Two books give Stephen Sondheim and Mary Rodgers the last word

Would-be writers are often urged by well-meaning educators to find their “voice,” ie, their own sound and style. Unfortunately, this artistic business card cannot be forced. As the immortal lyrics of Stephen Sondheim say, “You either have it/Or you had it!”

Two new outrageously entertaining theatrical biographies are a reminder that “voice” is as important for the stage as it is for a work of literature.

Daughter of musical theater founding father Richard Rodgers and a composer (“Once Upon a Mattress”) and children’s book author (“Freaky Friday”) of modest renown, Mary Rodgers knows how to crack a joke. She uses that talent in her memoir, Shy: The Alarmingly Outspoken Memoirs of Mary Rodgers, co-written with New York Times chief critic Jesse Green and published eight years after her death.

Sensitivity is something Sondheim possessed in such extreme concentration that it only takes one shot glass value to flavor Finale: Late Conversations With Stephen Sondheim. New York writer DT Max’s book is a series of interviews conducted during the winter of Sondheim’s life, when the genius behind “Sweeney Todd,” “Sunday in the Park With George,” and “Into the Woods” was attempting to write another groundbreaking show before it’s celebrated to the grave.

The sparkle of these books has everything to do with the bubbly frankness of their title characters. Both were weaned in the golden age of Broadway, products of a wealthy, largely Jewish milieu in which New York’s theater makers fertilized each other artistically and otherwise. No wonder they got to know each other intimately.

Rodgers grew up surrounded by celebrities drinking Scotch at their family’s fancy homes in Manhattan, Beverly Hills and Connecticut. As a chubby, grumpy, troubled youth, she moaned about being stuck on an endless merry-go-round of galas (“Blecch, there’s one more event for ‘Oklahoma!’ I have to go to”) and coldly rebelled against her narcissism-controlling parents.

Sondheim, the son of a prominent New York clothing manufacturer and a designer, fled to Bucks County, Penn., home of Oscar Hammerstein II, after his parents’ acrimonious divorce. Hammerstein, who revolutionized American musicals with his writing partner Richard Rodgers, became both a mentor and also a father figure for the young man who would eventually challenge the old guard with the less than ingratiating brilliance of his Broadway musical scores.

Jesse Green, right, is the co-author of "Shy: The Alarmingly Outspoken Memoir of Mary Rodgers."

Jesse Green, right, is co-author of the autobiography Shy: The Alarmingly Outspoken Memoirs of Mary Rodgers.

(Farrar, Straus and Giroux; Earl Wilson / The New York Times)

At Hammerstein’s, a 13-year-old Mary Rodgers first saw a 14-year-old Sondheim. “I was blindsided by Steve, completely stunned,” she writes. “I knew right away that he was brilliant; he just smelled of talent. Which, not illogically, has always turned me on the most.”

Sondheim features prominently in Rodgers’ memoir, which chronicles her prolific romantic involvements with gay men. The couple even tried it under the questionable advice of their psychoanalyst. The love process ended in mutual frustration, but their bond was indissoluble. After all, who could understand the other better?

When Max shows up for a New York profile at Sondheim’s Manhattan townhouse in Turtle Bay, Sondheim, a reluctant interviewee, battles a “scab of creative despair.” He’s trying to promote a new musical with playwright David Ives based on two classic Luis Buñuel films, but age, frailty and self-doubt are holding him back.

Sondheim’s inability to complete the work gives Max’s book an air of Waiting for Godot. But the failure proves instructive as Sondheim dissects the routine of his crippled creative process until he pulls the plug on Max and declares he’d rather not be profiled after all. Sondheim’s death last year enhanced the value of these astute conversations and enabled Max to publish them.

The success of these two books illustrates something Rodgers and Sondheim were always the first to recognize—that collaboration, no matter how bumpy, is the foundation of good work.

It’s hard to think of a better sounding board than Green. He crafts a daring, sometimes distracting, but ultimately inspirational format, reserving his commentary for footnotes that contextualize, teasingly contradict, and occasionally excuse Rodgers from their blunt self-assessments.

Had Rodgers’ life merited such an expansive memoir, had she not been the resentful daughter of a pillar of American musicals? Probably not. But “Shy” is much more than a work of childish revenge. It’s the story of a bygone theatrical age, when New York was the center of the cultural universe and Broadway could still pretend it was at a crossroads.

DT Max, right, is the author of "Finale: Late Conversations with Stephen Sondheim."

DT Max, right, is the author of Finale: Late Conversations With Stephen Sondheim.

(Harper; Marco Secchi / Getty Images)

Rodgers’ scathing honesty jumps off the page in a way that had me imagining a theatrical adaptation along the lines of Elaine Stritch At Liberty. “Shy” would also benefit from the structural discipline that the stage demands. Too many chapters are devoted to musicals that either went nowhere or are largely forgotten today. Once Upon a Mattress broke Rodgers out of her dad’s shadow, but who wants to read a lengthy account of their pregnancy unless you’re running a high school acting department? When the Some Bombs chapter arrives, it seems like we’ve been fighting our way through a theatrical warzone for years.

Rodgers is aware that her story could come across as a poor little rich girl. But in her cocktail party recap of Broadway’s heyday, she testifies to what it was like to be a composer in a male-dominated field — mostly from her father. She turns a second career into a top performance.

Sondheim is, of course, top notch throughout. Broadway’s god of mixed feelings, he’s caught in Max’s series of interviews and sparse commentary in all his irascible tenderness — his chummyness displayed alongside his sullenness.

At a PEN America gala honoring Sondheim’s literary contributions, Max, seated next to Sondheim and Meryl Streep, asks his subject to elaborate on the startling admission that he’s not a big reader beyond The New York Times. Streep says she is obsessed with reading, which Sondheim, a born joker, points out: “Vogue and Cosmopolitan and the Style section of the Times.”

He’s just being playful, just like he was when he joked, “Now you’ve got a portrait of Meryl’s marriage: It’s called the Bickersteins.” But Max doesn’t sand down Sondheim’s rough edges. He doesn’t fully edit his own either. He poses as an inexperienced enthusiast of Sondheim’s catalogue, hoping that a non-threatening attitude might weaken Sondheim’s defenses. But Max’s writing ego isn’t easily suppressed.

From left: Marshall Barer, Hal Prince and Mary Rodgers work on a tune in 1960.

From left: Marshall Barer, Hal Prince and Mary Rodgers work on a tune in 1960.

(Rodgers-Beaty-Guettel family)

After reading Sondheim’s two-volume collection of lyrics and commentary, Max writes disapprovingly of the book’s “competitive” tone: “Often the point of the story has been that Sondheim was right, though not necessarily. He also enjoyed telling a spectacular mistake, but someone was right. I found the approach unsubtle, paradoxically the opposite of his lyrics.”

The frankness of these comments is refreshing. But is this the most important takeaway from one of the most remarkable works of artistic self-analysis? The criticism isn’t shared directly with Sondheim — Max, also the author of the first biography of the late novelist David Foster Wallace, never loses sight of his subservient role — but the game of matching jokes is on.

The theme of rhymes transforms Max into a club tennis player desperate to hit a service winner against Roger Federer. As a teacher, Sondheim is patient. But when Max takes pride in rhyming vodka to babka in a parody song of Purim game, the master guns him down.

“It is a vicinity-Rhyme. That’s my point. If you want to almost rhyme, don’t brag about it. Don’t say, ‘I’m good at rhymes’ and then do near-rhymes.”

The game goes too far when Max, in an email, points out a weird rhyme from “Bounce,” a troubled series that goes by different titles. Sondheim’s ardent response was like steam: “The rhyme is sung by a demented person with slurred speech. That’s the joke. Lower your eyebrow and pay attention.”

These contretemps are not in vain. Aside from revealing both men’s pride, they shed light on the intricate spirit behind what Max calls “the Sondheim experience” – “a moment of complex pleasure when the music wakes up and tickles and outwits your sluggish brain while.” the rhymes click like castanets.”

Max’s method results in an oddly touching miniature. “Finale” wouldn’t work as a play, although Harold Pinter might have had a big day with the subtext. But like “Shy,” it conjures a Broadway voice like no other. Two books give Stephen Sondheim and Mary Rodgers the last word

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