Stephen Sondheim Premieres New Song at Mary Rodgers Guettel Memorial; Julie Andrews, Carol Burnett and More Remember Composer's Spunk and Laughter

News   Stephen Sondheim Premieres New Song at Mary Rodgers Guettel Memorial; Julie Andrews, Carol Burnett and More Remember Composer's Spunk and Laughter
 
Stephen Sondheim gave an emotional performance of an original new song, and Carol Burnett reminisced with Julie Andrews at a memorial service for composer/author/screenwriter Mary Rodgers Guettel, who died June 26 at age 83.

Mary Rodgers
Mary Rodgers Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

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Harold Prince, Stephen Schwartz, Kelli O’Hara, Ted Chapin, Helen Hunt and Victoria Clark were just a few of the other Broadway royalty who spoke and/or performed at New York’s Town Hall Theatre in memory of the talent, intelligence, generosity, cantankerousness — and most of all, the distinctive laugh — of the daughter of composer Richard Rodgers and mother of composer Adam Guettel. Her credits include the filmed novel “Freaky Friday” and her own score to the hit 1959 musical Once Upon a Mattress, a clip of which (with Burnett singing “Shy”) was played at the top of the event.

Sondheim, a lifelong friend since their teen years, who collaborated with her on the song “The Boy From…” in The Mad Show, played an original piece of music he adapted from a theme they had written together at a time “when we decided we would conquer the worlds of TV and musicals.” The music, which he described as a “song without words,” was simultaneously playful and melancholy. Sondheim said little but his mouth appeared to be working with emotion as he played solo on the Town Hall stage.

Sondheim’s friendship with Rodgers was such that he even wrote her (and her husband Henry Guettel) into the opening number of Company with the lines “Hank and Mary get into town tomorrow.”

Andrews and Burnett spoke as a team, handing off anecdotes to one another, recalling how both had been inspired and encouraged by Rodgers and her father at the dawn of their respective careers. “They gave us our wings,” Andrew said. Andrews also claimed that she was actually Burnett and had been impersonating Andrews throughout her career. She deadpanned, “Trying to maintain this accent all these years has been a nightmare.” She described Rodgers as “divinely cantankerous.”

Burnett (the real one) recalled how Rodgers was instrumental in getting Once Upon a Mattress to transfer from its limited Off-Broadway engagement to a full run at a Broadway “house.” She said it was Rodgers' idea to get publicity by picketing the producer’s office in costume as Princess Winifred with signs reading “A house, a house, my kingdom for a house.”

Stephen Sondheim
Stephen Sondheim

Fifteen friends and family including Hunt, humorist Paul Rudnick, orchestrator/music director Bruce Pomahac, personal secretary Bill Young and daughter Kim Beaty participated in self-described “lightning round” of favorite anecdotes that illuminated Rodgers' personality. Hunt told a story of Rodgers' generosity to young struggling writers, marking her checks “Fun Money,” knowing full well that the “fun” money would be used to pay for food and heating bills. When Hunt protested Rodgers' largesse, she said Rodgers replied, “Don’t be ridiculous — if your father wrote Oklahoma!, you’d be writing me the check.” Others testified that Rodgers had used the line frequently.

For his entry in the “lightning round,” son Alec Guettel brought down the house with a 30-second film clip he described as depicting “the opposite” of what Rodgers was really like as a mother. It turned out to be a bizarrely out-of-character, though apparently quite real, TV commercial for Cool Whip, in which Rodgers presents herself as a 1950s style housewife spooning out the creamy dessert topping to her hubby and kids while oozing with insincere delight.

The Town Hall crowd consisted of celebrities, fans, friends, and many of Richard Rodgers’ descendants, most of them named Guettel, Melnick (Rodgers’ sister’s married name) and Beaty (from Rodgers' first husband).

The memorial included performances of two never-recorded Rodgers songs, including “Something Known” from a musical based on Member of the Wedding, played by protégé John Bucchino with help from 21 singers, including Kelli O’Hara, Rory O’Malley and Jose Llana, as the family projected clips of Rodgers' home movies and private photos showing her with her children, her parents, playing as a child with her father on a lawn, working with Sondheim, Dinah Shore, Mattress co-author Marshall Barer, et al.

No program was distributed, but those who attended were handed a chapbook containing "anecdotes and remembrances" of Rodgers. Many speakers referred to her laugh, variously described as “beguiling” and “dirty,” and the back 50 pages of the chapbook could be riffled to create a flipbook of Rodgers throwing back her head in one of these laughs. “You’ll have to supply the sound yourself,” one speaker said to the theatre full of her friends and family.

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