Like a less significant middle child, composer, author and philanthropist Mary Rodgers is a mere footnote in the annals of the musical theater.
After all, she is probably best known for being the daughter of Richard Rodgers (Oklahoma!, Carousel, The Sound of Music and so many more) – a classic “hard act to follow” – and the mother of Adam Guettel (The Light in the Piazza, Floyd Collins). Still, her life and careers make for compelling reading in Shy, her conversational recollections, as coaxed into print by her co-author, Jesse Green, primary theater critic of The New York Times.
The book’s subtitle, The Alarmingly Outspoken Memoirs of Mary Rodgers, promises chatty dish and it delivers, along with hundreds of amusing and informative footnotes compiled by Green. The footnotes allow Green to keep the main text in Rodgers’ candid voice, while filling in the reportorial details as an aside.
Fans of Once Upon a Mattress, Rodgers’s primary contribution to the musical theater, will recognize this memoir’s title as the opening number sung by Princess Winnifred – a role famously originated by Carol Burnett, initially on Broadway and later on television. As the comedienne would belt out the number, making it clear that she was anything but shy, so is the description chosen ironically to sum up the perpetually outspoken Rodgers.
Hovering over her, throughout her life and this book, are Daddy and Mummy, Mary’s parents Richard and Dorothy. He is summed up succinctly as a “composer, womanizer, alcoholic, genius.” She is portrayed as icy and judgmental, not unlike the queen in Mattress, who haughtily disapproves of Winnifred. Don’t feel bad if you never recognized the autobiographical elements in the show. Rodgers concedes that she did not either until long after she wrote it.
Shy would likely never have been written, and certainly not by Green, if he had not been assigned a profile of Adam Guettel by The New York Times Magazine. So he arranged a background interview with Mary and her second husband, Hank – Adam’s parents – and found them to be a lot more outspoken and interesting than the subject of his feature article. Green struck up a friendship with Mary and, years later, she asked him to co-write her memoirs. That led to more than a hundred hours of interviews, which he then shaped into Shy following her passing in 2014.
Born in 1931, into a life of privilege and prep school, young Mary Rodgers wanted for nothing, except warmth and affection from her parents. She grew up at a time when female theater composers were all but unheard of, but she fell into the practice while attending the renowned Tamiment resort in the Pennsylvania Poconos, which developed revues and book musicals to be performed for the hotel’s guests each week.
There she met and began to collaborate with Marshall Barer, a wildly undisciplined lyricist who had the idea of adapting Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Princess and the Pea,” loaded with Borscht Belt humor. Its heroine, Princess Winnifred – “Fred” for short – evolved into an independent spirit in the Jane Austen mold if, as Rodgers put it, she got out of the house more to, say, the Catskills.
Subsequently fleshed out into a full-length show, under the tutelage of the aggravating but unerringly savvy George Abbott, Once Upon a Mattress made it to Broadway in 1959, running for 470 performances, and earning Rodgers a Tony Award nomination. Significantly, she competed with Daddy, for his Sound of Music. In a rarity, The Sound of Music tied for best musical with Fiorello!
In 1966 came The Mad Show, a revue inspired by the satirical magazine that was a cult hit off-Broadway in 1966. Rodgers wrote most of the score, collaborating with Stephen Sondheim on one standout number, a sly parody of the popular bossa nova tune, “The Boy from Ipanema,” that became a cabaret staple.
Rodgers had met Sondheim years earlier through her Daddy’s collaborator, Oscar Hammerstein II – “Ockie” to her – Sondheim’s surrogate father. Hearing his lyrics for West Side Story, she recognized him for the genius he was already. It was an admiration that grew into an affection and, ultimately, despite her two marriages, she described Sondheim as the love of her life. He, of course, was gay – as her first husband, Julian Beaty Jr., turned out to be. Still, in one of Shy’s most eye-opening revelations, she and Sondheim attempted what they called a “trial marriage.” Awkwardly, they slept together, though sleeping was all they did.
References to Sondheim continue throughout Shy, invariably with effusive admiration from her. When he began writing Company, a concept musical on the subject of marriage, he went to Rodgers to learn about the realities of the institution. Other noteworthy name-droppings in the book include her various romantic links to lyricist Sheldon Harnick and producer-director Harold Prince. The latter apparently came close to matrimony, but Mummy did not approve. Rodgers rarely has unkind words to say about anyone, but she frequently goes out of her way to heap vitriol on playwright Arthur Laurents, known for going out of his way to be nasty.
Besides the Mad Show number, she and Sondheim worked on a one-act version of “The Lady or the Tiger” – years before Bock and Harnick included it in The Apple Tree – but they shelved the project before it ever reached production. She had several other almosts – an attempt to set Carson McCullers’ The Member of the Wedding to music sounded particularly intriguing, but nothing came of it, largely because McCullers proved an insurmountable impediment. And she spent a frustrating year writing Hot Spot, a Peace Corps musical intended as a star vehicle for Judy Holliday. Alas, Holliday was fighting a losing battle with cancer and had to withdraw from the show, which died with her.
Rodgers was far more successful producing children than musicals. By the age of 37, she had given birth six times in 16 years, though one of her final three by Hank Guettel died as a lad from a freakish asthma attack. Summing up her theatrical career, she decided that the industry did not welcome her work. She abruptly stopped composing, but that was hardly the end of her creative life.
She took to writing children’s fiction, and hit it big with Freaky Friday, about a mother and her teenage daughter who switch bodies and have to live as one another. She was astonished when it became an international success — spawning two musical adaptations, three movie versions and innumerable Freaky festivals. The book, as well as its two sequels, occupied her time for the next 20 years.
Her third career, late in her life, was as a board member of various academic institutions like Juilliard, a role she took on with her usual candor. She describes herself as a “second-rate composer and children’s book author,” but it would be hard to read Shy and not conclude that she was so much more.
Green’s input to Shy is consciously invisible until he steps out of the shadows in an epilogue chapter in which he pays a very personal tribute to Rodgers. It is a marked break from his journalistic style and Shy is all the richer for it.
SHY: THE ALARMINGLY OUTSPOKEN MEMOIRS OF MARY RODGERS, by Mary Rodgers and Jesse Green, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 467 pages, $35.