Wednesday, July 12, 2023

Shy: The Life of Mary Rodgers

Carol Burnett and Joe Bova in the original Broadway production of Once Upon a Mattress (1959).

Mary Rodgers, the daughter of the legendary Broadway (and occasionally Hollywood) composer Richard Rodgers, wrote the music for the 1959 musical Once Upon a Mattress. Aside from The Mad Show, a downtown revue she contributed to that ran for a year, Mattress was her only hit show, but she worked on many other stage musicals that flopped (often out of town) as well as a handful of TV musicals. She also wrote the Freaky Friday children’s books, assisted Leonard Bernstein on the Young People’s Concerts on TV, chaired or served on the boards of many schools and other organizations, and raised five kids; a sixth died tragically in childhood. (One of them, Adam Guettel, is the composer-lyricist of The Light in the Piazza, which I join my Critics at Large colleague Joe Mader in calling the best musical written in the twenty-first century.) This life, which Oscar Wilde’s Lady Bracknell would have pronounced “crowded with incident,” is memorialized in Shy: The Alarmingly Outspoken Memoirs of Mary Rodgers  (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2022), which Rodgers co-wrote with the current New York Times theatre critic Jesse Green and on which he provided the finishing touches after she died, at the age of eighty-three, in 2014. (Green was then reviewing plays for New York Magazine.)

Shy – the many fans of Once Upon a Mattress (which has been televised three times and has enjoyed uninterrupted popularity among school drama programs and community theatres) will recognize the title of Princess Winnifred’s first number – is the damnedest autobiography. It’s roughly linear, but it takes a very loose approach to narrative, gliding over blocks of time and flying back and forth to link events from different periods. “I know you’re supposed to go in order,” she writes about fifty pages in (the book is a whirlwind 459 pages; I devoured it in just a few days), “but chronology is no fun. It doesn’t explain much, either. In real life it sometimes happens that effects come before causes – before causes are uncovered or understood, at least. And sometimes things string together across decades so tightly you’d think they had happened together.” The writing process was a series of reminiscences that were sometimes (increasingly, one gathers, as Rodgers moved toward death) arrived at through interviews. There are footnotes on almost every page, mostly IDs to situate the reader without interrupting the flow of a story; these are informal, sometimes selective and frequently cheeky. Here are a few of the early ones: “If you’ve read this far, you probably already know that Daddy was Richard Rodgers (1902-1979): composer, womanizer, alcoholic genius”; “Dorothy Feiner Rodgers (1909-1992): decorator, inventor, author, wife. Maybe not in that order”; “[I]f you don’t know who Stephen Sondheim (1930-2021) was, you’re probably not reading this.” The tone is as pied as the structure is ambling. Much of is very funny. It’s brutally honest and some of the revelations are startling, but it isn’t a tell-all glimpse into the dark underlayers of famous lives, and, significantly, it doesn’t settle any scores. It’s occasionally angry but never bitter or resentful. It’s not self-promoting; though Rodgers gives herself credit for her accomplishments, she is happy to foreground those of others, especially her father’s and those of her lifelong close friend Stephen Sondheim, whom she fell in love with at a young age and who was one of three gay men she either married (her first husband, Jerry Beaty) or considered marrying (the other was Marshall Barer, the lyricist of Once Upon a Mattress). Her common sense and downright wisdom come through on page after page, even as she owns up to her follies (like marrying or almost marrying three gay men).

Rodgers isn’t hesitant to identify the people among her acquaintances whose behavior was egregious; of Arthur Laurents, who wrote the books for West Side Story and Gypsy and worked with both her father and Sondheim on the 1965 musical Do I Hear a Waltz?, she quips, “Talent excuses almost anything but Arthur Laurents.” But though she grew up in a house with two emotionally remote parents, one an alcoholic philanderer and the other a fastidious snob, she gives them their due, reminding the reader several times that though they were terrible about small things, they were great about big ones, generously bankrolling her and her second (non-gay) husband, Hank Guettel when they needed it. One of the elements that constitute wisdom in her is her acute consciousness that most people are messy blends of good and bad impulses and their actions are often self-contradictory. Richard Rodgers (and his wife) were disdainful of homosexuals, yet his first great writing partner, Lorenz Hart, was gay; he referred to him as “that little faggot” but he continually came to his rescue – and Hart (adored by Mary, who knew him when she was a child) required constant rescuing.

And she’s discriminating. Unsurprisingly, she’s a big fan of her father’s music, but she’s no fool about The Sound of Music or the dull, glutinous work he did after his second writing partner, Oscar Hammerstein, known as Ockie, died in 1960. Though she doesn’t explicitly state it, we understand that she distinguishes between her father’s contributions to their collaborations and Hammerstein’s, and early in the book she makes a passing comment about the famous librettist that was a revelation to me. I’ve always assumed that Rodgers’s switch from the tart, cynical, resolutely unsentimental Hart to the sappy, sanctimonious Hammerstein suggested either that the composer grew stodgier by the early forties (Oklahoma!, which initiated their partnership, began its staggeringly successful Broadway run in 1943) or that he’d always been somewhat uncomfortable with Hart’s particular kind of wit and bravado. What has always puzzled me, though is how good Hammerstein was before he teamed up with Rodgers, especially when he worked with Jerome Kern in the twenties and thirties. Here’s what Mary Rodgers has to offer:

He’d lined up Ockie even before Larry bowed out, knowing a crisis was looming. The choice of Ockie wasn’t an accident, either: He’d decided that he wanted the drama to dictate the music rather than vice versa, which meant working with a lyricist who swung that way. Larry could only write lyrics to music that already existed; Ockie was bitextual but preferred to write the lyrics first and hand them over for setting.

She adds in a footnote: “That’s one reason why Rodgers’s songs with Hammerstein are so much less playful, and more dramatic, than his songs with Hart.  Or than Hammerstein’s songs with Kern, for that matter. Show Boat and the other Kern-Hammerstein shows were written music-first.”

She’s very canny, too, when she defends Carousel, the second show Rodgers and Hammerstein turned out, in 1945. I’m not fond of it myself; the only Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals that don’t drive me up the wall are South Pacific – a result of seeing Bartlett Sher’s brilliant revival at Lincoln Center in 2008 – and the 1945 movie State Fair. But she insists, “I find it terribly powerful when Louise says, about [her father] Billy [Bigelow], who has returned invisibly from death for one last chance to do good, ‘He hit me hard. I heard the sound of it, Mother, but it didn’t hurt.’” Here’s her footnote: “There’s a lot of misguided criticism of Carousel based on this line, as if it were a tract in support of domestic violence. It is about real things that happen to people, and the possibility of redemption. Does Sweeney Todd advocate cannibalism?” This comment seems to me to get to the heart of the contemporary nuttiness from critics and audiences alike about theatre that invites us into the dark sides of protagonists without telling us outright that we need to condemn them. She’s also underlining the importance of tone: there’s a difference between Billy’s actions to his wife Julie and his daughter and how we’re meant to view those actions. Carousel is a drippy musical, but what’s bad about it isn’t the fact that its main character doesn’t always behave like we wish he would.

Shy is a very entertaining read, especially for people who care about musicals. But it’s considerably more. I didn’t expect so unsettling an account of show business. We all know that a life lived in that world is perilous, an uphill battle, that most people don’t succeed at and almost no one who does achieves steady success.  We all know that the awful irony about theatre is that even though it’s an impossible, high-wire life, it particularly draws people, often fantastically gifted people, who are dangerously fragile. Even so, I wasn’t prepared for the number of suicides that pile up in the pages of this book.

Mostly, though, I didn’t expect that by the end of it I would have fallen in love with Mary Rodgers.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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