Mary Rodgers was a composer and songwriter whose musical Once Upon A Mattress (1959), based on the Hans Christian Andersen story, The Princess And The Pea, is playing somewhere in the world every day. She was part of a line of musical theatre composers: Richard Rodgers, of Rodgers and Hammerstein, was her father, and her handsome son is Adam Guettel who composed the gorgeous music and lyrics for one of my favorite musicals The Light In The Piazza, for which he won two Tony Awards.
I often feel I’m a gene conduit. I’m just passing it between my father and my son.
Once Upon A Mattress opened in 1959 Off-Broadway and transferred later in the year to Broadway for a total run of 244 performances. The musical was directed by George Abbott and choreographed by Joe Layton. It was also the Broadway debut of a young actor named Carol Burnett, who originated the role of Princess Winnifred. It then went on tour with Dody Goodman and then Imogene Coca picked up the role.
A Broadway revival opened in 1996 and ran for 188 performances starring Sarah Jessica Parker. That production was nominated for the 1997 Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical. Another revival, this time Off-Broadway, opened in 2016 with Jackie Hoffman as Winnifred and John Epperson as Queen Aggravain.
The first television adaptation aired in 1964. This production was videotaped in glorious b&w in front of a live audience and featured Burnett and most of the original Broadway cast.
The second television adaptation was broadcast in 1972, in color, included original Broadway cast members Burnett, plus Bernadette Peters, Ken Berry and Wally Cox.
The third television version, aired in 2005, as part of The Wonderful World Of Disney with Burnett as Queen Aggravain and Tracey Ullman as Winifred, plus Denis O’Hare, Tom Smothers, Zooey Deschanel and Matthew Morrison. It was directed by Broadway vet Kathleen Marshall.
In most “traditional” musicals, the leading couple are the romantic interest and a secondary couple are their for laughs; think Billy Bigelow and Julie Jordan and Carrie Carrie Pipperidge and Enoch Snow in Carousel. In Once Upon A Mattress that formula is turned on its ear, with Princess Winifred and Prince Dauntless the leads and the romantic pair, Lady Larkin and Sir Harry as the straight couple, so to speak. Below is this writer in a 1973 production of Once Upon A Mattress, in a rare instance when I played a leading man type.
Rodgers never really repeated the early success of Once Upon A Mattress, but she wrote many songs with her good friend Stephen Sondheim, with whom she grew up with. They both spent a summer at the Westport Country Playhouse, and she later wrote that she had been in love with him.
The character of Mary in the Sondheim musical Merrily We Roll Along was drawn from their friendship. Sondheim has said that the only autobiographical song he ever wrote was Opening Doors from Merrily We Roll Along; it depicts young people trying to get established in showbiz and is based on himself, Rodgers and the director Hal Prince.
She wrote children’s fiction, including the bestseller Freaky Friday (1972), which was adapted to two, count ‘em two, body-swap films where mother and daughter trade places, in 1976 with the late, great Barbara Harris and Jodie Foster, and in 2003 by Jamie Lee Curtis and Lindsay Lohan.
I knew her slightly from my years working at ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers), and I found Rodgers to be a remarkable and charming woman, vivacious yet mild-mannered, with an honesty about her own limitations:
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.
After her father died in 1979, she wrote a new introduction to his memoir, where she does not shy away from the dark side of life with him. He was a serial adulterer and depressive alcoholic, writing:
I didn’t lose any more than you did, folks, because basically what I loved about him was only what you loved – his music.
There is a home movie of Daddy with me when I was 10-months-old or so out in Hollywood. There is a really handsome, loving, funny guy lying in a pair of swimming trunks on the grass playing with this baby, with a kind of good-natured, silly joy that I had never seen in my life because I was too young to remember that. And 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.
She was closer to her mother, Dorothy Rodgers, who collaborated with her on several projects including a book, A Word To The Wives (1970), a radio program and a mother/daughter column for McCall’s magazine.
She was born in Manhattan, went to the best private schools, and to the surprise of her father, majored in music at Wellesley College. She grew up through the years of her father’s greatest success: by the time she was 18-years-old, he had written Pal Joey and The Boys From Syracuse with his first lyricist partner, the more than glad to be unhappily gay Lorenz Hart, and Oklahoma!, Carousel and South Pacific with Oscar Hammerstein II.
When reviewing Once Upon a Mattress, Brooks Atkinson, the powerful drama critic of the New York Times hailed a genuine new composer, writing: “…her music was nothing like dad’s.”
A revue of Rodgers’ songs, From A To Z, played in 1960, and her next musical, Hot Spot (1963), for which Sondheim rewrote the opening number with lyricist Martin Charnin, starred Judy Holliday.
She had more success with a collaborative revue inspired by Mad Magazine, The Mad Show (1966), partnering with Sondheim on a parody of the Antonio Carlos Jobim bossa nova hit The Girl From Ipanema, and changing her sex:”Why are his trousers vermilion?; Why does he claim he’s Castilian?; Why do his friends call him ‘Lillian’?”; that was also featured in the revue Side By Side By Sondheim (1976)
Other Broadway shows included The Mad Woman Of Central Park West (1979), a one-person musical starring Phyllis Newman to which she contributed songs with Leonard Bernstein, Sondheim, Barry Manilow, John Kander and Fred Ebb, and an cabaret evening of her songs Hey, Love (1993).
Her books included two more identity-switch stories, A Billion For Boris (1974) and Summer Switch (1982). She also wrote the screenplay for the funny Faustian-pact film, The Devil And Max Devlin (1981), starring Elliott Gould and Bill “Roofy” Cosby.
Rodgers was always active in showbiz, even in her last years. She served on the boards of the Juilliard School and Lincoln Center. She took her final bow in 2014 at 83-years-old.