Book Review | Secrets of a Musical Family

SHY: The Alarmingly Outspoken Memoirs of Mary Rodgers
By Mary Rodgers and Jesse Green
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 480 pp., $35.00

Mary Rodgers’s posthumous autobiography is a brash, outrageous and entertaining excursion into the life of its author. Mary (1931-2014) was the daughter of Richard Rodgers—memorable as the creator of Oklahoma! and South Pacific, two of the most iconic musicals in American theater history—and of his wife, Dorothy, about whom the less said, the better.

Drawn from interviews and conversations with Mary, the memoir is brought to life by her interlocutor, New York Times chief theater critic Jesse Green, a friend of the author’s for 20 years. Green fills the first chapters with enlightening if occasionally distracting footnotes that clarify theater history, identify people mentioned in the text or temper some of Mary’s audacity. The result is both a fascinating life story and a sharp and often disconcerting look at the talented, complex and often problematic men and women who dominated the American musical stage for most of the 20th century.

It is not surprising that Broadway was marked by a Jewish cultural and religious sensibility. Yiddish theater, which emerged in late-19th-century Europe, had melded farcical Purim plays, cantorial songs and Jewish minstrel shows with European literary and theatrical traditions. The giants of the American musical theater did the same, using minor chords to express emotion and adapting comic tropes to themes such as poverty, tradition and social anxiety.

They were rich and successful, but in their daily lives, these famous artists mirrored ordinary Jewish concerns about belonging. For years, Mary Rodgers writes, many of them refused to live on Manhattan’s Upper West Side because it was “too Jewish,” choosing the wealthier, WASPier East Side for its opportunities to ascend the social ladder. So Jewish was the musical theater world that Ethel Merman, who was often mistaken for Jewish, went to great pains to assert her Episcopalian identity. In a footnote, Green recounts the story of how Merman, invited to a Passover dinner by writer-producer Jule Styne, brought a ham sandwich with her in case she hated the food.

Mary, truly a poor little rich girl, grew up in this world amid a paradoxical mixture of parental constraints and neglect. Her sharp wit and rapier tongue concealed the massive hurts of her childhood and helped her overcome a fraught personal and professional life. Her first husband was physically and emotionally abusive while she was beginning her musical career; later, insecure about her own talent, she became easy prey for jealous competitors who asserted that her work had been written by her father. “Why in the world would my father want to write my music?” she wrote. “He doesn’t even want to listen to it.”

Mary Rodgers with her father, Richard Rodgers. (Photo credit: Courtesy of The Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization: A Concord Company, www.rnh.com)

In the end, she became a successful author and lyricist. Once Upon a Mattress, her comic rendering of the fairy tale The Princess and the Pea, was a Broadway triumph and a resounding financial success. She married twice and was the mother of six children. Five are alive today, successful in their chosen careers and relationships.

A chapter titled “Hostilities” opens SHY with an account of frightening games played by her family—games designed to teach competitive players how to win, or how to protect themselves with sharp language and funny stories when they lost. Family stories weave in and out of the narrative, which bubbles over with the louche and often hilarious foibles of the rich and famous. She begins with Lorenz Hart, her father’s first partner, followed by Oscar Hammerstein; Hal Prince, the Broadway producer with whom she had an early affair; Woody Allen, Irving Berlin, Leonard Bernstein, Judy Holliday, Barbra Streisand…you get the idea.

Mary spares none of them, including herself. Sometimes admittedly mean, she tempers initial barbs with deeper insight. She first describes “Daddy” as an alcoholic, a womanizer and a man who “hated having his time wasted with intangible things like emotion.” I was stunned by this view of her father, so at odds with the man his audience adored—the man whose musicals championed unlikely unions, spoke out against racism and underscored the romantic view of love that, for better or worse, was common coin of the postwar era.

Over the years Mary came to understand and forgive her father. Her love for him reflected an increasing intimacy in their shared passion for music, her appreciation of his practical and musical advice and his growing pride in her talent. “He gave me music,” she writes, and, later, “He taught me love.”

“Why in the world would my father want to write my music? He doesn’t even want to listen to it.”

She is far less forgiving of her cold and distant mother, whom she calls Miss Perfecta, a sobriquet used by their servants and even by some close friends. Dorothy Rodgers was a sometime entrepreneur, writer and inventor, more concerned with the condition of her house than the happiness of Mary and her sister Linda. “Mummy was amazing and awful,” Mary writes. Dorothy, a victim of her own loveless childhood, envied Mary’s musical ties with Richard and constantly sought to undermine them. Frozen in that childhood relationship, Mary and her mother never reconciled.

The two daughters were highly competitive—at least in part because Dorothy constantly pitted them against each other. In defense, the sisters ultimately allied against her and remained close, though they never ceased competing. At the end of their lives, they bet on who would die first. Mary won that bet, passing away two months before her sister.

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Amid all the personal and professional turmoil, one constant star lit the dark sky of her imagination: Stephen Sondheim. She fell in love with him at 11, when they first met. That love never died, through breakups and arguments, and they remained close friends until her death at age 83. She writes that the pair even contemplated “marriage”—in part out of mutual affection, and also, perhaps, to help Sondheim conceal his homosexuality. Being gay in the 1940s and 1950s was a cardinal sin that could cost you your career. Sin or no, many of Mary’s friends (and one of her two husbands) were gay. She is frank and honest about these relationships, which seem to have satisfied her need for the warmth and emotional contact absent in her family.

Her stories of unhappiness amid the wealth and excitement of Broadway offer us the undeniable pleasures of schadenfreude. But there is a deeper satisfaction in reading this book. Mary’s life story is so different from what I might have imagined, given her fame and station, and so much more like the lives of many other women who grew up in the last half of the 20th century. We may have had more caring families or fewer possessions, but we, too, invested our emotions in fairy-tale loves, were uneasy about our looks (Mary’s mother always called her “fat” although she wore a size 8 for most of her life) and forged careers in the face of male domination and religious and social prejudice. We, too, juggled motherhood and work and hid deep insecurities behind quips, jokes and sometimes rebellious behavior.

Bolder than most of us, Mary dared to tell the truth, often the awful truth, about herself and those who created the golden age of musical theater. Oh, Mary—how I wish I had known you!

Gloria Levitas is a cultural anthropologist.

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