Arriving at the memorial for writer, lyricist and performer Adolph Green at the Shubert Theater on Tuesday morning, December 3, 2002, you were treated to an usual sight: Hundreds huddling in 19 degree weather, battling winds with a Wind Chill Factor of 4, in a V.I.P. line that snaked down to and around 45th Street. It was probably the first time in theatrical history that stars and Who's Who stood in a line.

Among those paying tribute to Mr. Green, on what would have been his 88th birthday (he died October 23), were Kitty Carlisle Hart, Walter Cronkite, Marian Seldes, Kate Burton, Liz Smith, Christopher Durang, Michael Feinstein, Holland Taylor, George Plimpton, Rex Reed and Mary Testa. Hoping for seats in the two balconies were hundreds of average Joe theatergoers in another line barreling down 44th Street.

Onstage was Mr. Green's actress wife of 42 years, Phyllis Newman, singing "Lucky To Be Me" and recalling how she met Green "in this very spot" when she auditioned for Bells Are Ringing (she became Judy Holliday's understudy).

She said she had an instant attraction to Green but was "intimidated by his age and his success, his reputation as an intellectual and his mind-boggling eccentricity. But finally, he asked me out. I spent the night before memorizing titles and authors. He took me to Sardi's, 'the showman's paradise,' as he used to call it, and I was very, very nervous. When the waiter came, I said, 'I'll have a scotch on the rocks - with ice please.'"

Green still fell head over heels. Theirs was a joyous, never-a-dull-moment marriage which introduced the up-and-coming Newman to people she likely never dreamed she would be in the company of.

The commemoration of one of theater's national treasures (and, with his co-lyricist Betty Comden, a six-time Tony Award winner) had memorable moments galore and went on for over two hours (if all the performers who wanted to participate had, it would have run over three).

Kristin Chenoweth, looking amazingly tall, brought the house down pummeling a strutting Paul Trueblood as she sang "If," the showstopper Dolores Gray brought the house down with in Two On the Isle. It made you wish for an instant revival of that Green, Betty Comden and Jule Styne revue. Donna Murphy, who appeared as Ruth Sherwood in the Encores! presentation of Wonderful Town, repeated her showstopping rendition of "One Hundred Easy Ways To Lose A Man."

There was music from the Comden and Green shows and an abundance of laughter. Lauren Bacall, Harold Prince, Arthur Laurents, Peter Stone and Kevin Kline recalled Green's abundant eccentricities -- spontaneously breaking out in song, dance or poetry at the most unpredictable times, or going to the vet and forgetting to bring the dog. Prince noted he, himself, has only one eccentricity: great displeasure for anyone picking food from his plate -- which, he noted, never stopped Green. The fact that he tolerated it showed the extent of his affection for him.

The often icy Ms. Bacall melted for the occasion, telling hilarious and warm stories of Green's visit with she and her Bogie. A more recent incident confirmed Green enjoyed being the center of attention. Ms. Bacall remembered a dinner party at which she was sitting to the right of him. She turned to her right to converse with her partner, then "Adolph turned and snapped!" She regaled the audience with his comeback, "Just because I'm blind and deaf is no reason not to talk to me!"

Those taking part in the on-stage tributes were frequent Comden and Green composer Cy Coleman, composers Larry Grossman and Marc Shaiman (of "South Park" and Hairspray fame, who worked with Comden and Green on the music for a song for ("The Addams Family" movie), director Sidney Lumet and performers Sandy Duncan, Joel Grey, Judy Kaye and Faith Prince.

The most affecting moment was when the frail Betty Comden was brought onstage in a stunning designer outfit. She somehow managed to stand at the microphone on her own and recall wonderful times from her collaboration with Green. There was a twinkle in her eyes and, as she spoke, the years fell away.

In a 1990 Chicago Tribune article, Comden and Green were termed "unchallenged as the longest-running act on Broadway." Since the duo collaborated nearly every workday of their career, it was inevitable that people would think they were married.

In a personal aside, when I last interviewed Comden and Green in 2001, I noted that it's always nice to see Mr. Green "out and about with your wife." He quipped, "You're speaking of Phyllis, not Betty, right?" Yes, he was informed. "Good," he said. "Well, through the years, since Betty and I have been a team for so long, that's happened a lot. I spend literally every day with Betty, so I can understand people thinking we're married. If I ever hear anyone say anything, I clear it up quickly."

Green and Ms. Comden met majoring in drama at New York University and soon formed a revue act. Ms. Comden brought the house down at the memorial with a story about how much Green loved to perform. In a small club with hardly anyone in the audience, they bombed big-time. "Even when we left the stage," recalled Ms. Comden, "there was no applause. We were in the wings when, very faintly, Adolph heard two hands join together in a mild clap. He screamed, 'Applause! They want an encore!' and he was bounding back onstage and I was trying to pull him back."

She reported that Green was a man "whose knowledge of just about everything" never ceased to amaze her. He often said he was "artistically incomplete" without Ms. Comden, telling a reporter that, alone, they were nothing, but "together we're a household word, a legend, Romulus and Remus, Damon and Pythias, Loeb and Leopold, Miss Words and Mr. Words."

[Ms. Comden was married to businessman Steven Kyle from 1942 until his death in 1979. When Mr. Green married Ms. Newman, he was twice divorced.]

An unforgettable moment was Green's writer son Adam recalling spending his dad's last night with him reminiscing. It was the occasion that Mr. Green informed his son that one of the only disappointments in his life was that Adam had chosen not to become a performer. Quite ill at ease, hesitant and fumbling in the spotlight, Green metamorphosed, as a close family spokesperson put it, into his father as he marvelously broke into song and animated antics, rendering the first song Mr. Green remembered performed for him: "Captain Hook's Waltz." Immediately you knew that Adam's father's gripe was a legitimate one.

The memorial closed with two more showstoppers: Bernadette Peters' poignant rendition of "Some Other Time" and a sequence of clips of Green performing on film and in concert. The highlight was Green's portrayal of an American tourist in a France village trying to get directions to the airport. The rarely-seen film, Je veux rentrer a la maison ["I Want To Go Home"], is a 1989 comedy written by Jules Feiffer from controversial director Alain Resnais ("Hiroshima Mon Amour," "Last Year at Marienbad"). The clip had the cast speaking French and Green speaking English with both translated by Spanish subtitles.

At the last moment, Ms. Newman turned to recognize Green's presence and enjoyment of the goings on, and quipped, "The only thing Adolph would've hated is not being able to perform."


Key Subjects: 
Adolph Green, Betty Comden, Phyllis Newman
Ellis Nassour
Writer Bio: 
Ellis Nassour contributes entertainment features here and abroad. He is the author of "Rock Opera: the Creation of Jesus Christ Superstar" and "Honky Tonk Angel: The Intimate Story of Patsy Cline," and an associate editor and a contributing writer (film, music, theater) to Oxford University Press' American National Biography (1999).
SHOWS The Comden and Green musicals written with composers Leonard Bernstein, Morton Gould, Saul Chaplin, Jule Styne, Cy Coleman, and Larry Grossman are: On the Town (1944), Billion Dollar Baby (1945), Bonanza Bound (1947), Two On the Aisle (1951), Wonderful Town (1953), Peter Pan (1954), Bells Are Ringing (1956), Say, Darling (1958), A Party with Comden & Green (1958), Do Re Mi (1960), Subways Are for Sleeping (1961), Fade Out - Fade In (1964), Hallelujah, Baby! (1967), Applause (1970; book only), Lorelei (1974; additional lyrics), On the Twentieth Century (1978), The Madwoman of Central Park West (1979), A Doll's Life (1982), Singin' in the Rain (1985) and The Will Rogers Follies (1991). Their repertoire of theater standards includes "New York, New York," "Never Never Land, "Ohio," "Make Someone Happy," "It's Love," "Lonely Town," "Just In Time" and "The Party's Over." MOVIES Among their memorable screenplays were "Singin' in the Rain," "The Bandwagon" and "Auntie Mame."
December 2002
Genius, Eccentric, Lyricist and Dad: Adolph Green