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Review: ‘Shy,’ by Mary Rodgers and Jesse Green

SHY: The Alarmingly Outspoken Memoirs of Mary Rodgers, by Mary Rodgers and Jesse Inexperienced

Let’s begin with a full disclosure: I’m a sucker for Broadway — a kind of theater followers who will see 5 totally different productions of the identical present, who genuflect earlier than solid albums from the ’50s, who inhale theater gossip as if it actually mattered. I’m additionally a sucker for books about Broadway, books as totally different from each other as Moss Hart’s “Act One,” William Goldman’s “The Season” and Jack Viertel’s “The Secret Lifetime of the American Musical.” However I’ve by no means learn yet one more entertaining (and extra revealing) than Mary Rodgers’s “Shy.” Her voice careens between intimate, sardonic, confessional, comedian. The guide is pure pleasure — besides when it’s jaw-droppingly surprising.

Written in collaboration with the New York Instances theater critic Jesse Inexperienced, who accomplished it after Rodgers’s loss of life at 83 in 2014, “Shy” relates the life story of a profitable songwriter-scriptwriter-television producer-children’s guide author. And likewise the mom of six, the spouse of two, an occasional adulterer, a credulous participant in an earnest trial marriage to Stephen Sondheim (!) — and the daughter of two of probably the most vividly (if scarily) rendered dad and mom I’ve ever encountered.

“Daddy” is the primary phrase within the guide, and it provokes the primary of Inexperienced’s many illuminating footnotes, which enrich the pages of “Shy” like butter on a steak. This one grasps Richard Rodgers in 4 phrases: “composer, womanizer, alcoholic, genius.” The composer half everyone knows, and in case your tastes run within the path of “Oklahoma!,” “South Pacific,” “Carousel,” et many al., the genius as nicely. As for the opposite two components, the womanizing was unstoppable, racing by refrain women, Eva Gabor, apparently Diahann Carroll and undoubtedly the unique Tuptim in “The King and I” — in keeping with Mary, “the whitest Burmese slave princess ever.” The ingesting was equally prodigious. Dick (as he was identified, and will likely be identified right here to maintain the assorted Rodgerses straight) hid vodka bottles in rest room tanks — a intelligent ploy for an ageing man whose bladder wasn’t possible as sturdy because it as soon as had been. Lunches had been lubricated with a 50-50 concoction of Dubonnet and gin. Evenings heralded a steady parade of Scotch-and-sodas. A depressive who as soon as spent three months in a psychiatric hospital, he was additionally distant and inscrutable, with a capability for cruelty. Mary writes, “He hated having his time wasted with intangible issues like feelings.”

In contrast with Dorothy Rodgers, although, Dick (whom Mary finally forgives and understands) may have been one of many Care Bears. However “Mummy” (given Dorothy’s desiccated rigidity, it’s a phrase that may be learn as each a reputation and a noun) was vastly self-centered and brutally essential. Mary had a lot to work with you perceive why one chapter is known as “I Dismember Mama.” She was a Demerol addict, a melodramatic hypochondriac, a neat freak (and, solely considerably by the way, the inventor of the Johnny Mop). “Mummy’s thought of a daughter,” Mary writes, “was a chambermaid crossed with a lapdog; Daddy’s, Clara Schumann as a refrain lady.” In 1964 Dorothy revealed “My Favourite Issues,” a high-end homemaker’s information that informed readers, as summarized by Inexperienced, “how one can adorn their residences and serve aspic.” Conveniently, he provides, “her marriage was simply as chilly and gelatinous.”

Dick and Dorothy are a minimum of implicitly current all through “Shy,” and Mary’s takes on them are alternately horrific and hilarious (she appreciated Dick’s earlier work, however “later, with all these goddamn praying larks and uplifting hymns for contralto girls, I typically hated what he bought as much as”). However it’s the showbiz world all of them lived in that lifts the guide into the pantheon of Broadway narratives.

Once I’m getting ready to evaluate a guide, I spotlight significantly sturdy materials and scribble the related web page numbers on the endpapers. For the primary 17 pages of “Shy,” my checklist has 13 entries — and now, trying again, I see there’s additionally some fairly scrumptious stuff on 4, 7, 15 and 16. And despite the fact that my pencil was pretty inactive within the chapters about her two marriages (the second completely satisfied, the primary disturbingly not), I by no means slowed down. How may I resist a voice so candid, so sharp? You’re not even 10 pages into the guide when she introduces the person who wrote the books for each “West Facet Story” and “Gypsy” and directed “La Cage aux Folles” as “Arthur Laurents, the little shit.” (Later within the guide, she goes deep: “Expertise excuses virtually something however Arthur Laurents.”)

About Hal Prince, with whom she had an early affair: “Hal was born clasping an inventory of individuals he needed to fulfill.” Leonard Bernstein, with whom she collaborated on his Younger Individuals’s Live shows for greater than a decade: “It was laborious not to concentrate to Lenny, who made positive that was all the time the case by all the time being fascinating.” Twenty-one-year-old Barbra Streisand, whom Mary first encounters backstage at a cabaret: “this gawky girl gobbling a peach, her hair nonetheless braided up like a challah.” Improbably, Bob Keeshan, a.ok.a. Captain Kangaroo, for whom she wrote lyrics when she was simply beginning out: “a fats man in a bowl haircut who named himself for a marsupial and seemed like a bit baby molester.” And the 22-year-old Woody Allen, with whom she overlapped at a summer season inventory theater: He was “already the creative weirdo he would turn out to be well-known as a decade later,” spending a lot of the summer season on the porch practising his clarinet or inside (along with his first spouse, Harlene) “practising intercourse, presumably from a guide. He was doing higher, it appeared, with the clarinet.”

Mary has selection issues to say about Bing Crosby, Truman Capote, Judy Holliday, Elaine Stritch, George Abbott (everybody who labored within the theater within the twentieth century has George Abbott tales, however none fairly so chilling as Mary’s). Even Roy Rogers and Dale Evans present up on this guide. (She wrote songs for them, as she did for “Lassie” and “Rin Tin Tin” — the exhibits, she factors out, not the canines.) Related work for the Bil Baird Marionettes enabled her to discover ways to write for “sure picket people.”

However arching over the solid of attention-grabbing 1000’s who populated her world and this guide, the central determine in her life, other than her dad and mom, was Sondheim. They met when barely youngsters; Mary was instantly, and completely, smitten. They remained shut for seven many years, relishing and counting on one another to such a level that the almost-marriage appeared virtually logical. The thought, which arose whereas they had been nonetheless of their late 20s, was a one-year experiment (“I do know what you might be saying,” she tells the reader. “Mary, don’t!”). His homosexuality was a given, so though they typically slept in the identical mattress, they by no means touched one another, each of them “frozen with concern. We simply lay there. We didn’t focus on something; we didn’t do something.” Finally, confusion, resentment and actuality mixed to declare it a mistrial, but it surely didn’t disrupt an abiding closeness that lasted till Mary’s loss of life. “Let’s say it plainly,” Mary concludes. Sondheim “was the love of my life.”

Chronology is imperfect when a life like Mary’s is rendered by a thoughts like Mary’s; one of many guide’s different titles, Inexperienced tells us, was “The place Was I?” She jumps forwards and backwards between her many many years, digression dangling from an anecdote, in flip hanging from an apart. Typically, you’re left in barely irritating (if amusing) suspense: About one member of the family, “I’ve nothing good to say — and I’ll say it later.” Would I’ve most well-liked a extra easy narration? Not an opportunity, for it may have deadened her invigorating candor (which provoked one other potential title: “What Do You Actually Suppose?”).

Mary’s best theatrical success was “As soon as Upon a Mattress,” her musicalization (directed by Abbott) of “The Princess and the Pea,” which launched her Broadway profession in 1959 (to not point out that of its comparatively unknown star, Carol Burnett). The story line actually match her personal life: The princess, she writes, “has to outwit a useless and icy queen to get what she desires and dwell fortunately ever after.” For Mary, the outwitting paid off. Greater than 50 years after its authentic run, her “Mattress” royalties nonetheless exceeded $100,000 a 12 months. (If that appears spectacular, contemplate this: Even into the twenty first century, the Rodgers and Hammerstein households had been every amassing $7 million a 12 months.) As Mary used to say to associates as she reached for the examine in a restaurant, “When your father writes ‘Oklahoma!’ you may pay for dinner.” Inexperienced notes it was a line she used steadily “as a result of it acknowledged the awkwardness of the scenario and swiftly walked straight by it.” Pure Mary.

However what can also be pure Mary, I turned satisfied, lies beneath her slashing revelations and dishy anecdotes: an inescapable aspect of rue, significantly concerning her dad and mom. After one notably acidic snipe at Dorothy, Mary writes, “It was too late to return — it all the time is.” And Dick? “It was all about his music; all the pieces loving about him got here out in it, and there was no level trying wherever else. It’s additionally true I didn’t have any selection — but it surely was sufficient.”

Dick and Dorothy are lifeless, and Mary’s lifeless as nicely. Their legacies, although blended, are intimately entwined. Though I’m nonetheless in search of one thing to love about Dorothy Rodgers, I’ll acknowledge that Richard Rodgers left behind some songs I really like. However Mary Rodgers left behind this guide, which I really like much more.

Then again, I by no means fairly discovered why she despised Arthur Laurents.

Daniel Okrent, the creator of “Final Name” and “The Guarded Gate,” is writing a guide about Stephen Sondheim.

SHY: The Alarmingly Outspoken Memoirs of Mary Rodgers, by Mary Rodgers and Jesse Inexperienced | Illustrated | 467 pp. | Farrar, Straus & Giroux | $35

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