Mary Rodgers shared thoughts about 70 years of knowing Sondheim
Interview by Michael Portantiere
"I thought I was 14 and Steve was 15; turns out I was 13 and he was 14," she says. "We checked out the dates. I was spending the weekend at the Hammersteins'. It was during the war, and I was supposed to go to a work camp, but they canceled it because there was a polio epidemic. I had no place to go, so my parents took me with them to the Hammersteins. And that's where I met their next-door neighbor, Steve, who was just the brightest person I'd ever met. I think the next time I saw him was the opening night of Carousel [in 1945], and we both agreed it was the best musical we'd ever seen. Then, a few years later, we were both apprentices at the Westport [Country] Playhouse, and we became good friends there."
Her initial impression of the young Sondheim was (obviously) borne out over the succeeding years, and Mary Rodgers went on to make her own mark in musical theatre, achieving her greatest success in 1959 with Once Upon a Mattress. She also authored several popular children's books, Freaky Friday among them, and she contributed songs to the groundbreaking children's album/book and subsequent television special Free to Be ... You and Me. Oh, and she further gifted our culture by giving birth to Adam Guettel (composer/lyricist of The Light in the Piazza, Floyd Collins, Saturn Returns /Myths and Hymns) in 1964.
But before all of that, there were the early years of hard work, youthful optimism and, sometimes, disappointment for Rodgers, Sondheim and their circle According to Frank Rich in an article titled "The Sondheim Puzzle" (New York magazine, Dec 1, 2013), "The only number in [Sondheim's] entire output that he claims as autobiographical is the relatively obscure 'Opening Doors' from Merrily [We Roll Along]in which fictional incarnations of the young Steve and his pals Hal Prince and Mary Rodgers are seen knocking on producers' doors looking for their first big Broadway break in the '50s."
When I ask Rodgers if she feels, or if Sondheim has ever stated, that the character Mary Flynn in Merrily is at all based on her beyond the depiction in that song, she says, "Oh, there's been discussion back and forth among people as to whether that was in his mind or not. It's certainly close enough. When you're a writer, you take people you know and use them as models for whatever dramatic purposes you need."
In an alternate universe in which Sondheim had chosen to work with a songwriting partner rather than crafting both music and lyrics for almost everything he wrote, he and Mary Rodgers might have been a great team. As it happened, their only well-known collaboration came in 1966, on the song "The Boy From" for the off-Broadway revue The Mad Show.
"Steve and I had already written some things together," she recounts. "But my usual collaborator, Marshall Barer, took a powder, as it were, and went to Florida in the middle of [our work on The Mad Show]. So Steve dove in and wrote that lyric, which is what makes the song." When I suggest to Rodgers that perhaps the song has outlived the popularity of "The Girl from Ipanema," the pop tune it spoofed, she chuckles and says: "Well, that's Sondheim for you."
Though she was not a collaborator on Company (1970), Rodgers helped Sondheim to create that first major work of his artistic maturity. The show was to be all about marriage, and Sondheim had never had the experience; so he asked his old friend Rodgers, who at that point had been married twice (Henry Guettel, who died in October 2013, was her second husband), to share her thoughts on the institution and its myriad emotional components. Looking back some 44 years, does Rodgers remember anything specific she said to Sondheim on the subject? "Well, it's all in the songs, especially 'Someone Is Waiting' and 'Being Alive.' Marriage has wonderful moments and terrible moments. I can't do better in explaining it than the lyrics can."
Sondheim has expressed a low opinion of Do I Hear a Waltz?the 1965 Broadway musical for which he wrote the lyrics to Richard Rodgers' music, thereby keeping a promise he had made to Hammerstein, who died in 1960. The show had a book by Arthur Laurents, based on his play The Time of The Cuckoo. Mary Rodgers has also commented negatively on the show and restates her feelings at my request: "Basically, it's what I named years ago as a 'Why' musical. [The Time of the Cuckoo] was a more-than-adequate little play, but there was no need to make it into a musical. I think Arthur was just looking for a project. It was an unpleasant experience for everybody, even though there is some very good stuff in it."
In 2009, New York magazine asked Rodgers to talk about the notoriously difficult Laurents, and she famously replied, "Call me back when he's dead." When Jason Zinoman of The New York Times picked up that cue and contacted her in May 2011, a week after Laurents's death, "the answer remained: no comment" But now, she is more open to expressing her feelings about the man who was once part of an extended group of friends that included her, Sondheim, Hal Prince, Leonard Bernstein, Sheldon Harnick and others.
"Arthur was not somebody who wore well," she says. "As he got older, he became bitter and jealous and difficult for everybody to get along with. I think he was bitter because he thought he should have been acclaimed as a talent equal to Steve and Lenny, but he simply wasn't." When I suggest that perhaps Laurents moved into directingincluding revivals of West Side Story and Gypsy , the masterpieces he and Sondheim respectively created with Bernstein and Jule Stynebecause he became less successful and productive as a writer in his later years, she says, "Most people didn't think of him as a director."
While Laurents's writing career waned, Sondheim's flourished, to say the least. Rodgers says it was evident to her from the beginning how brilliant Sondheim was, and she wasn't at all surprised when he came to be regarded as a master of his craft. But, she remarks, "It took longer than I thought it should have. I think a lot of musicians and theatre writers were surprised that the critics didn't acknowledge him sooner. But critics are not necessarily very perceptive." When asked if she and her son Adam Guettel have spent much time talking about Sondheim's work over the years, she answers quickly, "Sure, we discuss every show he writeslike everybody else. When a Sondheim show comes out, that's what you spend your time talking about if you're in the theatre."
In an onstage interview following the Transport Group's June 2013 benefit concert presentation of Once Upon a Mattress, Rodgers mentioned that she was not well and advised the audience, "Don't smoke." When I inquired about her health during our phone interview, she replied, "I have breathing problems and slight heart problems, so I'm pretty much at home, tethered to oxygen." For this reason, she wasn't able to attend any of the New York Philharmonic's March 2014 performances of Sweeney Todd, the Sondheim show she identifies as "probably my favorite." But she looks forward to the PBS telecast of the concert and remains "a huge, huge fan" of Stephen Sondheim.
Michael Portantiere has been a theatre journalist and photographer in New York City for more than 30 years. He has contributed to The Sondheim Review since 2009. This article was published in the magazine's Fall 2014 issue. ©The Sondheim Review, 2014. Reprinted with permission.
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