Rodgers, Rodgers & Guettel

Written by Steven Blier

Artistic Director, NYFOS

October 30, 2016

Notes on the Program by Steven Blier for Rodgers, Rodgers & Guettel
November 1 & 3, 2016 at Merkin Concert Hall

There are two histories of the Rodgers family that run parallel to one another. The first celebrates the dazzling musical gifts that propelled three generations of artists, giving birth to a century of groundbreaking musicals and hundreds of indispensable songs. The second is the shadow history of three composers triumphing over tremendous adversities, some from without, many from within. Tonight we celebrate that triumph with a selection of their songs, a few chestnuts, and a cache of rarities.

Richard Rodgers began his dazzling Broadway career with lyricist Lorenz Hart. Their first song, “Any Old Place with You,” found its way into the 1919 show A Lonely Romeo. Rodgers was 16 years old, and still a journeyman. But his path was set, and his collaborations with Lorenz Hart went on to ornament Broadway for two decades, with hits like the dapper A Connecticut Yankee, the brilliant Boys from Syracuse, and the gritty Pal Joey. Rodgers’ second musical marriage, to Oscar Hammerstein II, gave us the now-classic shows that define “Broadway musical” for most of us: Oklahoma!, Carousel, South Pacific, The King and I, and The Sound of Music. Rodgers’ career spanned 60 years, ending with the 1979 adaptation of I Remember Mama.

Richard’s daughter Mary carried the Rodgers tradition forward, bursting onto the scene in a blaze of success with her first musical, Once Upon a Mattress. Its off-Broadway run in 1959 was so popular that the producers transferred the show to the Great White Way, where it lasted for 244 performances. This hardy musical made it to London’s West End, and received no fewer than three productions on television before its last Broadway revival twenty years ago. It was a brilliant start for Mary Rodgers, who naturally had access to the cream of lyricists: her childhood friend Stephen Sondheim, the gifted, if unruly, Marshall Barer, and Broadway masters like Sheldon Harnick and Martin Charnin. Each of them inspired her to write first-class songs.

Her son Adam Guettel launched his career more slowly than either his mother or his grandfather. In the Roaring 20s, his father grandfather’s era, it was easier to place a song in a loosely structured, vaudeville-style show that might include music by many writers. The theater was vibrant and affordable. In 1919, the year of A Lonely Romeo, some 152 plays and musicals opened on Broadway, from Twelfth Night and Hamlet to La-La, Lucille! and something called The Very Naked Boy. But Adam Guettel was born in the 1960s, the auteur era of single-composer, high-concept musicals, a tradition his grandfather helped to establish. And Adam has always been a slow, careful writer, taking years to craft his stage works. His musical voice is one-of-a-kind, an American original. But Adam is also firmly grounded in the great traditions, drawing on Broadway, rhythm and blues, and classical composers from Ravel to Stravinsky. His first two major shows, Floyd Collins and Myths and Hymns (also titled Saturn Returns), played only in limited runs. But their recordings quickly turned Guettel from a cult figure into a star. The albums are in every music-theater lover’s collection, and his music is treasured by actors, jazzers, and classical singers. When his 2005 musical The Light in the Piazza finally reached Broadway after a six-year gestation period, Adam Guettel finally enjoyed the kind of sustained exposure that had eluded him for many years. The show won six Tony Awards, including one for Best Original Score.

But three generations of hit shows, with their ubiquitous original cast albums and vocal anthologies, came at a personal cost. Each of these prodigiously talented musicians struggled with demons, and in our tell-all age their dark side has been under the microscope, the subject of books and magazine articles. Sometimes, alas, the backstory has threatened to get more attention than the art.

Richard Rodgers maintained a pristine public image during his career: devoted family man, gifted businessman, infinitely patient caretaker of his gay, alcoholic lyricist Lorenz Hart. He was known as a curmudgeonly but beloved taskmaster to willful singers seeking to embellish his music with rhythmic or melodic alterations. It was a false front. A 2001 biography by Meryle Secrest, Somewhere for Me, revealed Rodgers as a serious alcoholic, an exploitative womanizer, solitary and uncommunicative. He fought with depression for much of his life. It is a shocking exposé, and one of the saddest books I have ever read. After Oscar Hammerstein’s death, Rodgers’ increasing intractability made him a very difficult collaborator for everyone else who followed. No wonder his last four shows were failures.

It was not easy to be Richard Rodger’s daughter. Mary Rodgers forged a strong, sometimes formidable personality. She was capable of great warmth, but her sunshiny generosity could cloud over if something displeased her. One was in her good graces—until one wasn’t. She was a fighter, and she had to be. She valiantly bucked the condescension and outright discrimination that a female composer faced in the boys’ club of musical theater.

Ultimately Mary endured a series of terrible disappointments, and she gave up her career as a composer. After Mattress, she had a disastrous flop, Hot Spot. The show had received a great deal of publicity, leading to enviable pre-sales. It finally opened after two months of previews, several changes of director, and emergency last-minute contributions by her pal Sondheim. After so much anticipation, Hot Spot’s Hindenburg-esque failure received even more press, this time damaging. Actress Judy Holliday made her final stage appearances in the show, saying “You can only live through one or two Hot Spots in your life.”

Mary Rodgers recovered to enjoy one more musical success, The Mad Show in 1966. This off-Broadway musical revue ran for 871 performances and starred Linda Lavin and Jo Anne Worley. Then came the deal-breaker.

Mary’s agent at the time, Robert Lantz, got her involved with a musical based on Carson McCullers’ novel The Member of the Wedding. She and her lyricist, Marshall Barer, visited McCullers, played some of the songs, and received the author’s blessing. There followed a tangle of manipulations and skullduggery, some of them instigated by Lantz, some of them quirks of bad timing. Eventually, after McCullers’s death, the author’s sister rescinded the rights to the novel in favor of a different version of the musical, this one to be directed by Ted Mann of Circle in the Square. It was a spectacularly bad decision. The resulting musical, F. Jasmine Addams with a score by a composer who went by the name “G. Wood,” was widely panned and lasted for six performances. It made Hot Spot’s brief run look like My Fair Lady by comparison.

This was the last straw for Mary Rodgers. She left music. Her stated reason was that she estimated her talent as good-but-not-great. She felt that her father, and then her son, were touched with a kind of genius that she lacked. But another reason was that she knew she had other artistic talents to explore. She turned her hand to writing children’s books and became a very successful author. One of her books, Freaky Friday, has attained the status of a classic.

Mary wasn’t quite done with music, however. She made occasional forays into composing, including a song or two for the 1978 musical Working and the score for a musical based on Freaky Friday. As late as 1988, she attempted one more musical, an adaptation of Frank Stockton’s short story The Griffin and the Minor Canon. It was an unhappy experience, including an uncongenial lyricist and the kind of working conditions “you can deal with when you’re in your twenties, but not when you’re in your fifties.” Her unhappiness re-confirmed her earlier vow to abandon composing. After Mary’s final retreat from music, she turned her attention to writing, philanthropy, and important board duties at Juilliard and the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization.

Mary Rodgers reacted to the legacy of her father’s dark secrecy by being almost aggressively open about the family’s painful past. Writer Jesse Green described it as “a personal style you might call knee-jerk transparency, except that you do not need even a tiny rubber mallet to get the goods from her.” Adam has followed in his mother’s footsteps—and, alas, his grandfather’s. He has been open about his long, dramatic struggle with drugs and alcohol. Even his own mother had salty words about Adam’s sexual appetites when he was a younger man. And unlike his grandfather, he writes slowly and painstakingly, with periods of writer’s block. In different ways, both mother and grandson inherited both the Midas touch and the Midas curse: the Rodgers genius for songwriting, along with the crippling weight of Rodgers legacy. And both had their fair share of the Rodgers pain. It is therefore a pleasure to see Adam in the year 2016: happily married, a hale, healthy, still-handsome fifty-year old keeping his demons at bay, hard at work on new theater pieces. I remember him from his troubled years as a haunted man, short-circuited by the world’s expectations of him and by his own compulsions. The warm, generous Adam I encountered in 2016 seems an altogether different being. I pray that this new Zen-Adam enjoys a long, healthy life.

The enigma of Richard Rodgers is poignant and shocking for those of us who were weaned on his musicals with Hammerstein, so imbued with optimism—“But I’m stuck like a dope/With a thing called hope/And I can’t get it out of my heart!/Not this heart.” Ultimately, according to Mary, “I don’t think anyone knew who he really was, with the possible exception of one of the five psychiatrists he went to. And I’m sure they didn’t know either. I don’t think he knew. He was just all locked up in there, grinding out gorgeous stuff.”

The “gorgeous stuff” he ground out has taken on the oracular quality of folk music. One of the secrets of Richard Rodgers’ long career was his ability to roll with the times, capturing the Zeitgeist of four decades. It is fascinating to hear his earliest songs, written with Lorenz Hart just after World War I, dancing to the chunky rhythms of vaudeville and ragtime. Just a few years later he found a way to swing into the jazz age—perhaps never with the pelvic abandon of George Gershwin, but with the coltish energy of a flapper. His music in the 30s has a bit more texture, longer lines, a kind of moodiness suitable to the era. In the 40s, now in partnership with Oscar Hammerstein II, he discovered a new depth, which spoke not just to sophisticated New Yorkers but gave the entire nation something pure and hopeful to sustain them through the rough times of war. In the 50s, he wrote for the squarer tastes of Eisenhower’s America, faltering a bit with Pipe Dream and Me and Juliet, but hitting his biggest pay dirt with The King and I and The Sound of Music.

Like so many of Broadway’s classic composers, Rodgers had trouble adapting to the social and theatrical upheavals of the 60s and 70s. The colorful, idiosyncratic scores of Fiddler, Cabaret, Man of La Mancha, and Hair were not in Rodgers’ arsenal. Music theater was moving on, leaving the masters of the 32-bar song behind: Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Noël Coward, Rodgers, and even Bernstein.

But recent revivals of Carousel, South Pacific and The King and I (with judiciously trimmed scripts and spruced-up staging) have served to remind modern audiences of his theatrical power. And of course his songs have never been out of the spotlight. Rodgers’ melodic gift was indefatigable, and his tunes melded themselves to Hart’s and Hammerstein’s words with an uncanny eloquence. This was due to his gift for musical timing and spacing: Rodgers knew exactly how to leave room for their lyrics to resonate in the listener’s mind and soul—this is the true reason why his songs have become indispensable. Modern theater songs often have lengthy, chattering lyrics, while modern popular songs tend to pound away on a single hook, bludgeoning the listener into an instant feeling of familiarity. Rodgers and Hammerstein used musical hooks too—ear-catching phrases like “Across a crowded room,” or “When the dog bites”—but they did so in a more insinuating way, sneaking them into our imagination where they seem to nest forever.

Richard Rodgers’ music is not especially adventurous harmonically, and he had an odd penchant for making melodies out of repeated quarter notes on a single pitch—think of “Where or When,” “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top,” “The Gentleman is a Dope,” or “It Never Entered My Mind.” (They say Hart wrote the lyrics to “Johnny One-Note” as a way of poking gentle fun at his partner.) Rodgers music tends to be square and orderly, though his waltzes sometimes attain a sweet, anti-gravitational lightness. No, Rodgers’ music isn’t hip. But it is perfectly crafted, immaculately tailored for the voice, beautiful on first hearing and still heart-stopping on the thousandth. No wonder that he became jazz musicians’ favorite songwriter. Rodgers’ plain-spoken tunes are often the basis for their wildest improvisations.

Mary Rodgers may have lacked her father’s eloquence. But the longer I work on her songs, the more I see how daring her music is. “Happily Ever After,” for example, may seem like a genre song in a standard blues pattern, a joke-joke-topper number like “One Hundred Easy Ways to Lose a Man” from Bernstein’s Wonderful Town. But “Happily” has a devilishly deceptive harmonic pattern, and the listener is never sure exactly what key the song is in. (Nor are the performers: all of us are working hard to get this complicated piece right.)

When composing Once Upon a Mattress Mary Rodgers summoned up her courage to show her father the song “Normandy.” After a breezy fox-trot-style main tune, the bridge takes off in an unpredictable direction, with modal harmonies and a faux-Renaissance feel. Richard Rodgers raised an eyebrow. “I wouldn’t have done that,” he said disapprovingly. This was, of course, exactly the response Mary secretly craved: to be different, to be original. When the inevitable rumors sprung up that her songs were ghost-written by her father, she exclaimed, “Write them? He doesn’t even like them!”

Mary Rodgers always felt abashed that she had not finished the music program in which she was enrolled at Wellesley College. She never felt confident she could notate what she heard in her head. The unusual chord patterns in her songs were like a musical crossword puzzle—to see if she could arrive at the right chord after taking challenging harmonic detours. Her father’s music feels inevitable. Mary’s is quirkier, and more unpredictable.

She expressed few regrets about abandoning her career in music. Mary was having tremendous success as a writer. She was also a mother of five, and the daughter of two troubled parents. She wanted to be the parent she never had and that meant making her family, not her career, the top priority.

Still, I can’t help being sad that she gave up songwriting. She was reaching new heights when she stopped composing. The Member of the Wedding contains many fine numbers, including the one I prize above all her others: “Something Known,” a ballad worthy of her illustrious father, poised somewhere between Broadway monologue and operatic aria. There is also great beauty in The Griffin: “Am I?” is my runner-up for Best Mary Song, a ravishing, complex piece of music that whirls through tonalities with a delicacy only hinted at in her previous work.

If “Something Known” sounds like Mary’s tribute to her father, “Am I” looks to the future: it sounds like the music of her son Adam. Mary educated herself by working with Leonard Bernstein on his Young People’s Concerts, and by collaborating with her lifelong friend Stephen Sondheim, who was a student of Milton Babbitt. Adam took it all a step father, with influences ranging through four centuries of music. And like all contemporary theater composers, he has absorbed the restless, rapid-fire style of Sondheim, so different from the leisurely, almost courtly way his grandfather addressed audiences.

In fact, Adam Guettel has accomplished the impossible: he bridged the gap between Richard Rodgers and Stephen Sondheim. In life Rodgers and Sondheim were adversaries, and their one collaboration, Do I Hear a Waltz? left each of them hostile and embittered. When I saw its recent revival at the Encores! series, I described it as the marriage of a butter knife (Rodgers) with a steak knife (Sondheim)—fascinating for the viewer, but unpleasant for the knives. Rodgers later described Sondheim as “a cold man with a deep sense of cynicism,” Sondheim publicly pronounced Rodgers “a man of infinite talent and limited soul.” But Adam finally brought the two men together through his music, marrying Sondheim’s dazzling facility with Rodgers’ supernal lyricism to create something all his own.

Adam fascinates his listeners, drawing on many recognizable genres without being slavish to any of them. He has a way of cross-breeding styles within a single piece, so that Stevie Wonder mates with Ravel (“Hero and Leander”), Bob Dylan with Fauré (“How Glory Goes”), James Brown and Britten (“St. Who”). But when I sit down to play Adam’s music, I find a common thread lying right under my hands: an opulent harmonic palette used with classic precision. Bach would not have recognized Adam’s gorgeous Bill Evans-y chords, but he might have appreciated the perfect voice-leading and the logic of their quirky progressions. Unlike Richard Rodgers’ songs, which seem to re-harmonize themselves the minute I touch them, Adam’s music needs to be played as written. You can slightly amplify a gesture, perhaps, or double a bass line, but ultimately you must treat it as if it were art song.

There are two composers whose music seems like what I would write, had I that creative gift: Karol Szymanowski and Adam Guettel. And it is for the same reason: their exquisite chords, sexy clusters of notes that capture the kind of wordless longing and sensuality that only music can express. I am gratified to see that Adam has become an icon for the current generation, and tickled to inform them that he had a very famous grandfather and also a talented mother. We will one day get to the point when Adam Guettel’s songs are the standard to which Mary and Richard Rodgers are compared, not vice-versa. Have no fears: they are up to the scrutiny. All three of them are unique and indispensable, sources of eternal pleasure.

–Many thanks to the writer Jesse Green, who loaned me several of the rare, unpublished songs by Mary Guettel for tonight’s concert. He also offered me invaluable guidance as I prepared both the program and the above essay. I am in his debt, and very grateful for his generosity.

 

Steven Blier

Called “the coolest dude in town” by Opera News, master collaborative pianist and coach Steven Blier is the co-founder and artistic director of New York Festival of Song. Here on No Song is Safe From Us, Steven blogs about the NYFOS Emerging Artist residencies, writes the engaging and erudite program notes for our Mainstage concerts, and contributes frequently to Song of the Day.

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1 Comment

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    Superb notes on superb songwriters. Thanks for the clarity and passion you bring to your writing.

    Reply

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