Mary Rodgers lived a large, long, and complex life. Like many other American girls from affluent families in the 1930s and 1940s, she went to private school and then to a women’s college, married young, and had several children quickly. But she also built a distinguished career of her own as a songwriter, composer of Broadway musicals, and author. The title of her memoirs, Shy, is a highly ironic jab at herself – she was anything but – and the name of one of her best-known songs from the 1959 musical Once Upon a Mattress.
Shy is co-authored by Rodgers and the New York Times’ chief theater critic, Jesse Green, who began their collaboration in 2012. Rodgers was hesitant to chronicle her life, Green explains in the book’s last chapter because she “fear[ed] hypocrisy. If her brand was frankness, how could she withhold anything? And yet there were things – not many – that even she did not wish to say.” Eventually, Rodgers decided it would be “fun” if she and Green wrote her memoirs together. She would tell her story, and he would contextualize it with footnotes and commentary – and, with her permission, develop the main narrative with words that were not hers but were his “best attempt at ventriloquizing”. After Rodgers passed away in 2014, Green completed the book using material from their conversations.
The unconventional dual-voices format makes Shy something of a challenge to navigate. It’s difficult to go wrong with a story as compelling as Rodgers’: a smart, opinionated woman forging her way in a world constrained by rigid gender roles while bearing the psychological damage from a childhood in which she felt inferior to her younger sister, and in which her mother told her, “We love you, but we don’t like you.” Rodgers’ narrative encompasses everything from sadness and tragedy to exultant moments of exhilarating joy. But Green’s and Rodgers’ simultaneous voices sometimes come across as competitive rather than complementary. At times, the reader may feel like they are seated between two brash, outspoken people, both talking loudly at the same time and trying to outdo the other in wit and sharpness.
Nevertheless, the setting for much of Rodgers’ professional life – the mid-century era of American theatre that produced some of the greatest stage musicals ever – will make Shy a must-read for anyone fascinated by that world. Rodgers knew and worked with many of the most recognizable names of those times, such as Stephen Sondheim, Harold Prince, and George Abbott. She witnessed her father’s career trials and tribulations, legendary musical composer Richard Rodgers.
But Rodgers was much more than “the daughter of”, “the wife of”, or “the mother of” (her son Adam Guettel is a successful musical theatre composer and lyricist). In addition to her extensive musical output, she authored several successful books, including the 1972 young-adult novel Freaky Friday, in which a mother and daughter wake up to find they have switched bodies. Rodgers sardonically muses on what this choice of topic said about her troubled relationship with her mother. But Freaky Friday had a wide enough appeal to become a best-seller and then to be adapted into multiple films and television productions, most of which Rodgers had some involvement.
Rodgers did all this while raising a large family, enduring an abusive first marriage, working in occupations where there were relatively few women – and, later in life, supporting the development of upcoming performers and musicians by serving on the board of The Juilliard School. Reflecting on her unconventional and occasionally ground-breaking career, she muses, “I just did feminism, I didn’t talk it. [But] even now as I see how sexism operated in my professional life, I’m loath to pin my regrets on any donkey but me.”
Green notes that the draft opening chapters that Rodgers initially wrote on her own felt “as if they all seemed to flatline”; some of that is still apparent in the early parts of Shy. The pace of the narrative only starts to pick up after young Mary makes her first attempts at songwriting. But once it gets going, Shy is a fascinating first-person account of a vital period in American theatre history. If the reader can tolerate the dual-narrator format, Shy is worth reading as an account of an unusual, sometimes difficult, but always intriguing life.