Mary Rodgers had, as the daughter of Broadway musical icon Richard Rodgers, had a front-row seat for much of the inner workings of New York theater in the latter half of the 20th century. Now the story of her life and many stories of the Great White Way have been published in Shy, which is one of the best theatrical memoirs since Moss Hart’s Act One, which, of course, is the gold standard of theatrical memoirs. Where Hart may have played fast and loose with some of the facts to make for a great story, Rodgers, with co-author Jesse Green, is brutally honest with its facts and fact checking—which also make for a great story.
Shy has a conversational style that seems to bring the reader in the room with Rodgers. One feels that she is just chatting away, letting whatever comes out of her mouth go down unedited. [Not true: It was really edited and expertly so.] Rodgers comes off as a charming, highly intelligent and cultured Lucy Van Pelt, and 458 pages is hardly enough time to spend with her.
I never met Mary Rodgers and have only seen a few video clips of her, but in these pages her voice comes across loud and clear. She does not spare herself any more than anyone else. Probably because of that, you will likely finish this book wishing, like Holden Caulfield, that “the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it.” She is engaging, self-effacing and a great storyteller.
Rodgers was also in a unique position to drop names, and she drops them like pennies from heaven. For starters, there are Daddy and Ockie and Steve (to the rest of us: Rodgers and Hammerstein and Sondheim, respectively). Theater geeks, nerds and wonks will love the name-dropping. Others will enjoy the engaging prose and they will likely learn a lot about theater, its habitués and a few sons of habitués.
Rodgers was inside Broadway when the Broadway musical was at the center of the entertainment universe. And she seems to have had dealings with most if not all of its players—from Lorenz Hart in the 1930s up to Adam Guettel in the early 2000s.
Some scores are settled and a lot of secrets are revealed. The book has many surprises, even for the jaded chatterati: She reveals early on that Sondheim was the love of her life; they even had a “trial marriage,” which she details in very uncomfortable detail. Not much less discomforting is the story of her first marriage, which turned abusive. On a lighter note, Rodgers introduces the word gridge into the lexicon. (Don’t bother looking it up, but in context you’ll know what she means, and ever after you will look for an opportunity to drop it into a conversation.)
There are also some lesser lights who are treated lesser-ly such as Arthur (Laurents) and Marshall (Barer). Laurents, here, is seen as the source of all evil in the universe. Barer, a frequent collaborator of Mary’s, is described warts and all, and, for all his talent, there isn’t a lot of “and all.”
It has to be added that Shy‘s footnotes—and there are many—are must reading. They elaborate on, comment on and sometimes even undercut the text. Occasionally they form a conversation between Rodgers and Green. For many readers, the footnoted names will be familiar; for others, the footnotes are informative. Often they are entertaining and funny, captioning a line or phrase in the text like Ron Howard’s narration in Arrested Development. After about 40 pages, I found myself reading the footnotes first then scanning the page for the relevant asterisks and daggers and slings and daggers.
Rodgers’ first major success was with the musical Once Upon a Mattress, a satirical updating of the fairy tale “The Princess and the Pea,” with book and lyrics by Barer, that started as a one-act sketch at Tamiment, an adult summer camp in the Poconos. It was expanded for Broadway, and directed by George Abbott. Mattress remains one of the funniest musical comedies, and it still gets revived a lot. It was still making Rodgers six figures a year in royalties at her death in 2014.
Here, too, is another way that Shy diverges from Act One, which ended on a note of life-changing triumph—his Broadway breakthrough with Once in a Lifetime. Rodgers, however, had much more to tell. Rodgers and Green blow past that event early on in the book.
In 1972, she wrote Freaky Friday, a young adult novel in which a mother and daughter switch bodies for a day. It spawned a few sequels and a couple of movies. For another, younger, generation, the name Mary Rodgers and Freaky Friday are synonymous.
In between, she contributed to The Mad Show, a very successful satirical revue that featured, among others, the work of Barer and Sondheim, the latter under the pseudonym Esteban Rio Nido. The show ran for 21 months off-Broadway.
After all this, Rodgers became board chair at The Juilliard School. She had no trouble shifting gears and changing directions.
Shy does not shy away from Rodgers’ personal life. Hardly. All the hurts, arguments and emotional problems she had with family, friends and sworn enemies are laid bare.
When your father composed the music for some of the most iconic musicals in the 20th century, perhaps daddy issues are unavoidable. And when you go into that same father’s business, they are definitely unavoidable. Rodgers confronts them head on. If he was critical, Mary does not dismiss the hurt; but neither does she blame sexism. She says that he would be just as critical were she a man. She can be ruthlessly objective.
If Rodgers did have musical theater ambitions, she did not compete with her father, Sondheim or her son Adam Guettel, composer of such works as Floyd Collins and Light in the Piazza. She had a strong if hypercritical, view of her talent and its limitations.
It will be very easy to breeze through Shy: It scans very easily. But if you do, go back a look through it again. There is a lot to take in. I did miss having an index. Like any great work, Shy manages to leave you satisfied but yearning for more. A neat trick: Rodgers probably could have been a magician. After a life well-lived and well recorded, Mary Rodgers died in 2014, and Shy makes a great case that that was much too soon.
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