A successful female lyricist on Broadway is about as rare as a cheap ticket to Sunset Boulevard. There's Dorothy Fields, there's Carolyn Leigh—then there's Betty Comden, who began as a performer and who, with her longtime partner in rhyme Adolph Green, wrote the book and lyrics for such hit shows as On the Town, Wonderful Town and Bells Are Ringing and fashioned the screenplay and lyrics for Singin' in the Rain.
Fans of Broadway lore eager to know, for example, the genesis of songs like "Just In Time" and "Make Someone Happy" will have to look elsewhere. But for those who are curious about Comden's life apart from Green and the greasepaint, Off Stage delivers.
Affectionate and wry rather than witty, this autobiography chronicles Comden's growing up in Brooklyn, the younger of two children born to a strong-minded former school teacher and a gentle if less than prosperous lawyer. Saddled with what she viewed as an unmanageable name (Basya Cohen) and an impossible nose, the would-be actress changed both, biding her time by reading and going to the movies.
There are warm reminiscences of Comden's frequent collaborator Leonard Bernstein and friends like From Here to Eternity author James Jones, Lauren Bacall and Charlie Chaplin. She paints colleagues in the most flattering colors, but Comden is less generous with Comden, poking fun at the toll time has taken on her body and expatiating on her failings as a mother (the younger of her two children died five years ago of drug-contracted AIDS).
Off Stage sometimes rambles, and frankly it could use some of the sass Comden shows off in her lyrics. Nevertheless, it's an engaging portrait of a woman of the theater away from the theater. (Simon & Schuster, $23)