SHY: The alarmingly outspoken memoir of Mary Rodgers, by Mary Rodgers and Jesse Green
Let’s start with a full reveal: I’m a sucker for Broadway – one of those theater fans who’ll see five different productions of the same show, who kneels before releasing 50s albums, who inhales theater gossip as if c was really important. I also love books on Broadway, books as different from each other as “Act One” by Moss Hart. “The Season” by William Goldman and “The Secret Life of the American Musical” by Jack Viertel. But I’ve never read a more entertaining (and revealing) one than Mary Rodgers’ “Shy.” His voice oscillates between intimate, sardonic, confessional, comic. The book is pure fun – except when it’s jaw-droppingly shocking.
Written in collaboration with The New York Times Theater critic Jesse Green, who completed it after Rodgers’ death at 83 in 2014, “Shy” tells the life story of a songwriter-screenwriter-TV producer-children’s book author to success. And also the mother of six, wife of two, occasional adulterer, gullible participant in a serious trial marriage to Stephen Sondheim (!) – and daughter of two of the liveliest (if scary) parents that I have never met.
“Dad” is the first word in the book, and it prompts the first of many illuminating footnotes from Green, which fill the pages of “Shy” like butter on a steak. This captures Richard Rodgers in four words: “composer, womanizer, alcoholic, genius”. The songwriter part we all know, and if your tastes go along the lines of “Oklahoma!”,” “South Pacific,” “Carousel”, and many others, genius too. As for the other two elements, the feminization was unstoppable, crossing chorus girls, Eva Gabor, apparently Diahann Carroll and certainly the original Tuptim in “The King and I” – according to Mary, “the whitest Burmese slave princess in all the time”. The drinking was also prodigious. Dick (as he was called and will be known here for keeping the various Rodgers straight) hid vodka bottles in toilet tanks – a clever ploy for an aging man whose bladder probably wasn’t as sturdy as it was had been before. Lunches were lubricated with a 50-50 concoction of Dubonnet and gin. Evenings heralded a continuous parade of Scotch-and-sodas. A depressive who spent three months in a psychiatric hospital, he was also at a distance and inscrutable, with a capacity for cruelty. Mary writes, “He hated wasting his time on intangible things like emotions.”
Compared to Dorothy Rodgers, however, Dick (whom Mary eventually forgives and understands) might have been one of the Care Bears. But “Mummy” (given Dorothy’s parched stiffness, it’s a word that can be read as both a noun and a noun) was extremely self-centered and brutally critical. Mary had so many things to work with you that you understand why a chapter is called “I dismember mom”. She was a Demerol addict, a melodramatic hypochondriac, a neat freak (and, incidentally, the inventor of the Johnny Mop). “Mum’s idea of a girl,” writes Mary, “was a maid crossed with a little dog; Chez papa, Clara Schumann as a chorister. In 1964 Dorothy published “My Favorite Things”, an upmarket housewife’s guide that instructed readers, as Green summarizes, “how to decorate their apartments and serve aspic.” Conveniently, he adds, “her marriage was just as cold and gelatinous.”
Dick and Dorothy are at least implicitly present throughout “Shy”, and Mary’s takes on them are alternately gruesome and hilarious (she loved Dick’s earlier work, but “later on, with all those goddamn praying larks and uplifting hymns for contralto ladies, I sometimes hated what it was”). But it’s the showbiz world they all lived in that elevates the book into the pantheon of Broadway storytelling.
When preparing to review a book, I highlight particularly strong elements and scribble relevant page numbers on the endpapers. For the first 17 pages of “Shy,” my list has 13 entries – and now, looking back, I see there’s some pretty delicious stuff on 4, 7, 15, and 16, too. And even though my pencil was pretty inactive in the chapters about his two marriages (the second happy, the first worrying not), I never got bogged down. How could I resist such a frank, high-pitched voice? You’re not even 10 pages into the book when she introduces the man who wrote the books for both “West Side Story” and “Gypsy” and directed “La Cage aux Folles” as “Arthur Laurents, le petit con”. (Later in the book, she elaborates: “Talent excuses almost everything except Arthur Laurents.”)
On Hal Prince, with whom she had an early affair: “Hal was born holding a list of people he wanted to meet.” Leonard Bernstein, with whom she collaborated on his Concerts for Young People for more than a decade: “It was hard not to pay attention to Lenny, who always made it that way by always being fascinating. ” Barbra Streisand, 21, whom Mary meets for the first time backstage at a cabaret: “this lanky woman swallowing a peach, her hair still braided like a challah”. Incredibly, Bob Keeshan, aka Captain Kangaroo, who she wrote lyrics for in her early days: “a big guy in a bowl haircut who was named after a marsupial and looked like a little pedophile.” And Woody Allen, 22, whom she overlapped with at a summer theater: he was ‘already the inventive weirdo he would become famous a decade later’, spending much of the summer on the porch practicing his clarinet or indoors (with his first wife, Harlene) “practicing sex, perhaps from a textbook. He did better, it seems, with the clarinet.
Mary has choice things to say about Bing Crosby, Truman Capote, Judy Holliday, Elaine Stritch, George Abbott (everyone who worked in theater in the 20th century has stories of George Abbott, but none are as chilling as that of Mary). Even Roy Rogers and Dale Evans appear in this book. (She wrote songs for them, as she did for “Lassie” and “Rin Tin Tin” — the shows, she points out, not the dogs.) Similar work for the Bil Baird Marionettes got her allowed to learn to write for “some”. wooden humans.
But leaning into the cast of thousands of interesting people who populated his world and this book, the central figure in his life, aside from his parents, was Sondheim. They met when they were barely teenagers; Mary was immediately and permanently struck. They remained close for seven decades, relishing and relying on each other to such a degree that quasi-marriage almost seemed logical. The idea, which arose when they were still in their late twenties, was a year-long experiment (“I know what you’re saying,” she tells the reader. “Mary, no! “). His homosexuality was a fact, so although they often slept in the same bed, they never touched each other, both “frozen with fear.” We’re just laying there. We didn’t discuss anything; we did nothing. Eventually, confusion, resentment, and reality combined to declare the trial a mistrial, but it did not disrupt an enduring closeness that lasted until Mary’s death. “Let’s be clear,” concludes Mary. Sondheim “was the love of my life”.
The timeline is flawed when a life like Mary’s is rendered by a spirit like Mary’s; one of the alternate titles of the book, Green tells us, was “Where Was I? She goes back and forth between her many decades, a digression suspended on an anecdote, in turn suspended on an aside. Sometimes you’re left in a slightly irritating (so fun) suspense: about a family member, “I have nothing good to say – and I will say it later.” Would I have preferred a more direct narration? No coincidence, because that could have stifled its invigorating candor (which prompted another possible title: “What Do You Really Think?”).
Mary’s greatest theatrical success was “Once Upon a Mattress,” her musicalization (directed by Abbott) of “The Princess and the Pea,” which launched her Broadway career in 1959 (not to mention that of its relatively unknown star, Carol Burnett). The storyline certainly fits her own life: the princess, she writes, “must outsmart a vain and icy queen to get what she wants and live happily ever after.” For Mary, the foiling paid off. More than 50 years after her original run, her “Mattress” royalties were still over $100,000 per year. (If that sounds impressive, consider this: Even in the 21st century, the Rodgers and Hammerstein families were each raising $7 million a year.) writes ‘Oklahoma!’ you can pay for dinner. Green notes that it was a line she used frequently “because she recognized the awkwardness of the situation and moved through it quickly.” Pure Mary.
But what is also pure Mary, I have become convinced, hides beneath her scathing revelations and crisp anecdotes: an inescapable element of sadness, especially where her parents are concerned. After a particularly sour snipe at Dorothy, Mary writes: “It was too late to turn back – it still is.” And Dick? “It was all about his music; everything that loved him in him came out of it, and there was no need to look elsewhere. It’s also true that I had no choice, but it was enough.
Dick and Dorothy are dead, and Mary is dead too. Their heritages, although mixed, are intimately linked. Although I’m still looking for something to like about Dorothy Rodgers, I recognize that Richard Rodgers left a few songs that I love. But Mary Rodgers left this book, which I love even more.
On the other hand, I never really understood why she despised Arthur Laurents.
Daniel Okrent, the author of “Last Call” and “The Guarded Gate”, is writing a book on Stephen Sondheim.
SHY: The alarmingly outspoken memoir of Mary Rodgers, by Mary Rodgers and Jesse Green | Illustrated | 467 pages | Farrar, Straus & Giroux | $35