Mary Rodgers passed away yesterday at the age of 83. The headline of the AP story about her death noted her as the author of the book Freaky Friday. And she was, and it might be her best-known credential to many of a more recent vintage. But she first came to fame as the composer of The Mad Show off-Broadway (in which she collaborated with, among others, Stephen Sondheim), and then most famously the hit musical Once Upon a Mattress. That show starred Carol Burnett, was done as a TV special (and repeated for many years), revived on Broadway with Sarah Jessica Parker and re-made for TV with Tracey Ullman. She wrote several musicals and children's books (and wrote the screenplay to the film version of Freaky Friday -- and the film The Devil and Max Devlin that starred Bill Cosby was based on her short story -- and also contributed songs to the landmark album, Free to Be...You and Me.
While she's also known as the daughter of Broadway legend Richard Rodgers, what's less known is that she also the mother of Adam Guettel, who wrote the score to the Tony-winning The Light at the Piazza.
How's this for a modest quote from someone who had a very successful career in several areas, and did wonderful, memorable work: "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."
Once Upon a Mattress began life off-Broadway, but soon transferred to Broadway, where it ran for 244 performances. But it's had a huge after-life, not just on Broadway and TV, but high schools, colleges and community theaters.
I wasn't crazy about the recent 2005 TV movie version of Once Upon a Mattress. Part of why is because Tracey Ullman was too old for the part -- not that she herself wasn't wonderful -- she was -- but the casting forced Prince Dauntless to be much older in turn, and that made him seem not merely immature as written, under mother's thumb, but sad and pathetic. Also, in casting Carol Burnett as the Queen, they rewrote things and changed the focus. And in doing so, they cut my favorite song, "Very Soft Shoes."
Rather than just a single song, I want to include a few numbers, because Mary Rodgers deserves them.
(She wrote a great deal more than just Once Upon a Mattress, as I've noted, but I like it so much that that's what we're going with...)
First, here's the original TV version with Carol Burnett recreating her Broadway role as Princess Winifred. (This is the black-and-white version, made in 1964. They remade it later in color in 1972, also with Burnett and some of the same cast.) The very smart and clever lyrics are by Marshall Barer. This is "Shy."
Much as I didn't particularly care for the recent TV filmed-remake, there was one bit of casting that worked, Zooey Deschanel as Lady Larkin and Matthew Morrison as Sir Harry. And I particularly wanted to include their "In a Little While" to show that Mary Rodgers could write a ballad as lovely as her father. (And Mr. Barer has some particularly good rhymes here.)
To those who don't know the show, the Queen wants to keep her son the Prince under her thumb, and she has declared that no one in the kingdom can marry until he does. And her standards for a match are impossibly high. This causes some problems, as you might imagine, particularly here for Lady Larkin and Prince Harry, who are deeply in love. Unmarried, of course. And...going to have a baby. So, she implores him to go out and find a princess who can meet the Queen's requirements, so that the Prince can marry. And then, they can as well -- before the baby arrives. In a little while.
Finally, I can't leave "Once Upon a Mattress" without including my favorite song. As I said, it was cut from the TV movie, for which my teeth have only recently become slightly ungnashed. They included it in the two earlier TV productions, but I can't find footage of it. But here is Matt Maddox as the Jester singing an ode of love to his father, the greatest Jester of them all, from the Original Broadway Cast.
I can't explain why I love, "Very Soft Shoes," but I think it's all wrapped in the music being wonderful, the lyrics tender, whimsical and funny, and the whole thing ultimately just so richly and exudingly affectionate, without a touch of maudlin in sight.
Okay, I said "finally," but here's a bonus, because you deserve it. And so, as I said, does Mary Rodgers.
While this isn't my favorite song by Mary Rodgers (that's the one above), this song has my favorite passage of anything Mary Rodgers and Marshall Barer wrote. About as beautiful, wistful, whimsical and tender as a passage can get.
It comes at the opening of the show, right after the overture, when the Minstrel (sung here by Harry Snow) tells the story of The Princess and the Pea (afterwords explaining that that''s not the whole story, which we then get in the show). So, this is largely just a straight forward narrative song, "Many Moons Ago." But within it, there is a passage -- sung twice here -- which is the heart of the evening, and transcends that. In fact, the passage is repeated at, literally, the very end of the show and is where the curtain comes down and how Once Upon a Mattress ends. I'll just give you a heads-up by saying that it begins with the words, "For a princess is a delicate thing...."
For me, music and lyrics don't meld together a whole lot better than those few bars and words. And a testament to what you can do with simplicity.
Besides, it also seems to right way to go out on a tribute to Mary Rodgers...
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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