Filichia Features: Remembering Adolph Green

Filichia Features: Remembering Adolph Green

Of course we all wish that Adolph Green were here to celebrate his 100th birthday on Dec. 2, 2014, but we’ll have to do it for him.

Green did live to be 87, until Oct. 23, 2002 -- a sad day for musical theater. Betty Comden, his now-and-forever writing partner, was still alive, so there was at least a theoretical chance that they might bring something new to Broadway for the 19th time. But it wasn’t to be.

“And yet, he never really officially retired,” says Phyllis Newman, his wife of 42 years.

“In those final years, I don’t know if he was actually working on something,” says his daughter Amanda Green. “But I know he was working on working on something. Till the day he died, he felt that he and Betty were still ‘The Kids’ who wanted to make good. Retirement would have been a prison to him.”

And how impressively long-lived was Green’s career with Comden? Exhibit A: they spanned the longest number of years in winning Best Musical Tony Awards. Their first came on March 29, 1953 for their lyrics for Wonderful Town. Thirty-eight years, two months and four days later on June 2, 1991, they won the same honor for The Will Rogers Follies.

Says Newman, “Last year around this time, I started thinking about Adolph’s centennial. I couldn’t let it go by without doing something so people would notice and remember. And then, all of a sudden, I didn’t have to do anything, because people were doing it all for me.”

She’s right. Green’s two “On” shows are part of the 2014-2015 Broadway season. On the Town, his 1944 breakthrough hit has been running since September and On the Twentieth Century, the 1978 musical that won him his fourth Tony, will join it on 42nd Street come February. In between these came THE BAND WAGON at Encores! (yes, rewritten, but with plenty of original lines and concepts intact) and Peter Pan, which aired on NBC this week, with three new lyrics to existing melodies by Jule Styne from two other projects. Amanda wrote the new words.

While Adolph isn’t around to hear them, Amanda does recall one of the first lyrics he did hear her write: “When I was a kid and the bathroom was backed up,” she says, adding a don’t-expect-an elegant-story look, “I wrote a parody of ‘Just in Time’ (a hit song from Bells Are Ringing).” She sings the lines that usually go “I was lost; the losing dice were tossed” as “I was crushed, ‘cause when the toilet flushed …”

Adds Amanda, “He loved when I was funny, but there was that time when I was very worried about his reaction to a song I’d written from the first show I ever wrote -- a gynecological exam set to music. ‘The V Song’ listed a lot of words for vagina. I took a walk with him and nervously performed it, and when I finished, I expected the worst, but he asked me if I included this word and that word.”

Yes, ever the pro. Amanda recalls when she began lyric writing he was supportive, but not to the point where he’d overlook flaws. “When he told me ‘That could be better,’ I knew he was right,” she says.

Daddy would be proud of her four nominations (one Tony and three Drama Desks split between Hands on a Hardbody and Bring It On! Both those shows didn’t run as long as they’d deserved to, but here too Amanda speaks of learning from her father’s sanguine attitude. “He’d say, ‘Oh, it’s a terrible business’ or ‘That show was a terrible time in my life,’ but he wouldn’t dwell on it.”

Of course, there wouldn’t be an Amanda Green at all had Phyllis Newman not gone to an audition to be a standby for Judy Holliday for Bells Are Ringing in 1956. “I almost didn’t show up,” she says. “I went to the stage door, then turned around and called my manager and said I didn’t want to do it. She told me to go back, and I did – and it changed my life.”

To say the least. Newman says she was immediately interested in Green. “I didn’t have a dressing room, so I sat on the stairs inside the Shubert and would read a book. When I found that Adolph was interested in great literature, I started reading Jane Austen. Yes, I was making a concerted effort to impress him.”

She obviously succeeded, for on Jan. 31, 1960 they were married.

Despite writing musicals that centered on sheer entertainment bliss, Green was quite the intellectual. Says Newman, “His knowledge and understanding was beyond someone who liked classical music. Conductors would actually come up to him and ask ‘How did von Karajan play that second movement?’ Lenny (Bernstein), Andre Previn -- many of them would consult Adolph and they’d go note-by-note.”

Says Amanda, “My father wasn’t just a fan, but a savant of classical music. He wouldn’t just listen to it; he’d perform it.” She begins mock-conducting, waving her arms with panache: “’La-dee-da-dee-da-dum.’ He’d sing every instrument, too.”

He sang quite a bit with Comden, too, with whom he played Broadway in both 1958 and 1977 in A Party with Betty Comden and Adolph Green. “They were together constantly,” says Newman. “Poor Adolph really had to juggle having one woman for a wife and another as a partner. Whenever I made a suggestion on a show they were writing or trying out that he thought was good, he’d say ‘Good – but now don’t tell Betty.’”

Green’s professional collaboration with a woman didn’t end with writing lyrics or penning books. “Adolph lobbied for women musicians, women conductors and women stagehands,” says Newman. Needless to say, this brought much pleasure to her, the impetus behind The Phyllis Newman Women’s Health Initiative.

His going to bat for women, however, wasn’t enough to automatically land Newman a role in his own 1961 musical Subways Are for Sleeping. “David Merrick (the producer) didn’t like me,” she recalls. “I had to audition five times before he gave the role to me. Five times! I like to joke that this was the first time an actress got the role by not sleeping with the author.”

Adds Newman, “He was a genuine character.” (“‘Eccentric’ is the word I’d use,” says Amanda.) “He almost seemed as if he came from another planet. He was incapable of saying ‘Hello; how are you?’ When he met people he would find a unique way of saying the same thing. But the best thing of all is that he treated absolutely everyone the same. No matter who you were or what you had or hadn’t accomplished, Adolph treated you the same.”

As time went on, Green suffered from macular degeneration. “He could only see out of each corner of his eye,” says Newman glumly. “He was so brave about it, though. It got to the point where even our dog didn’t want to walk with him. He’d hide when Adolph would call for him. But when they did go out and Adolph got a little lost, it was amazing how many people would come up to him because they recognized him and would walk him home.”

Amanda remembers when he grew especially feeble. “When he was in his eighties, he and Betty were asked to perform in Nashville at Ryman Auditorium. Everyone was in jeans, and there was Betty in her Bob Mackie gown and Adolph in his tuxedo. I actually saw him sleeping just before they were to go on and worried if he could possibly do the show. And then he got on stage and the lights went on and” – Amanda gets purposely loud here and sings in a razz-ma-tazz voice -- “‘I said good morning to the sun!’ and gave everyone quite a show. Five encores! They killed!”

There are so many memories, but to some of my questions, Newman must occasionally say “I don’t remember” or “I don’t know.” But her response is quite different once I ask, “Let’s pretend that Adolph goes to Morehead, North Dakota, where he’s virtually unknown. He sits at a restaurant counter, where next to him is a man who says, ‘Hi, I’m Charley. Who are you and what do you do?’ And after Adolph gives his name and says he’s a writer, Charley asks what he’s written. What would be the first thing that Adolph would say, the title of which he was proudest?”

Not only does Newman have a response, but she’s been politely waiting for me to finish because she’s had her answer ever since she gleaned where I was going. “Singin' In The Rain,” she says while giving a no-doubt-about-it look.

Amanda agrees. “He’d actually phone out for a Chinese food delivery and say, ‘I’m Adolph Green. I wrote Singin' In The Rain.’ And we’d say ‘You really don’t need to say that. Just order the food!’”

Adds Newman, “Late in his life, Adolph fell, so I called for an ambulance and also called my son-in-law, who’s a doctor. So we raced Adolph to the hospital where he went into surgery. Finally the doctor who didn’t know who he was came out and said, ‘Well, he’s doing all right and he will be fine’ before taking a breath and seeming like he didn’t want to break the bad news to us: ‘But he keeps insisting over and over again that he wrote Singin' In The Rain.’”

You may e-mail Peter at Check out his weekly column each Tuesday at and each Friday at His new book, Strippers, Showgirls, and Sharks – a Very Opinionated History of the Broadway Musicals That Did Not Win the Tony Award is now available at