My interview with Mary Rodgers
There was a time when my husband was putting in a lot of late hours. So at night, after my freelance work was done, I listened to my icons Rodgers and Hammerstein and their show music, “Oklahoma,” “State Fair,” and others, twirling with my cats, singing to my dogs. You laugh, but there are far worse things than devoting an hour or two to good harmonies.
I was writing nonfiction books for young adults in the 1990s and in 1997, there was a New York Times article that caught my eye about Mary Rodgers, the daughter of Richard Rodgers, who wrote the music for “Once Upon A Mattress.” Sarah Jessica Parker played the lead in the revival then.
I pitched a book that wound up being called “A Creative Life: A Young Person’s Guide” and wrote to Mary for her inclusion.
I got the interview and remember being pretty nervous; here was the daughter of one of the celebrated duo, royalty to me. Rodgers lived on Central Park West and I remember walking a couple of miles beforehand to center myself. No worries. She was down to earth and hauled back her poodle, Chloe, at the front door — nice dog, but, you know. “She likes to sound vicious,” Rodgers joked.
She began composing at age 16. “Once Upon A Mattress” was her breakthrough and “Freaky Friday,” her book about a mother and daughter who switch lives, became a screenplay; she also had a long association with Leonard Bernstein and his New York Philharmonic Young People’s Concerts televised by PBS. But this daughter of a celebrated father first wrote Little Golden Records, albums for children with three-minute songs. Her family, she said, was appalled; it was work for hire.
“I think for a long time it didn’t occur to me that I could compete in the outside world,” she said, “that I was good enough. I went to college and majored in music with a minor in English because in those days, that’s what you did. You either went to college or got married.” It was at Wellesley in the early 1950s that she began writing children’s songs. Rodgers was candid about her dilemmas. “By the time I was 24, I had three children and I thought, ‘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.”
Interestingly, her go-for-it attitude with Little Golden Records put her in touch with Marshall Barer, a talented and prolific lyricist and librettist who was a staffer for that very same recording company. It was Barer who steered her into writing the music for “Once Upon A Mattress,” a big Broadway hit with Carol Burnett. “When the show opened and the reviews for the score and Carol were so good, I said, ‘this can’t be happening to me,’ ” Rodgers said.
Sadly, Mary died a week ago at age 83. There is a lot more I could write regarding that interview. But here’s what stuck out. She was a classy, no-nonsense woman (I got a nice lunch in her dining room after our talk). And she found her way through her humanity, humor and persistence.
God bless, Mary, and thanks from this writer.
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