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Mary Rodgers’s memoir weighs in on her famous dad and Stephen Sondheim

Rodgers died in 2014, but she had worked on her memoir with critic Jesse Green

Mary Rodgers with lyricist Marshall Barer, left, and director-producer Hal Prince in 1960. (Rodgers-Beaty-Guettel family)

Mary Rodgers (1931-2014) had a modestly successful career in musical theater (“Once Upon a Mattress” was her one big hit as a composer) and became a best-selling author in 1972 with “Freaky Friday,” a young adult novel about a mother and daughter magically swapping bodies that spawned two movie adaptations and two sequels. By virtue of being Richard Rodgers’s daughter and Stephen Sondheim’s close friend, she was a privileged, as well as astute, observer of pivotal moments in the American musical theater from “Oklahoma” to “Company” and beyond. The “beyond” included her son Adam Guettel, yet another composer in the family, who won a Tony Award in 2005 for the score of “Light in the Piazza.” That show was also nominated for best musical, and before they announced the winner, Adam leaned over to say, “I love you, Mom.” To which Rodgers replied, “It’s gonna be Spamalot.”

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That less-than-maternal response is characteristic of the smart, tart voice that animates Rodgers’s autobiography, crafted from three years of free-ranging conversations with New York Times theater critic Jesse Green. When Green showed her the opening pages he had drafted, he recalls, she had two comments: “Make it funnier” and “Make it meaner.” Rodgers was known for her sharp wit, and Green seems to have pulled very few of her verbal punches. The account of her relationship with Sondheim is so wincingly intimate in some details that you have to wonder if Green (or the publisher) thought it would be better to wait until Sondheim was no longer around to read it, a suspicion reinforced by the fact that “Shy” is being published eight years after Rodgers’s death and less than nine months after Sondheim’s.

Blunt candor is a Rodgers operating principle, beginning with what she has to say about her parents. Looking at a photograph of her father smiling fondly at her 3-year-old self, she wonders, “Where did that nice man go?” Hypercritical Daddy disliked her broad smile, winced at her loud laugh and frequently told her she was fat, Rodgers remembers. As for Mummy, she “wouldn’t get down on her knees to play with us because she’d then have to send her pants to be pressed.” It makes sense that Rodgers proposed titling her memoir “What Do You Really Think?” (Green confides this in one of the footnotes that form a lively running counterpoint to her first-person narrative.) She gleefully skewers frenemies like playwright Arthur Laurents, and she’s equally forthright (if less nasty) about lifelong friends like producer-director Hal Prince, to whom she was “practically engaged” when he was an ambitious undergraduate. “Daddy may even have been my main selling point,” she muses. “Hal was born clasping a list of people he wanted to meet.”

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“Shy” lives up to its “alarmingly outspoken” subtitle but rarely seems mean-spirited, thanks to Rodgers’s sense of humor, clever way with words and refusal to indulge in self-pity. A woman whose good work as a composer was overshadowed by the titanic gifts of her father and best friend could easily feel bitter, but Rodgers calmly insists, “I’m happy with what I achieved.” And she gives a matter-of-fact account of an average theater artist’s life: a few hits, plenty of flops, workaday stints writing for television and movies. She explains her move into children’s books with similar pragmatism: “I wanted creative occupation, I needed to make money.”

As for her personal life, readers will quickly grasp that she survived a miserable childhood by learning to view those around her, and herself, with tolerant acceptance. She concludes about her father that “everything loving about him came out in [his music], and there was no point looking anywhere else.” Of her mother, whose dedication to being the Great Man’s perfect wife sparked Rodgers’s determination to have a career of her own, she says: “I began to understand — and even, to my surprise, envy — the way she turned her dependency into immense, steely competence.”

Rodgers’s abusive first husband, a closeted gay man, gets sympathy as a fellow misfit within the confines of traditional marriage: “We both did better with time, finding more honest ways to live. [I have] long since forgiven him, as I had to forgive myself.”

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Did she forgive Sondheim? He was “the love of my life,” she admits, and for a brief, excruciating period after her divorce, he tried to love her the way she loved him. It was Rodgers who finally said, “This isn’t working,” and settled for devoted friendship. The pain is still evident each time she speaks of their relationship, but it’s countered by her recollections of a happy, enduring second marriage and her five children — of whom she remarks, characteristically, “Why they love me, I’ll never know.”

A guess is that they loved her because she was fun, a word Rodgers uses repeatedly. Having fun was her way of insisting that life’s sorrows would never kill her zest for life’s pleasures. Her tenacious capacity for joy is affirmed in the dazzling smile her father deplored, which radiates from nearly every photo in “Shy.” Rodgers’s delightfully gossipy tell-all is also a frank, thoughtful chronicle of one woman’s journey through experience to understanding — and a lot of fun to read.

Wendy Smith is the author of “Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931-1940.”

Shy

The Alarmingly Outspoken Memoirs of Mary Rodgers

By Mary Rodgers and Jesse Green

Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 480 pp. $35

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