Mary Rodgers (1931-2014): A Woman of Many Talents
After having toiled in the fields of Golden Books, television, and commercials (my wife can still sing you her Prince Spaghetti TV jingle), Mary Rodgers’s first breakthrough work was Once Upon a Mattress. By the time I worked with her, she had pretty much pushed Mary the composer to the back burner. But there were several of us who didn’t think the composer should retire completely.
Mary Rodgers, who was for many years my Rodgers boss at the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization, died on June 26. She was a woman of many talents, but for the purposes of NewMusicBox, let’s talk about Mary Rodgers, the composer.
Writing music tends to get listed after a lot of the other things she did in her life: daughter of a legendary composer father and fiercely competent mother; mother of five successful children (one of whom is a composer in his own right); wife to two distinctive husbands; writer of children’s books (including one of the best known titles of all time – Freaky Friday), board member (of many schools and institutions, including Juilliard, for which she served as chairman); family representative (for many years the Rodgers voice in the world of Rodgers & Hammerstein & Hart); philanthropist (generous donor to many causes); lecturer (from clubs to cruise ships); friend to many (perhaps most notably Stephen Sondheim, but also Leonard Bernstein and Hal Prince etc.). The list goes on and on.
But she was a composer. Imagine, if you will, what it must have taken, to decide to go into the family business when your father had lived through one wildly successful collaboration (with Lorenz Hart), and had created another even more successful partnership which had effectively turned American musical theater on its ear and into an art form (with Oscar Hammerstein II). Just to go to a piano in a house out of which flowed all that glorious—and wildly popular—music must have taken a combination of guts, confidence, and pride. Not to mention talent.
But to the piano she went. After having toiled in the fields of Golden Books, television, and commercials (my wife can still sing you Mary’s Prince Spaghetti TV jingle), her first breakthrough work was Once Upon a Mattress. She often told the story of playing one of the songs for her father, who questioned why she had written one of the passages the way she had. At that moment, she said, she realized he was asking because she was doing something different from what he would have done. She realized she had to be careful playing music for him; she had to keep doing things her own way. Gutsy.
I recently listened to the London cast album of Once Upon a Mattress in a car, by myself, from beginning to end, uninterrupted. Several things struck me. First, it has all the melody that the Broadway musical theater of 1959 demanded. Hummable tunes, perhaps, although I am not exactly sure what that phrase means. But second, it has harmonies that are surprising, and indicate the unique voice of the composer. Listen to “Yesterday I Loved You” and you’ll see what I mean. One harmonic bed is established in the verse, and yet when the lyrics shifts to the present—“…and today, I love you even more”—the harmony and rhythm change and surprise us. We are taken somewhere new. That’s quintessential Mary. (The third thing that struck me is that Marshall Barer’s lyrics are genius – too bad his talent never found as appropriate a piece again.) And then there is “Sensitivity”—a song entirely in 5/4 time. Of course the word “sensitivity” has five syllables, so it makes sense, but the music feels almost insensitive as it keeps shifting between a feel of two beats and three. The rhythm is set up so the emphasis is on the third syllable (e.g. “SensiTIVity, sensiTIVity”) and then it gets tweaked on the next line: “I’m just loaded with THAT” with the last word falling in a beautifully awkward place. It is perfect for the jabbering Queen who won’t shut up.
The next Mary Rodgers score I fell in love with was The Mad Show. I loved the roundness of “I’m Looking for Someone”; it has a melody that never stops flowing from one thought to the next as the character gets completely and totally internally lost. Even the two chords she uses for the Bob Dylan parody “Well It Ain’t” stand back and let the lyric take center stage: “You think it’s easy, singing about misery and how the world is up a creek – when you’re making over four thousand dollars a week!” The music is entirely appropriate to the task at hand.
Of course The Mad Show contains what has become her most well known song, one she wrote with her old friend Stephen Sondheim. The story—and again, it is a very Mary story—was that when she and Marshall Barer played their score for Bill Gaines, the publishing guru of MAD magazine, he rejected all of the songs, saying they had nothing to do with his magazine. (He later relented.) While Marshall melted down and disappeared, Mary got on the phone and called her friends to come and help. So she and Steve Sondheim wrote a gay parody of “The Girl from Ipanema,”a popular song of the day, with a series of unpronounceable names of places where “the boy” was from and would go. (Because Sondheim was helping his pal and didn’t want to continue being known primarily as a lyricist, he first called himself “Nom de Plume” and then “Esteban Rio Nido.”) Writing a gay song was a bit of a risk at the time; years later Sondheim said he wasn’t sure such an overtly (if brilliantly subtle) gay song would be acceptable. It was, and has become a staple of the cabaret world. There is even a clip of Peggy Lee singing it!
By the time I worked with Mary, and then for her when she succeeded her mother as the Rodgers representative at Rodgers & Hammerstein, she had pretty much pushed Mary the composer to the back burner. Two experiences probably helped do that: the Broadway failure of Hot Spot, a musical written for Judy Holliday which crashed and burned at the Majestic Theater, and a musical version of The Member of the Wedding which was a heartbreak. She was never granted the rights to the Carson McCullers novel, although she and Marshall Barer had completed their score, were proud of it, and had reason to believe the rights would be forthcoming. But they weren’t; somebody had lied to them, and later the rights were given to someone else, and a forgettable musical titled F. Jasmine Adams opened and closed quickly at the downtown Circle in the Square. Mary mentioned this from time to time—it hurt, and effectively put an end to her collaboration with Marshall.
But there were several of us who didn’t think the composer should retire completely. One of those was Jay Harnick, creator of Theatreworks USA. His company wrote original works for student audiences, and he hired the best of the musical theater writers, directors and performers to create shows for them. He wanted to do an adaptation of Mary’s Freaky Friday, and convinced Mary to write the score herself. She agreed, and worked with lyricist John Forster. One of their songs from the show—“At the Same Time”—was as good a song as she ever wrote. The premise: can you love somebody and hate somebody at the same time? Forster’s lyrics were Lorenz Hart-like in their wit, and the tune that Mary provided was sweet, interesting, and completely satisfying. (Years later Forster adapted the lyrics for the revue of Mary’s music titled Hey, Love.)
The Theatreworks USA Freaky Friday was a good experience. So good, in fact, that when the persuasive Lyn Austin convinced Mary to try one more time, she agreed, although a bit reluctantly. The work was an adaptation of Frank Stockton’s The Griffin and the Minor Canon, and Lyn wanted to perform it first up at the then Stockbridge home of her Music Theater Group. The creative team ended up being an unhappy one, and I think Mary regretted ever having gotten involved. Effectively, once that summer was over and the Berkshire production was finished, I don’t think she ever touched the piano again.
Another reason I think Mary moved away from composing was her admiration for her son Adam’s work. She saw in Adam the carrying on of the family tradition. She said that she felt like a gene conduit, and was happy to have passed on the family talent. She often characterized her own composing talent as “modest.” That would have been self-deprecating, had she not come from where she came from. She knew good and she knew O.K. In the world of musical theater, there are precious few Richard Rodgerses, Stephen Sondheims, and Adam Guettels. If she compared herself to them, as she did, and placed herself a notch below, I think we have to hand it to her. She was, after all, razor sharp about pretty much everything in life.
I knew Mary Rodgers for many, many years. She and her husband Hank Guettel were friends of my parents Betty and Schuyler Chapin. They socialized often, went on some holidays together, and conceived the best New Years’ parties ever—at the Guettels, where we rented a 16mm projector and watched a bunch of movies! (Yes, there was a time before instant gratification when movies weren’t actually available on your computers and iPhones. In fact, it wasn’t entirely legal to have 16mm prints of movies, but the Guettels had a friend…)
It was Mary’s idea for me to run the Rodgers & Hammerstein office, and she loved that the job worked out so well. I sat next to her in many a theater, and I can attest to the fact that she had uncanny musical instincts. Yes, she knew and understood her father’s music well; in fact, she knew it instinctively. She knew when the tempo was right and when it wasn’t. She would say “it’s too fast” as often as “it’s too slow.”
One time I will never forget was the first preview at the Royal National Theater in London of the Trevor Nunn/Susan Stroman production of Oklahoma! Everything about the evening was spectacular, from the young unknown Australian in the lead (named Hugh Jackman) to the modern take on Agnes de Mille’s choreographic profile that Susan Stroman created. Late in the evening, when the title song came, after the company sang, “…and the wind comes right behind the rain!” Mary leaned over to me and said, “It’s a D sharp; they are singing a D natural.” Of course she was right, and the musical director received the note with graciousness and gratitude.
She also understood the art of arrangement, and was intolerant of sloppy harmonic deviations and wrong-minded rhythmic changes. The first time she heard one of David Chase’s dance arrangements for the new Flower Drum Song in a rehearsal room, I sat there wondering what her reaction would be. David had based the arrangement on a Rodgers song but had taken it a pretty far distance from its home base. I liked it a lot, but had no idea what Mary was feeling. As soon as the rehearsal was over, she got up, walked over and threw her arms around David.
She knew when it was good.