DREAMING UP a name for a musical revue featuring Betty Comden and Adolf Green singing some of the memorable lyrics they've composed, Doug Schwalbe of the Loeb hit on the happy idea of "A Party with Comden and Green." By an amusing coincidence Comden and Green had chosen this description of their performance back in 1959, when they first put together a retrospective of their songs and show tunes for their own staging. The "Party" of 1959 won an Obie award; the "Party" of last weekend was one of the best given in town this year. Comden and Green are inevitably, immensely, festive.
"Party" culled out of the lyricists' work songs from the deserving famous to those mysteriously vanished into the oubliette of public memory. For the most part, Comden and Green avoid songs made unsingably immortal by the particular stars for whom they were written, choosing instead those in which the thrust lies in the verbal wit, poetics, and/or drama. The variegated chain of musical excerpts didn't always Ring Bells for the audience, but if there wasn't applause at the first line, there infallibly was at the last; the interplay of words, the subtly expressive gesture, the sheer virtuosity of the singing, something, somewhere along the line, would spark the fireworks.
Betty and Adolf, as they call each other on and off stage, have worked together since 1938, when they began performing with Judy Holliday at a then-obscure club in New York called the Village Vanguard. "It was very haphazard," Comden reminisced backstage last weekend. "We all thought of the Vanguard as a stopgap. We kept on looking for work," Green came in, almost on cue--the two seem to collaborate even on their conversation: "Suddenly all the reviews, all the seven papers there were in the City, started saying great things. People began coming from all over." But, as the team stressed, analyzing the mechanics of their success, "You just can't write for what the audience will think...because you're not at the mercy of your audience. You're at the mercy of yourselves." The cutting edge of Comden and Green's satiric genius has always saved them from Readers Digest popularity.
Fortunately, unlike "the magazine that condenses"--as they mock in one song, they couldn't keep their story down to three lines. In 1944 they got their first big chance as lyricists, working with Leonard Bernstein on "On the Town." Since then, their words have spotlighted "Singin' in the Rain." "The Band Wagon," "Bells are Ringing," "Wonderful Town," "Hallelujah Baby," and "Applause."
"It's spontaneous combustion," Comden says of their composition. Green revealed a little more of the reworking that went into songs that play effortlessly now. "Sometimes you have a great tune. Lenny had this theme: da da dee, da da dum, -- Green picks the tune out on his chair--"and for a long time it was known in New York living rooms, very much to our embarrassment, as da da dee, da da dum. And then we found the phrase: 'Just in time'..."
THE TEAM'S anecdotes cover a vast sweep of theater history, but, relatively retired from the scene, they don't want to talk about details. The viewpoint of their retrospective is not the incisive one of the Vanguard days; the ups and downs of working with movie personalities are shown as fairly level. Occasionally the tensions of Hollywood or Broadway emerged onstage. "We knew this was going to be a big one," said Green introducing a number, "because our dear friend Lena Horne was going to sing it. Now we'd like to sing the song as it was sung on opening night by Dorothy."
The duo steers clear of political as well as personal problems in their patter: "Hallelujah Baby, about black-white relations in the U.S., never got an ending, somehow...we had to keep changing it as the front pages changed." Though Comden and Green are to be respected for not indulging in gossip or trying to play up themselves by playing off others, perhaps this matured, mellowed presentation makes their show too smooth, too digestible.
Well, that's successful entertainment. And this "Party" was a vastly entertaining performance. Comden and Green are careful to say they are writers, not performers, but they are almost as talented on the boards as on paper. Dramatics were perfectly designed, blocking and business minimal but maximally suggestive. Their voices, Comden's coloratura in particular, were the biggest surprise of all. Any entertainer able to transform the cavernous spaces of the Loeb mainstage into an intimate club has quite a noisemaker.
And the Loeb has rarely seemed so comfortable as this past weekend. If "Party" was bicentennially in honor of the American musical, it will do honor to its hosts as long as people hum "New York, New York."