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Shy: The Alarmingly Outspoken Memoirs of Mary Rodgers
by Mary Rodgers and Jesse Green
Book Review by Rob Lester
Yes, life can sometimes be a challenge-filled royal pain, with a crucial need to prove yourself, when your mother seems to be a vain and icy queen and your father, Richard Rodgers, is Broadway royalty. While the fictional Princess Winnifred was briefly vexed, tested, restless, and made uncomfortable by a tiny pea under a pile of mattresses, Mary Rodgers was peeved by decades of irritants and woes that could cause her to lose sleep (or hope). But Shy: The Alarmingly Outspoken Memoirs of Mary Rodgers also lets us admire how she persisted. In her best moments she was deserving of the name given to the prince in Mattress: Dauntless.
Prince-wise, once upon a time (actually, a few times) in her real life, there was Hal Prince. Like many who populate the fascinating book, he came in and out of her life, such as when he co-produced a certain musical a year or so before the birth of her breakthrough musical hit, back when she was among the first to hear the West Side Story songs as they were written. ("Not that I liked everything; I had the bad taste not to appreciate arias like 'Maria' and 'One Hand, One Heart.'") In fact, that musical involved several people who memorably crossed her path. New York musical theatre can be a small world, and participants' worlds can be dramatic on stage and off. Let's pause to take the example of West Side Story's notable figures who figured prominently in her journey, before and after, quoting her observations about them:
1. Hal Prince–They'd met when he was 18 and she was 15. She knew he was ambitious: "Hal was born clutching a list of people he wanted to meet. (I was born clasping a list of people I wanted to get away from.)" He pursued dating her, then and later, but her parents disapproved, saying he would never amount to anything. When she got the gig as composer for a musicalization of A Member of the Wedding, she requested that he join the team as director and a producer, but the powers-that-be rejected him.
2. Bookwriter Arthur Laurents, a thorn in her side, who wasn't always on her side–"Sometimes I'm surprised, and ashamed, that I was associated with him as long as I was."
3. Original cast member Martin Charnin, who'd be Mary's lyricist for the TV musical Feathertop and the Broadway flop Hot Spot, let go from the latter as both writer and director (one of several). He'd later be relieved of similar duties in for the show with Richard Rodgers' final score, I Remember Mama–She recalls Charnin's attitude towards its star, Liv Ullman: He was "strangely partial to Ullman, even though she couldn't sing a note. Well, she could sing maybe five."
4. Set designer Oliver Smith, whose connections helped secure a new job for Mary's second husband, Hank Guettel–"Funny, handsome, and warm, Smith lived in Brooklyn Heights in a funny, handsome and warm yellow house." (Fun facts: Its basement was rented to Truman Capote and the rug had been part of the set of The Sound of Music.)
5. West Side Story's composer Leonard Bernstein, who hired Mary as scriptwriter for his televised Young People's Concerts–"Lenny's hugeness of spirit, however much collateral damage it caused, made you forgive almost everything else."
6. And, last but definitely not least, Bernstein's lyricist on the project, Stephen Sondheim, the close friend and occasional collaborator she considered the love of her life–"I was dazzled by Steve, completely stunned. I knew right away he was brilliant; he just reeked of talent."
Written over a period of several years with theatre reviewer-turned-friend Jesse Greene*, whose fact-filled footnotes inform and illuminate things on almost every page, the book does not always spin its sagas chronologically. It hopscotches through decades, memories grouped by subject matter or person in her spotlight. Thus, reading some pages can feel like coming along for a bumpy ride along Memory Lane, our tour guide going off on side roads and doubling back.
With either a chip on one of her shoulders or shrugging them, she articulately shares a survivor's litany of hurdles hopped, hopes dashed, and rejections–a lonely childhood being called fat and unlikable (by her parents), songwriting contracts and planned marriages cancelled, a first husband who turned out to be gay and physically abusive, one of her children dying at age three, relatives' and others' suicides, a huge financial loss, her second husband's death, and the health struggles of her last months. Along the way, we can be intrigued and sometimes shocked to hear things about family, friends, nannies, psychiatrists with probing questions and questionable advice, pet poodles, pet peeves, helpful strangers, unhelpful agents, clergymen, schoolmistresses, famous men's mistresses, and such drop-worthy show biz names as Jule Styne, Sheldon Harnick, Judy Holliday, George Abbott, Carol Burnett, Elaine Stritch, Mae West, Captain Kangaroo, Roy Rogers & Dale Evans, and Lassie. She wrote songs for the last four.
A major claim to fame, Once Upon a Mattress springs up often, its development detailed at interesting length. Also reappearing often is that show's lyricist, the quirky and volatile Marshall Barer, via many guises and surprises, including getting her paid work writing songs for children's records. Although she pooh-poohs much of her output for this market (music and/or lyrics), I beg to differ. I've sought out those platters over the years and been charmed by them as true hidden treasures (mostly out of print, under the radar nostalgia evoking a simpler, sweeter world). There's delight to be found in Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves 40 with Sammy Cahn's lyrics and Bing Crosby singing, plus a series of cute-as-can-be numbers about animals and games, bright-mood ditties issued on bright yellow records (from the Golden Records label). Younger Rodgers sister Linda, with whom Mary states she had "periodic cessations of hostilities," collaborated on two projects teaching kids about music: a record album about its genres and a touring concert program (also shown on TV) with Mary Martin.
Although Mary Rodgers Beaty Guettel had mixed feelings about what came to be called feminism, the tome is a time capsule of attitudes/expectations about women by her parents' generation and a slowly changing society. Although eager early on to be Mary the Married and Mary the Mom, she had her eyes on a rewarding career, too. Whether an encounter recounted made her resistant or resigned, the telling of it is almost always frank and funny by the acerbic lady who did not suffer fools gladly.
The roots of much of Mary's self-denigration and down periods can be attributed to those formative years with a family that put the "funk" in "dysfunction." ("Pretense, lies, hypocrisy: Put it in Latin and you've got a family crest.") Parents were emotionally distant, withholding, in a home where seldom was heard an encouraging word: ("And, really, I'm not by nature a whiner. But get me talking about my parents and that comes out.")
Inescapably, in the book and in life, Richard Rodgers' shadow and world loom large. While she can be tough on the famous father who was tough on her, not being "shy" about discussing his being a womanizer, depressive, heavy drinker, and cold fish, she remained in awe of his talent and oeuvre. We're reminded of familial overlaps, including how she'd first suggested to him that "The Light in the Piazza" would be a great story to musicalize. Much later, she recommended it to her son, Adam Guettel, who, as we know, took the cue and took home a Tony Award as his career took off. Another Tony historical note is that Once Upon a Mattress was nominated for the Best Musical award, competing against Richard Rodgers & Oscar Hammerstein's The Sound of Music. The latter was announced as the winner in a tie with Fiorello! produced by Hal Prince.
As seemingly unsparing and unforgiving as she can be in describing the unflattering sides of those she knew, she is often hardest on herself. She fesses up to regretted choices made impulsively, through ignorance or fueled by low self-esteem (including sexual liaisons, almost always naming names). Liars, letches and fools are not suffered gladly. Be prepared for hearing of some unpleasant aspects of theatre folks you admire. You can't unread those bits. Although she doesn't paint anyone as a full-time saint (certainly not herself), her six children, husband Henry Guettel, and Stephen Sondheim are pretty much spared shame and blame beyond mentions of some normal human foibles.
Musical theatre efforts didn't always bring success or projects seeing fruition. So, like the character in Sondheim's song "I'm Still Here," his longtime friend and would-be quasi-live-in partner was able to "career from career to career." So we also view her wearing many other hats and trying to make them fit: collaborating on an advice column with her mother, creating work aimed at children (records and, later, fiction–most famously Freaky Friday), being a board member for different institutions, and finally inheriting some say-so in the workings of the Rodgers & Hammerstein organization. She'd protectively check out productions, unlike uninterested sister Linda: "The only thing she'd attend the opening of was a royalty check."
I remember hearing a few of the anecdotes when I went to Mary Rodgers' public memorial, somewhat distracted by the two people sitting right in front of me: Julie Andrews and Stephen Sondheim. The book is like that event: richly emotional, raw, sometimes a hoot, often bittersweet, and definitely memorable.
Mary Rodgers' Outspoken Memoirs makes for outstanding reading.
There's no index to allow readers, researchers, or bookshop browsers who are considering purchase to locate where among the 48 chapters of the not-very-linear, long book the many, many topics and people are mentioned. That is not a plus. It would have also been beneficial to have an appendix with a full list, in year order, of all the projects and known song titles Mary Rodgers worked on and who the collaborators were (or almost were, from the never-produced musical that might have been helmed by Hal Prince to the other Prince project–the TV commercial for Prince Spaghetti). Mr. Green's additions to this edition are not mere footnotes; he checked facts and shaped stories after pumping, prodding, and fondly provoking the lady. Some footnotes are merely a few words to tersely identify names from decades past that non-theatre mavens wouldn't know or recall. But they can be entertaining, too, with witty asides and flashes of irony and 20/20 hindsight. And his own full, final pages about the lady's end and her impact on him are articulate, heartfelt, and somewhat heartbreaking.
Shy: The Alarmingly Outspoken Memoirs of Mary Rodgers