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Shy – Mary Rodgers Memoir

SHY: The Alarmingly Outspoken Memoirs of Mary Rodgers by Mary Rodgers and Jesse Green Is Alarming, But Alarming Can Be Riotously Sad and Fun

By: Ellis Nassour 

August 26, 2022Whoever accused Mary Rodgers of being shy, certainly didn’t know her. Her memoir, written with New York Times chief theater critic Jesse Green, SHY: The Alarmingly Outspoken Memoirs of Mary Rodgers (Farrar, Straus & Giroux; 467 pages; SRP $35 Hard; $20 Trade; mostly 69 B&W photos and illustrations; sadly, no Index; Loaded with interesting footnotes by Green] is one of the most noteworthy theater books to come along since Moss Hart’s Act One

SHY: The Alarmingly Outspoken Memoirs of Mary Rodgers by Mary Rodgers and Jesse Green Is Alarming, But Alarming Can Be Riotously Sad and Fun

By: Ellis Nassour 

August 26, 2022Whoever accused Mary Rodgers of being shy, certainly didn’t know her. Her memoir, written with New York Times chief theater critic Jesse Green, SHY: The Alarmingly Outspoken Memoirs of Mary Rodgers (Farrar, Straus & Giroux; 467 pages; SRP $35 Hard; $20 Trade; mostly 69 B&W photos and illustrations; sadly, no Index; Loaded with interesting footnotes by Green] is one of the most noteworthy theater books to come along since Moss Hart’s Act One

Green had been gathering tidbits from the wit, wisdom, and extreme honesty of the daunting and spirited Rodgers for five years when in 2014 she died at age 83. Green, whose critical essays in the Times are always on point and often quite entertaining, has not only polished the interviews, but also provides running commentary in the form of dozens of more-often-than-not detailed footnotes.

“What I wanted was her voice,” Green explains, saying he didn’t want to clog the narrative with descriptions of people, places, and shows.” The solution was footnotes. He wanted readers to have the experience of listening to Mary Rodgers as if “sitting in a room and listening to her. I didn’t want it to read like prose.”

Shy… is all the more personal because Rodgers takes you behind-the-scenes of her dysfunctional family and repeatedly jolts you with information you’d not otherwise be privy to. Mary Rodgers was famous, no infamous, for her knee-jerk transparency – which is one of the delights of the book.

Green stated that “just about any provocation from me, any slight little question, would result in torrents of shockingly honest answers,  the kind you never expect as a journalist … At one point, Mary handed me a dossier of material that included the kinds of things you would probably normally burn!” and, certainly, not one to mince words.  She approached everything with alarming outspokenness, which should have been an appreciated quality, but often wasn’t.  It’s a shame she didn’t live to hear the commotion this maybe tell-too much-all memoir reveals. 

Mary Rodgers had quite an interesting career [see BACKGROUND sidebar] as a composer of music for youth and the author of the coming-of-age classic, Freaky Friday.  But even with the success of her beloved musical Once upon a Mattress [which moved from Off Broadway to Broadway and became one of the most performed musicals at high schools and universities].

Mary’s life to all but a very few, was little known.  Especially the Mary with the self-deprecating humor and honesty she presents in this wildly no-hold-barred, uproariously, funny, and often deeply moving memoir. 

First daughter of Richard and Dorothy Rodgers [and mother of Tony Award winner Adam Guettel (Light in the Piazza, Floyd Collins)] states she was “a woman who tried everything.” And that didn’t just mean career-wise. She was also a person of conflictions and contradictions – 

In the realm of show business, Mary had a privileged life. Daddy was one of the most outstanding tunesmiths in theater history with blockbuster hits – sadly, he lacked that personality that Hammerstein exuded and which endeared him to so many. She was surrounded by the bold-faced names of the Who’s Who of the business: Oscar Hammerstein II, Leonard Bernstein, the enigmatic Arthur Laurents, Hal Prince, and, among so many others, Mary Martin [later, certainly, Julie Andrews and Lee Remick].

She approached romances, career, marriages, and motherhood with full-throttle enthusiasm – something that really couldn’t always be said for Daddy. Given Daddy’s enormous success, she should have had the happiest, most joyous childhoods. It wasn’t money she longed for, but her parents’ love. Re: her anger issues, due to the forced constraint of privilege and Daddy’s overwhelming talent.

She was stung by vicious rumors that her tunes were actually written by her father. It appears she can’t bring herself to forgive her father for teaching her everything she knew, but never able to give what she – and sister Linda, desired most: affection and attention and it was rarely there.

Notes Jesse Green: “Mary had an active, but frustrating career as a theatrical songwriter. She was quite talented, but was somewhat done in by being a talented person who was the daughter of the nearly universally acknowledged great composer of American musical theater.”  Shoes she could never fill, shoes she really didn’t try to fill, but shoes many thought she should have.

Then, there were Mommie issues by the carload. “Mother’s idea of a daughter,” she writes, “was a chambermaid crossed with a lapdog.” What sort of parent would tell their child she’s not a nice person – especially when mother dear had nice issues of her own? 

Rather than trustworthy parents, she had trustworthy friends, such as Steven Sondheim and the talented gay and bi-sexual men she was attracted to, including her first husband. At 13, she fell head-over-heels in love with Sondheim. It’s revealed they had a trial marriage, where they experimented by sleeping together. She was packed and was ready to elope until he made a startling [to her] confession. “We became almost equals, except in the brain department. But at that moment I thought I would never be as infatuated with anyone again – which turned out to be true.”

They remained lifelong devoted friends. Rodgers confesses, “We became almost equals, except in the brain department … but I would never be as infatuated with anyone again.” Their relationship provides one of the book’s most beautiful arcs — and might introduce to many a Sondheim not so widely known. When the composer was working on Company, his musical about a bachelor and his married friends, he quizzed Rodgers with questions about marriage. 

The book is also quite sad in her depictions of family life. “Daddy” quickly segued from fun, doting family man to a remote alcoholic and serial philanderer tormented by phobias. Strangely, it appears he didn’t like a lot of people and a lot of people didn’t care for him. Maybe some of that hinged on jealously as his partnership with Lorenz Hart and then Oscar Hammerstein II made him Broadway musical royalty – and zillions of dollars. His daughter quite sadly states that her father “counted his friends on no hands.” 

The book is in three parts, each with its share of tantalizing chapter titles, such as
I : Hostilities, Too Good to Be True, Is There Any Money in It?; II: Someone’s Getting Worse, Some of My Best Friends, Lenny: A Rhapsody; and III: The Rake’s Progress, Enemas for Elephants, I Disremeber Mama. These are but a few of the real/unreal standout moments in the privileged world of Mary Rodgers and her parents Richard and Dorothy Rodgers. 

Though her father was an atheist, she was raised Jewish.  However, in a move that stunned family, she converted to Catholicism, not for some great faith in its tenets but because she found it “so glamorous, so fun and crazy with (its) whole panoply of religiosity,” until she didn’t.  It was her solace at a time of deep depression, and liberating herself from disapproving parents to err on her own.

 “I was looking for a loving father – not Jesus, particularly, but in God. And God, as the Catholics presented him, with all his theatrical accoutrements, was the best showbiz father I could have.”  In reality, “it was a way to rebel, not so much against Jewishness as against our house-brand of Jew-flavored atheism.” 

In a 2001 interview Mary Rodgers did with New York Times critic Frank Rich: “There’s a home movie of Daddy with me when I was 10 months old or so out in Hollywood,” Rodgers said in a 2001 interview with New York Times’ Frank Rich. “There’s a really handsome, loving, funny guy lying in a pair of swimming trunks on the grass playing with this baby, with a kind of good-natured, silly joy that I had never seen in my life because I was too young to remember that. I looked at it and thought, God, where did that man go and why did I never see him? That charming-looking handsome kid turned into a wizened, sad, deer-in-the-headlights person.”

Part II, Chapter 44, I Disremember Mama is a particular heartbreaker. Rodgers notes how the passing parade of great theater composers became relegated to obsolescence “because they couldn’t find the new notes anymore, let alone the rhythms.”  She reveals how “Daddy” despaired he was losing his gift.

“At first, the fear was misplaced: a lot of his music for Do I Hear a Waltz? (was) perfectly beautiful … The rhythmic squareness, the dreaded um-chuck, was almost undetectable beneath the melodic honey.”  The decline, she notes, became more evident “hastened by poor choices of material and collaborations.”

For his last musical, “Daddy’s almost literal last gasp,” I Remember Mama, all gathered in Philadelphia in an attempt to save a ship that had already sunk. Mr. Rodgers at wit’s end on how to salvage something, requests that Mary come and help.

She observes: “It was not merely an obvious flop but the kind that seems to be having a nervous breakdown onstage.” With a star “who couldn’t sing a note [she corrects herself: “she could sing maybe five”], a revolving door of firings and hirings, dispirited cast, numerous rewrites, and with her father barely participating, not to mention ailing to the point that he was in the care of a nurse, she compared it to a death spiral. Her suggestions that might have helped were ignored by the producers.

But the show wasn’t all that was dying. The little left of her parents’ marriage was dismantling: “I held on to the idea that despite his indiscretions, and her disappointments, there remained, behind the wall of their absolute secrecy and solidarity” a marriage based on mutual respect existed. “How else could it have last forty nine years?”

She surmised her father was nearly dead, and that the screaming matches that went on between her parents meant there was no way it could last another year. It didn’t.

Background:

Richard Charles Rodgers
 (June 28, 1902 – December 30, 1979) composed 43 Broadway musicals and over 900 songs to become one of the most well-known American composers of the 20th century. He first partnered with Lorenz Hart and, later, with Oscar Hammerstein II.  He was the first EGOT.

His wife was Dorothy Belle Feiner (1909 – 1992), an author, decorator, and sometime inventor.

Composer and author Mary Rodgers (January 11, 1931 – June 26, 2014) wrote the novel Freaky Friday and the screenplay. She began her career at 16 writing children’s songs. An album, Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves, lyrics by Sammy Cahn featured Bing Crosby. She composed for TV. She’s best known for the musicals Once upon a Mattress, The Mad Show, and Hot Spot. She had the unfulfilled dream of doing a musical adaptation of Carson McCullers’ classic The Member of the Wedding.

She also contributed songs to Marlo Thomas’ children’s album and TV series Free to Be… You and Me [which is how I met her]. Her friendship with Leonard Bernstein, whom Steven Sondheim introduced her to, led to her being a writer and producer of the New York Philharmonic Young People’s Concerts. 

With her first husband, Julian Beaty Jr., an attorney, they had three children, with another three with her second husband. Henry Guettel, a former executive director of the Theater Development Fund, who died in 2013. Son Adam Guettel is a Tony-winning composer (TheLightinthePiazza, FloydCollins). 

It’s a bit forgotten today of Rodgers’ career behind the scenes in the arts. From 1994-2011, she was chair of Julliard’s board of trustees, leading the planning and active in the early years of the school’s $100-million Campaign. For years, she was vice president of the Rodgers Family Foundation.

Her sister Linda Rodgers [1935- 2015] was married to Oscar-winning film producer Daniel Melnick in 1955. After their1972 divorce, she married widower Eric Emory, a financial analyst and jazz drummer. She was a sometime songwriter [she and Mary wrote the revue Three to Make Music] and became an envied pianist. She later became a clinical social worker and served in Mount Sinai Hospital’s cardiothoracic department. The Melnick’s son, Peter, is a composer. 

Excerpt

Mary Rodgers: “Daddy is how we have to begin. The only way he knew to have fun with us was by playing ear-training games, challenging us to identify various intervals and, later, chords. He would strike two notes on the piano—say, a G and a B-flat—and my sister and I would race to come up with “minor third.” Or he’d try to trick us with ninths, thinking we might confuse them with seconds. It was all quite easy until we got to diminished fifths and augmented fourths, which on a piano look the same. I later learned that this was a routine exercise in elementary music theory classes, universally considered boring. But [younger sister] Linda and I liked it because Daddy seemed to like us when we answered correctly. And to like himself for having taught us so well. Neither of which likings we saw much evidence of otherwise …”

[Games of all manner were a rite of passage at the Rodgers homes,] “…Steve and I played a game the first time we met. This was at Highland Farm, Oscar Hammerstein’s home in Bucks County, in the summer of 1944. Steve was one of the semi-orphans and sad strays with rotten parents whom Ockie [Hammerstein] and his wife Dorothy were always quasi-adopting …

1957: Stephen Sondheim. “At that moment I thought I would never be as infatuated with anyone again.”

I guess I had come with my parents; maybe Daddy and Ockie were working on Carousel, which opened on Broadway the next spring. Anyway, there we were: a thirteen-year-old girl, fat and ungainly, as my father kept telling me, and a fourteen-year-old boy genius with a crazy narcissist divorcée of a mother who’d put him in military school—which he loved … 

I was dazzled by Steve, completely stunned. I knew right away he was brilliant; he just reeked of talent. Which, not illogically, was always the biggest turn-on …. He wasn’t obnoxious, but impatient, a bit snappish. Pleasant, but not boy-girl pleasant. I was just a body there. I don’t think he thought I was as bright as he was, and he was right. He knew I wasn’t up to his standards. But nobody was.”