Review: ‘Shame’ by Mary Rodgers and Jesse Green

Shy: The Dangerously Outspoken Memoir of Mary Rodgers, by Mary Rodgers and Jesse Green


Let’s start with a full disclosure: I’m a sucker for Broadway—one of those theater fans who will watch five different renditions of the same show before the albums of ’50s artists genuflect. , who gossip about the theater as if it really matters . I’m also a sucker for books about Broadway, the books being different from each other such as Moss Hart’s “Act One,” “The Seasons” by William Goldman and Jack Viertel’s “The Secret Life of the American Musical.” But I’ve never read something more entertaining (and more revealing) than Mary Rodgers’ “Shame.” Her voice is intimate, sarcastic, confessional, carefree between humor. The book is pure bliss – except when it’s jaw-droppingly shocking.

Written in collaboration with The New York Times Theater critic Jesse Green, who completed it in 2014 after Rodgers died at age 83, “Shame” deals with the life story of a successful songwriter-screenwriter-television producer-turned-children’s book writer. And mother of six, wife of two, suffered an occasional adulterer, Stephen Sondheim (!).

“Daddy” is the first word in the book, and it provokes the first of Greene’s many illuminating footnotes, which enrich the pages of “shy” like butter on steak. It sums up Richard Rodgers in four words: “musician, womanizer, alcoholic, genius.” We all know the musician part, and if your taste is “Oklahoma!,South Pacific,Carousel,” and many others., brilliant too. For the other two elements, the womanization was unstoppable, with the chorus girls, Eva Gabor, apparently Dyhan Carroll, and of course running through the original tuftim in “The King and I”— According to Mary, “the whitest Burmese slave princess ever.” The drinking was equally spectacular. Dick (as he was known, and would be known here for keeping various Rodgers straight) poured vodka bottles down the toilet. Hide in the tank—a clever move for an older man whose bladder probably isn’t as strong as it once was. Lunch was lubricated with a 50-50 mix of Dubonnet and gin. The evening served Scotch-and-soda A depressive man who once spent three months in a psychiatric hospital was also away And unmistakable, with the potential for brutality. “He hated to waste his time with intangible things like feelings,” writes Mary.

Compared to Dorothy Rodgers, however, Dick (whom Mary eventually forgives and understands) may have been one of the Care Bears. But “Mummy” (given Dorothy’s blatant harshness, it’s a word that can be read as both a name and a noun) was overly self-centered and brutally critical. Mary had a lot to work with you to understand why one chapter is called “I Dismember Mama.” She was a Demerol addict, a melodramatic hypochondriac, a neat freak (and, only somewhat incidentally, the inventor of Johnny Mop). “Mummy’s idea of ​​a daughter,” writes Mary, “was a chambermaid crossed with a lapdog; dads, Clara Schumann as a chorus girl.” Dorothy published “My Favorite Things” in 1964. A high-end homemaker’s guide that told readers “How to Decorate Your Apartment and Serve Aspic,” summarized by Greene. Conveniently, he adds, “their marriage was just as cold and gelatinous.”

Dick and Dorothy are at least completely present in “Shy”. And Mary takes on them alternately terrifying and hilarious (she liked Dick’s earlier work, but “later, with larks and uplifting hymns to all those goddamn praying women, I sometimes find her hated what he was raised”). But it is the world of showbiz they all lived in that moves the book into the pantheon of Broadway fiction.

When I’m preparing to review a book, I highlight particularly strong material and write the relevant page numbers on the endpaper. For the first 17 pages of “Shy,” I have 13 entries on my list—and now, looking back, I see some pretty tasty stuff on 4, 7, 15, and 16. And even though my pencil was pretty passive throughout the chapters about his two marriages (the second happy, the first not disturbing), I never stopped. How could I resist such a clear, loud sound? You’re not even 10 pages into the book when she introduces the man who wrote the books for both “West Side Story.” and directed “Gypsy” and “La Cage aux Folles” as “Arthur Laurents, the Little Shit”. (Later in the book, she goes deeper: “Genius excuses almost anything but Arthur Laurents.”)

About Hal Prince, with whom he had an early relationship: “Hal was born on a list of people he wanted to meet.” Leonard Bernstein, with whom he collaborated on his Young People’s concerts for over a decade: “It was hard not to pay attention to Lenny, who made sure that was always the case by being charming.” Twenty-one-year-old Barbra Streisand, whom Mary first meets backstage at a cabaret: “This gaudy lady is munching on peaches, her hair still braided like a challah.” Presumably, Bob Keeshan, aka Captain Kangaroo, for whom she wrote the lyrics when she was just starting out: “A fat man in a bowl haircut who named himself a marsupial and with a small child Looked like a molester.” and 22-year-old Woody Allen, with whom she overlapped at the Summer Stock Theater: He was “already the inventive weirdo he’d become famous for a decade later,” spending much of the summer on his clarinet or porch rehearsing inside ( with his first wife, Harleen) “Practicing sex, possibly from a manual. He was doing better, it seemed, with the clarinet.”

About Mary Has Bing Crosby, Truman Capote, Judy Holiday, Elaine Stritch, George Abbott (everyone who worked in theater in the 20th century has George Abbott stories, but no one is quite as chilling as Mary) There are things to like to say. Even Roy Rogers and Dale Evans appear in this book. (She wrote songs for them, as she did for “Lassie” and “Rin Tin Tin”—shows, she explains, not dogs.) Similar work for the Bill Baird marionette earned her the title of “Something”. enabled them to learn to write. wooden man. ,

But interestingly the cast of thousands who populated her world and the book was, in addition to her parents, the central figure in her life, Sondheim. They met when barely teenagers; Mary was immediately, and permanently, beaten. They lived close to each other for seven decades, dependent on each other to such an extent that a near-marriage seemed almost logical. The idea, which originated when they were in their late 20s, was a year-long experiment (“I know what you’re saying,” she tells the reader. “Mary, no!”). Their homosexuality was a given, so although they often slept in the same bed, they never touched each other, both “frozen in fear. We lay there. We didn’t discuss anything; we didn’t do anything.” did.” Eventually, confusion, resentment, and reality combined to make it a misnomer, but that didn’t impede an enduring closeness that lasted until Mary’s death. “Let’s say it clearly,” concluded Mary. Sondheim was “the love of my life.”

The chronology is incomplete when a life like Mary is presented by a mind like Mary; In one of the book’s alternate titles, Green tells us, “Where was I?” She jumps back and forth between her several decades, the digression swings through an anecdote, dangling from side to side in turn. Sometimes, you’re left in a slightly disturbing (if amusing) secret: About a family member, “I don’t have anything nice to say — and I’ll say it later.” Would I prefer a more direct description? Not a chance, as it could have ended her spirited candor (which sparked another possible headline: “What Do You Really Think?”).

Mary’s biggest theatrical success was “Once Upon a Mattress”, her musical adaptation of “The Princess and the Pea” (directed by Abbott), which launched her Broadway career in 1959 (not to mention its relatively unknown star, Carol Burnett). to do). The story line certainly fits her own life: The princess, she writes, “has toppled a vain and icy queen to get what she wants and live happily ever after.” For Mary, outwitting paid off. More than 50 years after its original run, her “Mattress” Royalties still exceed $100,000 per year. (If this sounds impressive, consider this: Even in the 21st century, the Rodgers and Hammerstein families were collecting $7 million each year.) As Mary used to tell friends when she arrived for a check at a restaurant, ” When your father writes ‘Oklahoma!’ You can pay for dinner.” Green notes that this was a line she used frequently “because it acknowledged the awkwardness of the situation and went straight through it fast.” Pure Mary.

But even what is pure Mary, I became convinced, lies beneath her dwindling revelations and unscrupulous anecdotes: an unavoidable element of rue, especially about her parents. After a particularly acidic snip at Dorothy, Mary writes, “It was too late to go back—it always is.” And dick? “It was all about his music; Everything I loved about him came out of him, and there was no point in looking anywhere else. It is also true that I had no choice – but that was enough.”

Dick and Dorothy are dead, and Mary is dead too. Their legacies, though mixed, are closely intertwined. While I’m still looking for something to like about Dorothy Rodgers, I’ll admit that Richard Rodgers left out some songs that I love. But Mary Rodgers left this book behind, which I love even more.

On the other hand, I never got to know why he despised Arthur Laurents.


Daniel Okrant, author of “Last Call” and “The Guarded Gate,” is writing a book about Stephen Sondheim.


Shy: The Dangerously Outspoken Memoir of Mary Rodgers, by Mary Rodgers and Jesse Green | illustrated | 467 pp | Farrar, Strauss and Giroux | $35

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