Once upon a time, before Broadway musical tickets ran into the three digit range, I still couldn't afford to see them, not even when they hit the road at so-called attractively priced admissions, nor could I scrape enough together to buy the original soundtrack albums. True love WILL find a way, so I checked the soundtracks out of the public library, then memorized as many songs and lyrics from every era that I could get my hands on, so I could almost imagine what it would be like to sit in the front row center of a real live Broadway musical on opening night. The musicals of Adolph Green and Betty Comden were among my favorites, even one that was considered a financial failure, 1961's "Subways Are For Sleeping" with Tony winner Mrs. Green (Phyllis Newman), Orson Bean, Carol Lawrence and Sydney Chaplin. Maybe audiences were scared away by the thought of a musical comedy about urban homelessness in the prosperous Kennedy era, but how could anyone resist a song with the lyrics, "I just can't wait till I see you with clothes on"?
When I dream of New York, I don't go to sleep with visions of the Empire State Building or Tiffany's or Wall Street dancing in my head: I see the first exhilarating glimpse of that magical city shared by three sailors on leave in Comden and Green's "On The Town" and I hear the words, "I feel like I'm not out of bed," which I always recognize after the first two notes. Both the 1944 show and the 1949 movie reflect an era long before most of us were born, but once the story begins, it feels as fresh as the day it was written. The three sailors (originally played by John Battles, Adolph Green and Cris Alexander and later immortalized by Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra and Jules Munshin) are starving for the sort of experience that only New York can give them. In one man's lovestruck eyes, the current Miss Turnstiles (Sono Osato on stage, Vera-Ellen onscreen) represents the glamour and beauty of his new favorite city. A lady cabdriver falls for his pal (that would be Comden & Green in person, Frank Sinatra and Betty Garrett on film) and the third buddy (Jules Munshin inherited Cris Alexander's role) winds up with the likes of Ann Miller on celluloid and Nancy Walker in the flesh. In real life, would everyone be so lucky? In the New York that Comden and Green knew and loved, OF COURSE THEY WOULD BE! The one gal with a terrible cold and no luck at all is the cabdriver's roommate, Lucy Schmeeler, played by the future Gladys Kravits, Alice Pearce. She, too, was a necessary part of the Comden and Green tapestry, a girl who was so lonely and unloved in the great big city that the audience just had to fall in love with her.
After writing the lyrics and book for a splashy Leonard Bernstein musical, the careers of Comden and Green looked as if they would travel on an unbroken golden brick road. They didn't: their next two efforts were financial failures, so they made their way west to Hollywood to write movie musicals like "Singin' In The Rain". Their hearts and minds were in New York, though: 1953's "Wonderful Town," 1954's (AND 1979's) "Peter Pan," 1956's "Bells Are Ringing with Judy Holliday," 1960's "Do Re Mi," 1978's "On the 20th Century" and 1991's "The Will Rogers Follies" would give Broadway, television and film audiences enormous pleasure throughout the next half century. Over the last year, when California residents describe their experiences with contemporary New Yorkers, their recollections sound very much like something out of a song by Adolph Green and Betty Comden. Did the team invent an idealized New York to inspire New Yorkers to go and do likewise or did they capture a Never Never Land that was already there? In either event, as one of their songs says, "It's not on any chart, you must find it with your heart." We can't all live happily ever after, but we'll always have Comden & Green's New York.
© 2002 - Monica Sullivan - Air Date: 10/30/02
Comden & Green Tribute