When considering “Shy: The Alarmingly Outspoken Memoirs of Mary Rodgers,” two d-words come to mind. The first is delightful, and the other is delicious.
The late Mary Rodgers was best known for composing “Once Upon a Mattress,” one of the most frequently produced school and community theater productions (I played Lady Mabel in community theater). Her young adult novel “Freaky Friday” has served as the basis for five Disney adaptations, including the 2003 feature film with Jamie Lee Curtis and Lindsay Lohan. Those unfamiliar with either work probably know her father, Richard Rodgers, who innovated Broadway along with songwriting partners Oscar Hammerstein and Lorenz Hart.
Rodgers immediately establishes herself as a wry and humorous narrator, who is more than happy to describe her own faults. Of her father, she mentions that “in specific he didn’t play Gershwin, the only composer he might have envied—well, maybe not the brain tumor part. Or maybe even that.” She cheerfully describes herself as being sandwiched between two more talented composers: her father, of course, and son Adam Guettel, who won a Tony Award for his 2005 Broadway musical “The Light in the Piazza.” One can easily imagine her sitting in her apartment and dictating her words to New York Times chief theater critic Jesse Green, who supplements Rodgers’ words with hilarious and informative annotations.
Blessedly, Rodgers and Green know exactly who their audience is. As Green notes a few pages in, “If you don’t know who Stephen Sondheim was, you’re probably not reading this.” The result is a cozy reading experience that feels like a step back to the Golden Age of Broadway. It’s also a wonderful source of Broadway gossip. Although not all the information will be new to Broadway devotees—Rodgers’ infatuation with Sondheim was never a great secret—she packs her memoir with exciting stories and details. “Steve” appears as one of the main characters, and for theater devotees mourning Sondheim, “Shy” is a great companion to other books about the legendary composer.
“Shy” is also a long-overdue contribution to the Broadway memoir canon. Though Rodgers might not have considered herself progressive in the day—to her chagrin, the three-and-a-half years between her marriages felt like the longest of her life—her memoir is an illuminating look at Golden Age Broadway from a woman’s perspective. To date, only eight women have won a Tony Award for Best Score, and Rodgers is honest about her experiences as a woman musical theater composer and divorced single mother. And though Rodgers experienced her fair share of privilege, her life wasn’t always filled with bright lights, either. There were also difficult parents, an abusive ex-husband, the death of a child, and antisemitism.
Befitting of the great Mary Rodgers, it only seems respectful to let her close in her own words: “So if I sound like a poor little rich girl, whining about disapproving parents and being a woman in a man’s field and the burdens of tending a creative soul—but I don’t believe in a soul—substitute any particulars you like. Jane Austen wasn’t an Upper East Side Jew, but I trust she would understand.”
“Shy: The Alarmingly Outspoken Memoirs of Mary Rodgers”
By Mary Rodgers and Jesse Green
Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 480 pages, $35
Mara Sandroff is a fiction writer, critic and essayist based in Brooklyn, New York and Tucson, Arizona. She recently earned an MFA in fiction from New York University, and she is an alumna of One Story’s 2019 Summer Writers Conference and Kenyon Review’s 2021 Writers Workshop, a 2021 finalist in Tucson Festival of Book’s Literary Awards, and a voting member of the National Book Critics Circle. Her creative nonfiction has appeared in the Emerging Writer Series of Roxane Gay’s The Audacity. Currently, she is working on a novel that explores Jewish identity, intergenerational storytelling, and a young girl’s coming-of-age in a world that is (possibly) coming to an end. Write On, Door County will support her novel with a residency in December 2023. Find her online at marasandroff.com.