JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:
Mary Rodgers was famous for her musical "Once Upon A Mattress," but she may have been most famous for being the daughter of Broadway composer Richard Rodgers. And with that kind of lineage, she had an insider's view of some of theater's biggest stories as they played out behind the curtain. And though she died in 2014, her memoirs are out this week, titled "Shy: The Alarmingly Outspoken Memoirs Of Mary Rodgers." They are co-authored by New York Times theater critic Jesse Green, and Jeff Lunden chatted with him about the book.
JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: The product of hundreds of hours Jesse Green spent with Mary Rodgers, the book has extensive footnotes on just about every page, but far from being dry, they're entertaining. There's an asterisk after the very first word, daddy. And the note explains, quote, "if you've read this far, you probably know that daddy was Richard Rodgers, 1902-1979, composer, womanizer, alcoholic, genius."
JESSE GREEN: What I wanted was her voice.
LUNDEN: Green says he didn't want to clog the narrative with a lot of descriptions of the people and shows Mary Rodgers was talking about.
GREEN: I felt, if people are going to read this book, what I want them to get is the experience of sitting in that room and listening to her. I don't want it to read like prose. I want it to read like dialogue or monologue, really.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHY")
CAROL BURNETT: (As Princess Winnifred, singing) Because I'm actually terribly timid and horribly shy.
LUNDEN: That's Carol Burnett singing the song "Shy" from Mary Rodgers' most famous musical, "Once Upon A Mattress." And "Shy" the book is filled with alarmingly outspoken stories about some of the most prominent figures from the golden age of musical theater - not just Daddy but his collaborators Lorenz Hart and Oscar Hammerstein, director Hal Prince and lyricist Sheldon Harnick, both of whom she dated, and Stephen Sondheim. Jesse Green says she evokes a whole world of privilege not unlike Jane Austen's novels.
GREEN: The restrictions, the opportunities, the conniving, the trying to find love without giving yourself away too cheaply, the mistakes - all of that was a great richness of material that she would just, like, pour out as I sat there typing madly.
LUNDEN: So the book is filled with stories about the difficult relationship she had with her ice-cold parents, her first marriage to an older man with whom she had three children and who turned out not only to be gay, but physically abusive, the affair she had before she married her second husband. Green says...
GREEN: There's a lot in this book that I think people sort of know or think they know, but they don't. And then there's a few things that I think are going to be shockers to people.
LUNDEN: One of them, her relationship with Stephen Sondheim, who she met when they were teenagers through her dad's partner, Oscar Hammerstein.
GREEN: He was, in a way, the love of her life. And, of course, I knew that, but I thought it was only platonic. That has turned out not to be the case.
LUNDEN: Sort of. Green says she and the gay composer-lyricist had always been great friends, but at one point...
GREEN: She told me something I have never read or heard before - that they had briefly what she called a trial marriage, where they slept together in the same bed in a kind of nightmarish confusion about what they were doing, which was nothing, but trying to make some go of what was clearly a very powerful and deep and non-sexual relationship, at least from his side. And eventually, even she had to say, no, this is not going to work.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE BOY FROM...")
LINDA LAVIN: (Singing) Why do his friends call him Lillian? And I hear at the end of the week, he's leaving to start a boutique.
LUNDEN: They did, however, write some songs together, like this one from "The Mad Show" in 1966. Rodgers had a frustrating career as a theatrical songwriter. There were flops. There were shows that were never produced. There were constant rumors that her songs were ghostwritten by her father, which Gren says she found amusing. But at a certain point...
GREEN: She just decided, I have a lot of things I can do, and I'll try something else.
LUNDEN: Perhaps as compensation for her difficult childhood, she threw herself into parenting. She had three more children with her second husband, one of whom is Tony award-winning composer Adam Guettel, though she also had the heartbreak of losing one child to an acute case of asthma. And Mary Rodgers had a second career writing children's books.
GREEN: One of which, "Freaky Friday," is among the most successful of children's books of that period and has itself been turned into a musical several times, one time by her. She wrote some really lovely music for that.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AT THE SAME TIME")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character, singing) I'm appalled by someone and enthralled by someone at the same.
LUNDEN: As a last act, Rodgers served on the board of many major institutions, including as chair of the Juilliard School. Jesse Green says, in that role, she got to support generations of young musicians, actors and writers.
GREEN: She was invested in the world of talent, not so much in the expression of her own. And that's what made her a great dame and a philanthropist with real heart and a wonderful person to be around.
LUNDEN: And Green says he was lucky to spend all those years sitting in her living room while she told alarmingly outspoken stories. For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.
(SOUNDBITE OF ROY WOODS SONG, "INSECURE")
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