.

HAGEN: (As Lina Lamont) Can't.

LUNDEN: Comden and Green's combination of high and low, which began with Leonard Bernstein, continued with composer Julie Stein, with whom they wrote such hits as "Bells Are Ringing" and "Peter Pan," as Amanda Green recalls.

GREEN: I grew up hearing my father sing Captain Hook's waltz. You know, if I heard it once, I heard it a hundred times.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOOK'S WALTZ")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Whose the swiniest swine in the world? Captain Hook. Captain Hook.

LUNDEN: Amanda Green says this season her father truly is back in New York. In addition to the upcoming live TV version of "Peter Pan" and the revival of "On The Town," a new production of Comden and Green's "On The Twentieth Century" opens early next year.

GREEN: I was at a rehearsal of "Peter Pan" and leaving it to go to the opening night of "On The Town," and I just thought, God, would he be happy to be here today. (Laughter) You know, what a great day for him.

LUNDEN: And, she adds, what a great birthday. For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'VE GOT IT ALL")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: My life is simply great. My silverware is gold. Through my Bel Air estate, champagne's a flowing river. Next to my Rolls-Royce, a Cadillac's a flavor. I'm in clover and my cup - it runneth over.

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