Celebrating Mary Rodgers

Dramatists Guild Council member, Mary Rodgers, passed away on June 27, 2014. She was, perhaps, best known as the composer of Once Upon a Mattress. She joined the Guild in 1962 and was elected to Council in 1965. This tribute originally appeared in the Sept/Oct 2014 issue of The Dramatist. She is remembered here by Marsha Norman.

Norman and Rodgers

Though Mary Rodgers would never have said this about herself, and maybe wasn’t even aware of it, she was giving a master class in life. She was the daughter of a famous composer and a perfectionist mother, and she was born in a time when women were expected to marry, have children, and be grateful. Her way of putting this was “If you weren’t engaged by your senior year, you were dead meat.” If you were there when she said this, you would have heard the raucous, throaty laugh that would make you think, for a minute, that she thought this was funny. But Mary knew that life as the child of Richard Rodgers was not easy, and the life of a girl with dreams of being an artist was really tough, and life as the mother of five children with another life as an artist was virtually impossible. And yet she took it all on and had a lot of fun, a life outcome not to be underestimated. I was lucky enough to be the newcomer to New York that she took up, as they put it then. She deluged me with advice, and companionship. She gave me a substitute family, spent many afternoons rocking my children as I worked, and finally gave me the teaching position at Juilliard that has defined my life for the last twenty years. Mary Rodgers was my champion, so I am honored to be hers in writing this piece.

I met Mary after she had entered her Cultural Icon/Board Chair phase, but I can fill you in on how she got there. She was born to Richard and Dorothy Rodgers, and has a sister named Linda. But childhood was no fun. She says, “I remember thinking ‘This is a very powerful pair of people I’m living with here, and if I don’t fight for my own identity, I won’t have any.’ So I was adversarial whenever humanly possible. I just thought being a child was the worst prison sentence ever pronounced on anybody. Without any parole, either: you were stuck there until you were about eighteen.” 

So as Mary was plotting her escape, her mother would fuss and order people around, being the perfect “chatelaine” (Mary’s word, not mine). And Dad would play chopsticks with Mary on the piano, then go off to the office, deeply depressed again and write The Sound of Music, Carousel, The King and I, South Pacific, Pal Joey and Oklahoma, arguably the most beautiful contribution yet made to the American musical theater. His shows with Oscar Hammerstein alone won 35 Tony Awards, fifteen Academy Awards, two Pulitzer Prizes, two Grammy Awards, and two Emmy Awards. But he had a problem with alcohol, and a problem with people. Mary remembers a photo of her father, sitting with her on the lawn, looking like the most happy, devoted Dad in the world. Of this she says, “I looked at it and thought, God, where did that man go and why did I never see him? That charming-looking handsome kid turned into a wizened, sad, deer-in-the-headlights person.” 

But as with everything else, including how people should dress, and whom they should marry and how the dinner table was best arranged to create lively conversation, and what dogs (poodles) were superior to all others, Mary had thoughts about the difficulty of being an artist. “I’m sure depression is a major component part of the creative nature. But creative people are able to relieve the pain of being depressed by being creative. It produces its own serotonin high that’s not like anything else.” But medicating by creating comes at a high cost, as Mary knew firsthand.

After her escape from childhood, given a choice between Smith and Wellesley, Mary went off to Wellesley, where she was dismayed to find that while they offered courses in musical appreciation, they didn’t offer any in musical composition. She lasted three years, writing songs, even showing one of them to Dad, then took off to get married and have her first three children, Tod, Kim and Nina. But she soon realized, “there must be something I can do besides drag the kids in one direction and the shopping cart in the other. Not that I didn’t love my children, but I wanted to make my own money.” 

So Mary went to Washington D.C. to see West Side Story, for which her great friend Stephen Sondheim had written the lyrics. There she met Leonard Bernstein and learned he was planning a series of youth concerts for the New York Philharmonic. Mary jumped in, said she’d like a job helping with that, Bernstein said yes, and for thirteen years she was at his side writing for those performances. Soon after that, she met Marshall Barer at a writers’ retreat in the Catskills, asked him if he’d ever had a great idea for a musical. He suggested The Princess and the Pea, and in three weeks they wrote Once Upon a Mattress, her most well-known Broadway show, and the show that made Carol Burnett a star. 

Mary told me they had difficulty finding someone to play Carol’s role in this show, that they saw singers and dancers for days until finally Carol Burnett showed up, but she looked so good, Mary knew she’d never make it past the producers. So she asked Carol if she had some really ugly dress she could wear for the call back. Carol said, no, she didn’t have any ugly dresses, but she did have one hideous suit. Mary said, “Wear that!” and the rest is history. What no one else had understood was that the Princess was a clown. And in many ways, so was Mary, full of silliness, entertained by the funniest people she could find, and making the rest of us laugh with a joy you never see in professional clowns. It occurs to me now, that Mary never waited for you to laugh at what she’d said. She was so eager to be entertained that she made her joke and then she howled with you. The problem was, Mary was living in a time when women weren’t thought to be funny. 

After the wild success of Once Upon a Mattress (check Wikipedia for glorious details), she went on to write other shows, but fell victim to what I call the “One Is Enough” rule for women writers, a rule that was rigorously enforced for women of Mary’s generation, and is still lurking in the corners of the minds of the critics. (If in doubt, check the last twenty years of reviews and see how many times “like a Lifetime Movie” is used to mean second show by a woman whose first work we liked, but, you know, One is Enough.) 

Mary talked to me about this in the DG Fund Legacy Project interview I did with her in Volume II of that great series. She said, with a flip of her head that always signaled something she wished were true, “Well that’s the good thing about being a woman. If one thing doesn’t work out, you can do something else!” So she walked away from the piano.

She knew she loved writing, and she loved children, and had had two more by then, Alec and Adam, with the wonderful Hank Guettel, so she decided to write books for children. Her most famous one is Freaky Friday, the book that invented a whole genre of role-swapping stories. She claims to have remembered the idea from a book she read as a child. But it was Mary Rodgers who executed the idea with such élan, it turned the idea into an industry. You can go back to Wikipedia for all the incarnations of Freaky Friday there have been, and you will certainly live to see at least fifteen more. It’s an idea that doesn’t quit. What if you really knew who I was because you were in my skin for a day, and likewise – a question Mary pondered her whole life. She wrote a couple of other books, notably A Billion for Boris, about money, another question for her whole life. But already, she was beginning to look beyond writing for good. Before her son Adam’s Light in the Piazza opened, she told Jesse Green, “I had a pleasant talent but not an incredible talent...I was not my father or my son. And you have to abandon all kinds of things.”

So if Mary had to abandon her love of composing and writing, and her talent, she would turn, with the flip of her head, to “something else.” And so began her Cultural Icon/Board Chair phase, and nobody was going to chase her out of that role. She was theatrical royalty and she finally played that card. She was the President of ASCAP, she was on the Board of the Rogers & Hammerstein Foundation, she served on the Council of the Dramatists Guild for 35 years, she was on the Board of Lincoln Center, and there are probably seventeen more Boards I don’t know about, and fund-raising committees she chaired, and gala events she hosted and tirelessly on and on. At the Dramatists Guild, with Steve Sondheim, she established the Young Playwrights Festival, which brought in plays from high schools across the country, and discovered talents that are thriving in the theatre today. She also served on the touring panel of the DG-CBS prize, which sent five of us to ten regional theaters to look at plays by new writers. One night, at a theatre in Arizona, Mary completely cracked up as she realized that of the fifteen people in the audience, seven were representing the Dramatists Guild, and five of those were Pulitzer Prize winners. I can hear her cackling still. Though it also might have been the alcohol it took to get us all around the country.

The day I met Mary, 30 some years ago, was my first meeting of the Dramatists Guild Council, a day all Council members remember as they first take their seat around the table with their idols. She grabbed my arm, pulled me down to a chair next to her, and said, “There you are. I’ve been dying to meet you. You’re going to like it here. This is the best club in town.” After that, she made sure I met everybody, and brought me to her apartment to meet everybody else, and made me rent a house in Quogue, and then made me buy a house in Quogue, and let me bring my son to learn to swim in her pool. She invited me to lavish dinners with Larry Gelbart and other geniuses, and sometimes even “Arthur the Foul,” as she liked to call Arthur Laurents. I grew close to her children, especially Adam, who would often come down to my house to, I don’t know, escape, maybe. We had a guest room that my son Angus called Madam’s Room, but it was actually the room where Adam would go to rest and read when he came to visit. When I was doing my first musical, it was Adam’s idea that the garden in The Secret Garden should be a maze, because it would add a sense of movement to the songs about the garden. I was so busy and so happy then, I forgot that it would end someday, that I would move away, that all our kids would grow up, that Hank would die, that Mary would die, and I would be writing this. But it’s OK. I was so lucky to be there.

One day by her pool, I was telling Mary about a terrifying dream I had had the night before. I said, “I was walking Angus down the beach and he wanted to walk in the water. (He was three at the time) So I walked into the water with him a little bit, and he was having so much fun, but then a huge wave came from nowhere and tore him away from me and I couldn’t see him at all and I thought”- quickly she finished my sentence – “What am I going to tell Mary?” And then she laughed and laughed and laughed.

In 1992, she went on the Board of Trustees at the Juilliard School. And shortly thereafter the current Chair of the Board died. Her description of what happened next was classic, modest Mary. “So I guess they didn’t have anybody else,” (not true) “so they turned to me and said, ‘Would you like to be the Chair?’” And I said “Sure.” And with that she became the moving force behind the most sweeping changes the school would experience until…well, until she resigned. Money was raised, and a massive renovation was designed and built, new departments were added, including the Lila Acheson Wallace Playwriting Program. 

The playwriting program had actually existed for a couple of years, but it wasn’t quite working the way the funders had hoped. In any case, in 1994, I got a phone call from Mary asking if I’d like to teach it. I know I would never have been asked if Mary hadn’t been doing the asking. But I was very happy to go talk to Michael Kahn. I told him I wanted Christopher Durang to teach with me, to avoid the guru business, and said I wanted labs where the actors could do the work of the playwrights. He said yes to everything and that’s how it’s been for twenty years. Two of our Juilliard fellows have Pulitzer Prizes, several more will get them if life is fair, seven of them run wildly popular television shows, fifteen more write for those shows or are story editors, five have directed feature films, and you get the idea. Mary’s idea gave Christopher and me a great world to live in, a great way to pass along what we have learned without in any way creating clones of ourselves, and Juilliard’s Playwrights Program is thriving. All because of Mary. 

In the early days, Mary would bring her buddies, Mary Ellin Barrett (Irving Berlin’s daughter) and Anna Crouse (Howard Crouse’s wife) to the lab on Saturday morning with her, to hear work by David Auburn and Stephen Belber, Julia Jordan and David Lindsay-Abaire. As the years wore on, Mary was less and less able to come to lab every single time, but she was always there for Scene Night and made sure the writers had everything they needed, including the occasional rent check. When she retired from the Juilliard Board, she said, “Juilliard has become—is—my self-respect, my pride… my life. … Aside from my family, you have made my life more meaningful than I ever dreamed it could be.”

So Mary’s victory was finding art in her life. And anyone who ever knew her would testify to her courage, her joy, her irrepressible merriment, her utter determination to give as much love as she had, to fight any fight where she was needed, being at all costs, the fiercest human she could figure out how to be.

In 1960, she wrote an article for The New York Herald Tribune entitled “Composerette Talks Turkey” in which she anticipates many of the struggles she would face, and many that women artists everywhere are still facing. 

“I am a woman,” she says, “I am also a composer. But there are precious few of us. Come to think of it, there isn’t even a name for us. Composeress? Composerette?” She goes on to wonder why there aren’t more women artists working, why there aren’t more women pilots or women politicians or women underwater demolition experts working, and she concludes it’s a question of environment. “The country must be full of talented women, I know it. The trouble is, they don’t know it.” And then she allows as how most husbands would probably be OK with a woman having a career as long as she was not “obtrusive” about it. But the theatre is an obtrusive art. “If you want to succeed in the theatre, you must be aggressively on your toes at all times.” And finally she gets to the nitty gritty – “If you’ve written a show, your husband may have to phone you at the Shubert Theatre in New Haven in order to tell you that he can’t find the children’s snowsuits. By the time you get home after a seven-week tour, you’ll find the snowsuits, but you just might not find your husband. Few women want to run that risk.” Not at that time anyway. Things would change. But I think I’ll let her finish this article by herself.

“So there it is,” an amused Mary Rodgers wrote 54 years ago. “Give a woman the right intellectual climate, giver her the herculean amount of strength needed to get up with the children at 7 and go to bed at 2, give her an understanding husband, supreme confidence in herself as a feminine being, and she may turn out to be a composerette if she’s prepared for the wear and tear on the stamina, the feminine ego, the masculine ego, and the Steinway.”

Forty years later, a wise Mary Rodgers said, “When I was growing up, there were no role models for me. But you just have to know yourself very well and figure out what you want to do with your life, and then go out and find the people who are already doing it, or find the people who can help you do it.

Thus endeth the lesson. Rest in peace, my friend, my ally, my loved one, Mary Rodgers Guettel.

Photo of Marsha Norman
Marsha Norman

won a Pulitzer Prize for ‘night, Mother and was co-chair of the Playwriting Program at Juilliard for 25 years. She won a Tony for The Secret Garden and wrote two other Broadway musicals: The Color Purple and The Bridges of Madison County. She is a former vice president of the Dramatists Guild and current President of The Lillys.