Shy by Mary Rodgers and Jesse Green book review

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Mary Rodgers (1931-2014) was modestly successful in musical theater (“Once Upon a Mattress” was her big hit as a composer) and became a best-selling author in 1972 with “Freaky Friday,” an adult novel about a mother and daughter exchanging Bodies in a Magical Way which led to a two-film adaptation and two-film sequel. By virtue of being the daughter of Richard Rodgers and close friend of Stephen Sondheim, she was a privileged observer, as well as intelligent, of pivotal moments in American musical theater from “Oklahoma” to “The Company” and beyond. The song “Beyond” featured her son Adam Gettell, another composer in the family, and he won a Tony Award in 2005 for the sum of Light in the Piazza. This show was also nominated for Best Musical Show, and before the winner was announced, Adam tended to say, “I love you, Mom.” Rodgers replied, “It would be Spamalot.”

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This less maternal response is a feature of the witty, snappy voice that animates Rodgers’ autobiography, crafted from three years of free conversations with New York Times theater critic Jesse Green. When Greene showed her the editorial pages he penned, he recalls, she had two comments: “Make it more fun” and “Make it more mean.” Rodgers was known for her sharp wit, and Green seems to have pulled quite a few verbal punches. The account of her relationship with Sondheim is so intimate in some detail that you have to wonder if Green (or the publisher) thinks it would be best to wait until Sondheim is gone to read it, a doubt reinforced by the fact that “Shy” was published eight years after Rodgers’ death and less From nine months after the death of Sundem.

Blunt candor is Rodgers’ running principle, beginning with what she says about her parents. Looking at a photo of her father smiling fondly at her 3-year-old self, she wonders, “Where’d this cute guy go?” Rodgers recalls that the highly critical Papa hated her wide smile, flinched at her boisterous laughter, and often told her she was fat. As for a mummy, she “will not get on her knees to play with us because she will then have to send her pants to press on.” It makes sense that Rodgers suggested adding a title to her memoir “What do you really think?” (Green admits this in a footnote that is a vivid contrast point for her first-person narration.) She smiles delightfully at skewers of foes as playwright Arthur Lorentz, and is just as outspoken (albeit less foreboding) about lifelong friends like producer and director Hal Prince. , with whom she was “practically involved” when he was an aspiring college student. “My dad was probably my main selling point,” she ponders. Hal was born making a list of the people he wanted to meet.

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“Shy” lives up to its “disturbingly candid” subtitle but rarely seems mean, thanks to Rodgers’ sense of humor, clever way of words and refusal to indulge in self-pity. A woman overwhelmed by giant gifts from her father and best friend can easily be bitter, but Rodgers calmly insists, “I’m happy with what I’ve achieved.” It provides a sobering account of the life of the average theater artist: a few hits, a lot of failures, and the day-to-day work assignments of writing for TV and movies. She explains her transition to children’s books with the same pragmatism: “I wanted a creative career, I needed to make money.”

As for her personal life, readers will quickly realize that she survived her miserable childhood by learning to see around herself and herself with indulgent acceptance. And she concludes by talking about her father that “everything he loves is back [his music]and there was no point in looking anywhere else.” Of her mother, whose devotion to being the ideal great man’s wife prompted Rodgers’ insistence on a career of her own, she says, “I began to understand—and even, to my surprise, envy—the way she turned Its reliance to formidable, steel efficiency. “

Rodgers’ abusive first husband, a closed-off gay man, gets sympathy as an ill-fitting fellow within the confines of traditional marriage: “We both did better over time, finding more honest ways to live. [I have] Long ago I forgave him, as I had to forgive myself. ”

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Did you forgive Sundem? She admits he was “the love of my life,” and for a brief and painful period after her divorce, he tried to love her the way she loved him. It was Rodgers who finally said, “It doesn’t work,” and contented himself with sincere friendship. The pain is still palpable each time she talks about their relationship, but it is countered by her memories of a happy and lasting second marriage and her five children—to whom she so characteristically, “why they love me, I’ll never know.”

Guessing is that they liked it because it was fun, a word that Rodgers uses over and over again. Pleasure was her way of insisting that life’s sorrows would never kill her enthusiasm for life’s pleasures. Her powerful capacity for joy is underlined by her father’s beaming, distressed smile, which radiates from almost every image in “Shy”. Rodgers’ delightful gossip novel is also a candid and thoughtful story of one woman’s journey through experience to understanding—and a lot of fun to read.

Wendy Smith is the author of Realistic Drama: Group Theater and America, 1931-1940.

Mary Rodgers’ candid, disturbing memoir

Written by Mary Rodgers and Jesse Green

Farrar, Strauss and Giroud. 480 pages $35

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