Songwriter Betty Comden

Legendary Broadway songwriter Betty Comden has died; she was 89. Comden collaborated with Adolph Green on some of the greatest stage and screen musicals such as "Singin' in the Rain." The pair, who won seven Tony Awards together, worked on the 1944 Broadway musical On the Town, which included the song "New York, New York."

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Betty Comden died of heart failure on Thursday at the age of 89. She was half of the legendary Broadway and Hollywood writing team, Comden and Green - Adolph Green, who died in 2002. Together they wrote the script and lyrics for "On the Town," "Peter Pan," "Bells are Ringing," as well as screenplays for the classic film musicals "Singing in the Rain" and "The Bandwagon." Our Jeff London has this appreciation.

(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. The people ride in a hole in the ground. New York, New York, it's a helluva town.

JEFF LONDON: If there was ever a pair of writers who lived, spoke and believed New York, it was Betty Comden and Adolph Green. They were both born in New York City, both attended New York University, and many of their shows and movies were set in the city. Their personalities were complimentary, he the fast-talking mercurial New Yorker; she the elegant Manhattan sophisticate, even though she grew up in Brooklyn. And while they were never romantically involved - both had long happy marriages to other people - Betty Comden told NPR in 2003 that she and Adolph Green had a set routine over the course of their more than 60-year collaboration.

Ms. BETTY COMDEN (Songwriter): Adolph used to come every day to meet with me. This went on for the rest of his life.

LONDON: Whether they got together to write or just to gossip, these daily sessions began in the early 1940s when Comden and Green, along with a very young Judy Holliday, were hired at five dollars a week to write and perform satirical songs and sketches at a club in Greenwich Village.

(Soundbite of show)

Mr. ADOLPH GREEN (Songwriter): (Singing) Don't sweat for weeks and weeks over just one book. The Reader's Digest gives it to you in one look.

Ms. COMDEN: (Singing) Gone with the Wind, Scarlet O'Hara's a spoiled pet, she wants everything that she can get. The one thing she can't is Rhett.

Mr. GREEN: (Singing) The end.

LONDON: Their weekly show attracted a who's who of theater people and the literati, as well as a young up and coming composer named Leonard Bernstein, whom Adolph Green had met at summer camp.

Ms. COMDEN: Adolph brought Lenny down one night to watch us and then he came again and again and again. And he knew our material better than we did.

LONDON: Bernstein asked Comden and Green to work with him on a musical based on "Fancy Free," his ballet with choreographer Jerome Robbins about three sailors on 24-hour leave in New York. That show, "On the Town," opened in 1944 and became Comden and Green's first Broadway hit. They even wrote parts in it for themselves. Green played a sailor named Ozzie, and Comden an anthropologist named Claire de Loon.

(Soundbite of "On the Town")

Ms. COMDEN: (As Claire de Loon) (Singing) I try hard to stay controlled, but I get carried away. Try to act aloof and cold, but I get carried away.

Mr. GREEN: (As Ozzie) (Singing) Carried away.

Ms. COMDEN: (As Claire de Loon) (Singing) But carried away, carried away. I get carried away.

LONDON: Comden and Green were carried away by Leonard Bernstein. They became lifelong friends and collaborated again on "Wonderful Town" in 1953. Another favorite Comden and Green collaborator was composer Jule Styne, with whom they wrote "Bells are Ringing" and "Peter Pan," among many other shows.

(Soundbite of song "Never Never Land")

Unidentified Woman #1: (Singing) I have a place where dreams are born and time is never planned. It's not on any chart. You must find it with your heart, Never Never Land.

LONDON: Singer Michael Feinstein says the three writers adored each other, but when they first teamed up, Jule Styne felt he had something to teach them.

Mr. MICHAEL FEINSTEIN (Singer): He says that he frankly said to both of them, you kids are good but you don't know how to write a hit, and I'm going to teach you how to write a hit. Well, that sounds like bravado and it was, but Jule was absolutely right. When they wrote "Bells are Ringing," they produced hits.

(Soundbite of song "Just in Time")

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Just in time. I found you just in time. Before you came my time was running low.

LONDON: In addition to writing hit songs and hit shows, Comden and Green spent some time in Hollywood. They wrote screenplays for several MGM musicals, from "Good News" to "The Bandwagon" to "Singing in the Rain," which the American Film Institute named the greatest movie musical of all time. In that movie, Comden and Green mined comic gold out of the transition from silent film to talkies in Hollywood.

(Soundbite of movie "Singing in the Rain")

Unidentified Woman #2 (Actress): (As character) No, no Miss Lamont, round tones, round tones. Now let me hear you read your line.

Unidentified Woman #3 (Actress): (As character) And I can't stand him.

Unidentified Woman #2: And I can't stand him.

Unidentified Woman #3: And I can't stand him.

Unidentified Woman #2: Can't.

Unidentified Woman #3: Can't.

Unidentified Woman #2: Can't.

Unidentified Woman #3: Can't.

LONDON: Even as Comden and Green had a thriving career on both coasts, they still couldn't resist the urge to perform. Beginning in the 1950s, they presented a stage show called "A Party with Comden and Green," which they trotted out from time to time, telling stories and singing their songs.

(Soundbite of "A Party with Comden and Green")

Ms. COMDEN: Writing is what we do mainly and we've been writing together for many, many years. And we only perform occasionally to earn a living.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. COMDEN: Actually, the only chance we get to do our own material is when we do it at a party.

(Soundbite of applause)

Ms. COMDEN: (Singing) Make someone happy. Make just one someone happy. Make just one heart the heart you sing to.

LONDON: Comden and Green made generations of theater and moviegoers happy with their work. In their later years, they had some big hits with composer Cy Coleman, like "The Will Rogers Follies," which won the team its fifth Tony Award for Best Musical. And just three seasons ago, a revival of "Wonderful Town" opened to critical acclaim on Broadway. For NPR News, I'm Jeff London in New York.

(Soundbite of "A Party with Comden and Green")

Ms. COMDEN: (Singing) ...sing to.

Mr. GREEN: (Singing) One smile that cheers you. One face that lights when it nears you. One man you're everything to.

Ms. COMDEN: (Singing) Fame, if you win it, comes and goes in a minute. Where's the real stuff in life to cling to?

Mr. GREEN: (Singing) Love is the answer. Someone to love is the answer.

Ms. COMDEN: (Singing) Once you hold him, fill your world around him.

Mr. GREEN: (Singing) Make someone happy. Make just one someone happy and you will be happy too.

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