Reviewed by Steven LaVigne
If you’re involved in theater, you quickly learn that everyone seems to know everyone else. (And talks about them when they’re not around. We all do it, so don’t deny it!) The gossip can get pretty thick sometimes, too. Never has this been more obvious than in “Shy: The Alarmingly Outspoken Memoirs of Mary Rodgers,” co-written with Jesse Green. (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 480 pages, $35.00).
While she was born and raised in privilege, Rodgers had a difficult relationship with both of her parents, so the daughter of renowned composer Richard Rodgers, holds nothing back, exposing truths behind decades-old myth and heresy. Hostile toward her parents from an early age, she discusses her parents’ terrible parenting skills and even though she shared authorship with her mother, Dorothy, in a book about child-rearing, Rodgers relates that it was all really just for show. Dorothy Rodgers was not a good mother.
A mischievous child, Rodgers pulled all sorts of pranks when she was enrolled at the Brearley School, but following in her father’s footsteps, she majored in Music at Wellesley.
Lifelong Friendship with Sondheim
Like so many other theatrical icons of the era, the Rodgers family relocated to Bucks’ County, Pennsylvania, near Rodgers’ musical partner, Oscar Hammerstein and his wife, Dorothy. It was there that, as a teenager, Mary met her lifelong best friend, Stephen Sondheim. The talented young composer and lyricist was being mentored by Hammerstein and he befriended her when, like so many other artists’ children, she was searching for a way of making her mark in the world. At a summer camp in the late 1950s, she was encouraged by Sondheim, to write the score for a short musical version of “The Princess and the Pea” with lyricist Marshall Barer. The two were later asked to expand the material which would become Rodgers’ most often-performed work, “Once Upon a Mattress.” Years later, it was Rodgers who introduced Sondheim to the man who would change his life significantly, Harold Prince.
According to his daughter, in spite of the themes of tolerance that are so much a part of Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals, her father was actually a racist, sexist, homophobic womanizing alcoholic. You’d think, after he and his wife helped his first musical collaborator, lyricist Lorenz Hart dry out frequently, Rodgers wouldn’t touch alcohol, but that wasn’t the case. Over the years, she learned that her father would hide his vodka bottles in toilet tanks and elsewhere around the house. He was disgusted by Hart, a brilliant lyricist, whose alcoholism derived, at least in part, from his homosexuality. Sadly, shortly after “Oklahoma” changed musical theater forever, Rodgers and Hart collaborated on a successful revival of their musical “A Connecticut Yankee.” Hart died shortly after the revival opened.
Mary Rodgers states that following his beautiful score for “The King and I,” that due to his alcoholism, his music became overly sloppy and sentimental. While this can be argued when discussing “The Sound of Music,” the Encores’ recording of “Pipe Dream,” which was R & H’s only genuine flop, and the score for “Flower Drum Song” dispute her statement.
For one thing, she distrusted her father, because once, after she played one of her compositions for him, he dismissed it for being derivative. She never played any of her music for him again. He was also jealous of anyone whose work might be better than his. It had been a dream of Oscar Hammerstein’s that Rodgers and Sondheim work together.
She once played a composition for her father and he dismissed her work, so she never played anything again. RR was jealous of anyone whose work might be better than his, especially Sondheim. However, Rodgers was terribly rude to him when they collaborated on “Do I Hear a Waltz?” which was also a failure. Nevertheless, the score is sensational!
Among the musicals Mary Rodgers has contributed to are “The Mad Show,” where one of her songs, “The Boy From…” a satire on the Bossa Nova hit, “The Girl from Ipanema,” featured a lyric by Esteban Rio Nido (aka Stephen Sondheim). She wrote songs for “Free to Be…You and Me,” the musical revues “Hot Spot” and “Working,” and Bil Baird’s marionette adaptation of “Davy Jones’ Locker.” She is the author of the “Freaky Friday” series of novels, “The Rotten Book” and “A Billion for Boris.”
Mary Rodgers wed her first husband, lawyer Jerry Beaty, in 1951. They had three children. However, Beaty was gay, so they divorced in 1958. After working for years as a single mother (much to her parents’ chagrin). She and Henry Guettel were married for 52 years and among their three children is composer Adam Guettel, whose works include the Tony Award-winning musical, “The Light in the Piazza.” Henry Guettel died in 2013 and Mary Rodgers died a year later).
If there’s a flaw in this book, it’s that there’s no index for easy reference. However, besides editing, in Jesse Green’s extensive notes, he explains the trouble he had goading Rodgers into completing the book. His notes cover a lot of ground and they fill in many holes, explaining who many of the people are and how they contributed to the theater.
“Shy: The Alarmingly Outspoken Memoirs of Mary Rodgers” is an outstanding biography of a fascinating woman, and a must, especially for those intrigued by the history of musical theater!