EXCLUSIVE: Five days to go until the Tony Awards (Sunday, 8-11 PM, CBS) and it’s about time we heard from Phyllis Newman, who has been known by many names but these days calls herself the Wicked Widow Of Central Park West. “Being the keeper of the flame, you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t. No matter how you slice it, they don’t want you around.”
A favored and frequent visitor to Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show set, Broadway star, womens’ health activist and mother hen to countless Broadway chicks across several generations, Newman today is primarily engaged in the demands of being Adolph Green’s widow. Green, who died in 2002, and his writing partner Betty Comden, who died in 2006, were the most prolific and long-lived team in Broadway history. Not only did they write the book for Singin’ In The Rain and several of the most memorable songs in Peter Pan, but their collaborations with Leonard Bernstein, Jule Styne and Cy Coleman produced 17 original musicals between 1944 (On The Town) and 1991 (The Will Rogers Follies). “New York, New York”? Comden and Green. “Make Someone Happy”? Comden and Green. “Just In Time”? Comden and Green. “The Party’s Over”? Comden and Green. “Neverland”? That too.
It’s been a red banner year for the Comden and Green catalogue, which has put Newman, who has plenty of her own projects to occupy her time without all the mishegoss of being keeper of the flame, thank you very much, in a peculiar spot. With two C&G shows vying for Tony Awards on Sunday (including the big one, Best Revival of a Musical) and NBC’s live broadcast of Peter Pan back in December, her avocation as executor of her husband’s estate has been a joyful pain in the ass.
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“That’s why I now call myself the wicked widow of Central Park West,” she says. We were talking in the sitting room of her enviable nest overlooking the park from a luxuriant height. Yards of clear plastic tubing extended from the nosepiece she almost always wears, to an an oxygen tank somewhere out of view. When photographers ask to take her picture, they generally encourage her to lose the equipment. Lately she demurs. She is who she is.
“I never thought there would be three of Adolph’s shows done in one year,” she says. “This December was his 100th birthday and we all were trying to think of what we could do for him besides one of those all-star benefits or something like Jerome Robbins’ Broadway, which are hard to do. And then all of a sudden all of these things happened. On The Town was playing in Connecticut. Amanda [Green, Phyllis and Adolph’s daughter and the lyricist for the musicals High Fidelity and Hands On A Hardbody) went to see it and called and said, ‘Mom it’s really really good,’ it was reviewed in the Times and suddenly the producers are clamoring for it.
“Then Peter Pan, they called and said they’d done Sound Of Music last year and want to do Peter Pan. I made the decision, a very wise one, not to get involved at all. With Amanda writing the new songs and NBC couldn’t have been nicer, I just stayed out of it.”
On The Town, with music by Comden and Green pal Leonard Bernstein, has had the salutary effect of reminding people that before Liza Minnelli and Frank Sinatra made John Kander and Fred Ebb’s “New York, New York” part of the city’s oxygen content and water supply, a funnier, hipper song of the same title made its debut in 1944. OK, that’s my own obsession. The revival, lavishly executed under John Rando’s astute direction, is just about as alive as a musical can be.
And then a funny thing happened. Just a couple of marquees from the Lyric, where On The Town is running, the Roundabout Theatre Company mounted a revival of Comden and Green’s On The Twentieth Century, a 1978 show written with composer Cy Coleman, starring the sublime warbler Kristin Chenoweth and dashing Peter Gallagher.
“When it came to Twentieth Century, that was supposed to have been done three years ago or two years ago and they waited for Kristin,” Newman said. “The director, Scott Ellis, said it’s her part and she’s wanted to do it all her life and he was right, she’s just marvelous. But I got very involved in that. Because they always want to bring in an outside writer for all the revivals. I said, ‘What are they going to do?’ They said, ‘Nothing, just a few jokes here and there, pump it up a little.’ The jokes started coming in and I would say ‘No, why doesn’t he just say this, and get a huge laugh?’ So every few days I get the pages. This one hates me for this, that one hates me for that, and there’s no credit, there’s no nothing. It’s an odd position, it just is. And I never thought that this is what I’d be doing. And of course, it’s now sparked a lot of interest in their work.”
She won’t say which work, though I know that ever since a production of Singin’ In The Rain, staged by Twyla Tharp, flopped in 1985 (how do you make a flop of Singin’ In The Rain?), there’s been a persistent call for a re-do. I ask if there’s any chance that we’ll see a revival of Subways Are For Sleeping, the 1961 show in which she appeared in little more than a towel and for which she won a Tony Award, edging out one Barbra Streisand, who had not appeared in a towel. (The marriage ran for years; the show not so much.) “I don’t think they’ll go that far,” she averred about a re-do of that one, “and I won’t beg for my old role back.”
It’s not that she’s against touching up the Comden and Green oeuvre for a contemporary audience. But don’t talk to her about updating: “Most shows can use the good hand in cutting, but bringing it up to date is ridiculous, and when someone doesn’t have the ear for the time the language was being spoken, it sticks out like a sore thumb. Especially with Betty and Adolph’s cuckoo work in Twentieth Century and On The Town.” She says she has had happy collaborations with close friend David Ives, a playwright who worked on an Encores! presentation of Bells Are Ringing and is currently collaborating on a new show with Stephen Sondheim, also part of Newman’s intimate circle. She’s been privy to the new show as it develops.
“It’s thrilling,” is as far as she’ll go. “They’re really working, the stuff is coming out. It’s very exciting.” Well, of course it is.
So handicapping the Tony Awards? “They’re both wonderful productions and I’m very proud of them,” she says. “And I’ll tell you this: Adolph would have been going insane. He would have been running back and forth between the theaters every night. It’s a dream come true. And I’ve just become the widow. The widow with oxygen.”
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