So many have asked me “Have you read it?” without even naming the book.
I know they mean Mary Rodgers’ SHY.
Sure, I have, for I knew Mary.
Although I can’t tell you the date on which I interviewed her, I know the year was 1991, for I headlined my story, “Hello, I’m Mary Rodgers.”
That year THE WILL ROGERS FOLLIES had a (terrific) number called “The Big Time” with a lyric, “Hello, I’m Mary Rogers.”
No, it didn’t have the “d,” but it was close enough for my purposes.
Even then, Mary was quite frank in telling me that living with Richard Rodgers didn’t mean that the whole family sat around the piano and joyously sang doe-a-deer for hours on end. I was somewhat reluctant to spill the beans she gave me but pour them out I did.
And she called to say, “What a terrific job you did! Every quotation you had was something I actually said!”
Merrily we rolled along for many years thereafter.
With virtually every other theater journalist citing what Mary had to (brutally) say, I’ll instead concentrate on one of the book’s salient features: co-author Jesse Green’s footnotes. There are more than a hundred, and they’re delightful.
Green admits up front, “What you are reading here in the margins, and sometimes outside the margins, too, is therefore a compound of hers, mine, and ours.”
(My guess is that although Green was at the feet of Mary, the footnotes are mostly his.)
Sometimes the footnotes are factual. With regard to Rodgers’ one Broadway hit, ONCE UPON A MATTRESS in 1959, Green accurately states, “Sixty years on, it remains one of the most popular titles in the musical theater catalog, performed hundreds of times a year by schools and amateurs and revived regularly by professionals.”
Green also tells us that MATTRESS producers William and Jean Eckart raised $100,000 to get it on. That budget was astonishing by 1959 standards when $300,000 was the norm for a musical. However, Green doesn’t stop there in amazing us; he notes that the musical “was so well produced that the Eckarts spent only ninety thousand.”
Marshall Barer was its extraordinary lyricist. Green outs him as the man who wrote “’Here I Come to Save the Day,’ otherwise known as the theme from MIGHTY MOUSE. He lived off it, while trying to live it down, for years.”
We know “Yesterday I Loved You” from the score, but Green points out that many a yesterday had passed since Barer had written the lyric: “He’d used it, with music by a different composer, in a revue called WALK TALL that toured Texas in 1953 and 1954.”
What’s good for the Barer is good for the Rodgers. The 1996 Broadway revival cast album has a song not in the 1959 original. Says Green, “‘Goodnight, Sweet Princess,” sung by Dauntless as a lullaby to Winnifred, was not entirely new. The melody comes from the verse of ‘Something Known,’ written for THE MEMBER OF THE WEDDING musical that Mary once planned.”
While the original MATTRESS was still playing Broadway, Rodgers and Barer had another Main Stem credit, albeit with only one song in a revue. Reports Green, “The critics didn’t like anything about FROM A TO Z,” before adding that “Richard Rodgers didn’t like it, either; the first act ended with ‘The Sounds of Schmaltz,’ in which (Hermione) Gingold played the nanny to The Klaptrap Family Singers.”
What Mr. Rodgers undoubtedly liked was that the song’s authors – William Dyer and Don Parks – never had another Broadway credit.
(By the way, in the JULIE AND CAROL AT CARNEGIE HALL television special, Andrews and Burnett did an excellent parody of THE SOUND OF MUSIC. Don’t miss it.)
Rodgers and Barer also worked on a musical that didn’t reach fruition, based on “The Lady or the Tiger?”, Frank R. Stockton’s famous short story.
If it sounds familiar, yes, Bock and Harnick made it their second act of THE APPLE TREE. Rodgers and Barer titled theirs THE HAPPY MEDIUM until Barer said it should be called A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC. Green reports, “Barer was furious fourteen years later when Sondheim ‘stole’ the title for a much better show of his own.”
Ms. Rodgers must have loved Stockton’s story, for she also tried musicalizing it with Sondheim. They eventually abandoned it, but not before they’d written a song called “Once I Had a Friend.”
Green tells us, “In 1993, it came out again to be used in a revue of her work called HEY, LOVE … but should not have been done without Sondheim’s permission. To apologize, Mary sent him a large French platter.”
Just in case you somehow missed the notorious and oft-told tale, Sondheim’s note of acknowledgment stated, “Thanks for the platter, but where was my mother’s head?”
The Mary-and-Steve friendship led many who knew both to say that she was the inspiration for Mary Flynn in MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG. Green clears that up for us: “Sondheim has said that even though the show draws on his and his friends’ experiences as young people in the 1950s scrambling to get ahead in the world of musicals, the character is based more on Dorothy Parker than Mary Rodgers.”
But why is the character called Mary? Green’s theory: “Perhaps the name scans better.”
When Mary married Jerry Beaty, Green relates that Sondheim and some others collaborated on a wedding song in which they called the then-happy couple “Jayree” and “Mayree.” Although Green admits he can’t say for sure who wrote what, “at least one couplet, addressed to ‘Mayree,’ is too zingy and insightful not to be Sondheim’s: ‘Ev’ry day, mother turned a bright green; / No Beaty knows the trouble you’ve seen.”
May we make an inference from another lyric that Green quoted? “Jayree’s a laddie / Sharp as a tack / Maybe a Daddy / When he gets back.” Don’t those lines come cozy-close to scanning to FOLLIES’ “The Story of Lucy and Jessie”? The two-person structure is similar, too, and Sondheim may well have had that in his head when he needed a new song for Phyllis in Boston.
Green didn’t overlook a chance to reference another of Phyllis’ songs when telling of Mary’s sister Linda’s divorce from Daniel Melnick (one producer of the one-performance disaster KELLY): Melnick “got the Braques and Chagalls and all that.”
That Sondheim used the pen name of “Esteban Ria Nido” when collaborating with Ms. Rodgers on “The Boy from …” (in THE MAD SHOW) is common musical theater knowledge. Green lets us know that although that’s the credit on the cast album (where Linda Lavin does the song credit), “in the show’s program, (Sondheim) went by another nom de plume: ‘Nom de Plume.’”
There was no nom de plume for Ms. Rodgers in 2009 when Green asked her opinion of Arthur Laurents. In a quotation now as famous as “Satire is what closes on Saturday night” and “You can’t buck a nun,” Ms. Rodgers flatly stated, “Call me when he’s dead.”
So perhaps Green’s most telling footnotes are the ones that give us the book’s working titles: WHERE WAS I, WE INTERRUPT THIS STORY as well as COLD NOSE, WARM HEART (a reference to a song Rodgers wrote for canine star Rin-Tin-Tin, prominently mentioned in a BELLS ARE RINGING song).
And one more: CALL ME BACK WHEN I’M DEAD.
I wish we could call her back …
Peter Filichia can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com. His new book – The Book of Broadway Musical Debates, Disputes, and Disagreements – is now available on Amazon.