Mary Rodgers, who wrote songs and children’s books and, by virtue of genetics and talent, lived at the red-hot center of American musical theater, died Thursday at home in Manhattan. She was 83.
The cause was heart failure, her son Alexander Guettel said.
Miss Rodgers, the daughter of the composer Richard Rodgers, is probably best-known for writing the music for “Once Upon a Mattress,” the fairy-tale farce about a love-hungry princess that made Carol Burnett a star in 1959; and for writing “Freaky Friday,” a novel for young people about a teenage girl who switches bodies with her mother.
Well reviewed when it was published in 1972, “Freaky Friday” has had several lives on the screen, including a 1976 film version starring Barbara Harris and a teenage Jodie Foster — Mary Rodgers wrote the screenplay — and a 2003 movie starring Jamie Lee Curtis and Lindsay Lohan.
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In perhaps any other family Miss Rodgers would have been the star. But along with a series of famous men in her life, she belonged to the Windsors of the musical theater. With Lorenz Hart or Oscar Hammerstein II as lyricist, her father created a cache of Broadway’s signature shows, among them “Pal Joey,” “Oklahoma!,” “The King and I,” “Carousel” and “The Sound of Music.” Her son Adam Guettel is the Tony Award-winning composer and lyricist of musicals such as “Floyd Collins” and “The Light in the Piazza.” Together with her great friend Stephen Sondheim, they describe a straight line through nearly the entire history of American songwriting for the stage.
Miss Rodgers was born in Manhattan on Jan. 11, 1931. Much of her family life was a secret until 2001, when a television documentary and a biography of her father revealed the dark side of the man who wrote the music for “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” “My Favorite Things,” “June Is Bustin’ Out All Over” and many more of the sunniest songs ever written for the stage.
An alcoholic and a serial philanderer tormented by phobias, Richard Rodgers was portrayed as a genius who put everything into his work with little left over for his wife, the former Dorothy Feiner, and his children.
“There is a home movie of Daddy with me when I was 10 months old or so out in Hollywood,” Miss Rodgers said in an interview with Frank Rich of The New York Times in 2001. “There’s 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.”
Miss Rodgers grew up playing piano — “moderately well,” she said. She graduated from the Brearley School and went to Wellesley College, where she studied music, though not composition. Years later, she recalled that at Wellesley they didn’t even teach composition.”
“They obviously didn’t think women should or could write music,” she told The Juilliard Journal in 2012. She was chairwoman of the Juilliard School board from 1994 to 2001.
She left Wellesley before graduating to marry, but while at school she wrote her first songs. A dozen were published in 1952 under the title “Some of My Best Friends Are Children.”
She befriended Sondheim when they were teenagers — they both spent a summer at the Westport Country Playhouse in Connecticut — and she told his biographer Meryle Secrest that she had spent some time in love with him.
The character of Mary in Sondheim’s musical “Merrily We Roll Along” is sometimes presumed to have been drawn from their friendship, although Miss Rodgers and her namesake in the show were not terribly alike. Sondheim has said that the only autobiographical song he ever wrote was “Opening Doors” from “Merrily.” It depicts young people trying to get established in show business and publishing and is based, he said, on himself, Miss Rodgers and the director Hal Prince, among others.
In 1957, Miss Rodgers went with Sondheim to Washington, where “West Side Story,” for which he had written the lyrics, was opening. At a dinner, she met the show’s composer, Leonard Bernstein, who hired her to help write and produce the television shows of Bernstein’s New York Philharmonic Young People’s Concerts, a job she held for more than a decade.
Besides “One Upon a Mattress,” which was directed on Broadway by George Abbott, Miss Rodgers wrote the music for several other shows, including “Hot Spot” (1963), a short-lived Broadway political satire that starred Judy Holliday as a Peace Corps volunteer in a mythical country; and a popular Off-Broadway revue, “The Mad Show” (1966), a collection of skits adapted from Mad magazine.
She wrote a musical for television, “Feathertop,” based loosely on a Nathaniel Hawthorne short story, and the scores for productions by the Bil Baird marionettes. A revival of “Once Upon a Mattress” with Sarah Jessica Parker was nominated for a Tony in 1997.
Miss Rodgers’ children’s books included “A Billion for Boris,” about a boy whose television set broadcasts tomorrow’s shows today (he uses this to his advantage by betting on racehorses); “The Rotten Book,” about a child who has a fine imagination for what constitutes rotten behavior; and “Summer Switch,” a sequel to “Freaky Friday” involving a father and son.
Her first marriage, to Julian Beaty Jr., a lawyer known as Jerry, ended in divorce. Her second, to Henry Guettel (rhymes with “metal”), a former executive director of the Theater Development Fund, ended with his death last fall.
In addition to her sons Alexander, who is known as Alec, and Adam, she is survived by another son, Richard Rodgers Beaty, known as Tod; two daughters, Constance Peck Beaty, known as Kim, and Linda McKay Beaty, known as Nina; a sister, Linda Rodgers Emory; five grandchildren; and two step-grandchildren.
“The Light in the Piazza,” Adam Guettel’s 2005 musical, for which he won a Tony for best score, was based on a 1950s novel by Elizabeth Spencer about an American woman traveling in Italy with her mentally disabled daughter, who falls in love with an Italian man. Years ago, Miss Rodgers had suggested the story to her father as ripe for musicalizing, but he decided against it. Decades later, she passed the idea on to her son.
Why, she was asked in 2003, did she not adapt the work herself?
“I had a pleasant talent but not an incredible talent,” she said in an interview with The New York Times Magazine. “I was not my father or my son. And you have to abandon all kinds of things.”