On this particularly rainy Monday, an image of Gene Kelly singin’ and dancin’ in the rain sure does come to mind. Lo and behold, an exciting discovery was made: the writers of the classic 1952 movie musical Singin’ in the Rain (and countless other Broadway shows and Hollywood musicals) got their big break at the Village Vanguard in Greenwich Village.
The legendary writing duo of Betty Comden and Adolph Green hailed from New York City (Comden from Brooklyn and Green from the Bronx). Comden had previously studied drama at NYU where the two first met. In 1938, Comden and Green, along with future film star Judy Holliday, formed a trio known as The Revuers that performed at the recently opened Village Vanguard.
In those early years of this still-operating mainstay, the Village Vanguard welcomed a variety of acts that included folk musicians, poets, actors, comedians, and jazz musicians. Founder Max Gordon would eventually limit the club’s performances to jazz beginning in the mid-1950s, but the assortment of talent that has come through its doors since its opening in 1935 is astounding.
The Revuers (spelled The Reviewers in some sources), who also included John Frank and Alvin Hammer, found great success at Gordon’s club. Without enough money to hire a writer for their act, Comden and Green wrote together for the first time in a partnership that would last for the next 60 years.
Though the Village Vanguard’s seating capacity in the basement of 178 Seventh Avenue South was small, The Revuers’ enormous talent did not go without notice. Adolph Green’s friend, a young Leonard Bernstein, was among those in attendance. According to The New York Times, “[Bernstein] hung around so much, playing the piano for the Revuers and so obviously enjoying himself, that the customers thought he was Gordon’s paid accompanist.”
From the Village Vanguard, Comden and Green would go on to collaborate with Bernstein, one of America’s greatest conductors/composers, in hit Broadway musicals such as On the Town (1944) and Wonderful Town (1953). (To read about another renowned composer who left his mark on the Village, read our past post on Aaron Copland.) Comden and Green’s Broadway success led to screenplays for Singin’ in the Rain and The Band Wagon (1953), considered two of the best movie musicals MGM ever produced.
The vast accomplishments of Comden and Green, the theater world’s longest-running creative partnership, include some of the best-loved stories in theater and film. So the next time you hear their tune of “New York, New York” or laugh along with Rosalind Russell’s performance in the 1958 movie Auntie Mame, just think that it all began at a famous little club in Greenwich Village.