Marshall Barer, the lyricist for Once Upon a Mattress and Pousse Cafe, died of cancer Aug. 25 at age 75. His last Broadway outing had been a personally unhappy one -- the 1996 revival of Mattress -- but composer Mary Rodgers, who bore a good share of both Barer's joie de vive and his truculence, had very specific and surprising memories of her co-author.
After all, the last Broadway had heard from Barer, he was barred from rehearsals due to furious creative differences with Mattress director Gerald Gutierrez. Barer was so outspoken in his disapproval of star Sarah Jessica Parker and other aspects of the production, relations between Barer and the entire Mattress company were as chummy as the one onstage between Queen Aggravain and Princess Winnifred of Farfelot.
At the time, Rodgers said of her collaborator, "Marshall is an incredibly talented man in a lot of different areas. He was a graphic artist, so he has incredibly good eyes for design and knows exactly how a show should look -- especially since the idea of adapting 'The Princess And The Pea' was his. Unfortunately, his opinions are so strong, he likes to be the boss, a one man show. He cares so passionately that he simply can't shut up. Eventually the producers got the message that he was hurting morale..."
Eric Andrist, co-founder of the Musical Theatre Guild in Los Angeles, had a better working experience with Barer. The Guild produced Mattress this past February in a staged concert version at the Pasadena Playhouse. Barer visited the production and, says Andrist, "He was ecstatic about our show and showered us with praise. He couldn't have been nicer or more gracious. He was observed sitting in the audience singing along and having a great time. He told us afterwards, that our `production restored his faith in the show again and will replace the awful memories of the last Broadway production.'"
In our conversation a week or so after Barer's death, I asked composer Rodgers whether she'd ever patched things up with the lyricist. "I called him when I found out he was sick," said Rodgers, "this summer sometime. And we talked. "Marshall was always so..insane to begin with. Utterly charming most of the time. He didn't have a mean bone in his body, but he was a control freak. Certainly he was a tremendously talented artist and visual artist, with a very good eye for how people and costumes should look. He He was extremely musical and understood exactly what you were doing, even though he didn't read music."
But what of Barer's tantrums? "He was exuberantly all over the place," noted Rodgers. "It could be daunting for new producers, but he was always like that. He took every drug known to man; he was crazy. He walked out of The Mad Show (which is why Steve Sondheim and I ended up writing "The Boy From"). Marshall was a wild man, but he was absolutely darling. In fact, he enchanted my children. They thought he was the weirdest thing they'd ever seen -- and they thought he was wonderful."
Continued Rodgers, "I saw him once wandering down the street in a vanilla ice cream suit and a panama straw hat and pushing along what looked like a hobo's bunch of old clothes. He wore the darndest things. He once covered his entire Mercedes with blue jean material. He pasted it down, wet it so it would stick, and drove around in this incredible blue jean Mercedes."
Not eccentric enough? Rodgers remembers further: "Once I was invited to a party at his house, and I brought a bunch of Upper East Side type friends. Well, the night before he'd had a pretty wild party with some gay friends. So we walk into this party, and there was this upright spinet piano, and the top of it had an array of shapes of men's erections done in tin foil."
Barer's first Broadway assignments began when he co-wrote songs with Alec Wilder for New Faces of 1956. The duo then worked on a 1957 Ziegfeld Follies. In 1959, Barer teamed with composer Rodgers and adapted "The Princess and the Pea" fairy tale into Once Upon A Mattress. Rodgers and Barer also penned five songs for 1966's aforementioned Off-Broadway smash, The Mad Show and later collaborated on a musical adaptation of Member of the Wedding. The 1966 Broadway show Pousse-Cafe proved less successful for Barer and composer Duke Ellington.
Asked if she had a favorite lyric of all that Barer had penned during his lifetime, Rodgers replied, "My favorite lyric would be `Man To Man Talk' from Once Upon a Mattress. It's so touching, and he adored his parents."