Mary Rodgers, Composer of Once Upon a Mattress and Daughter of Broadway Royalty, Dies at 83

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26 Jun 2014

Mary Rodgers
Mary Rodgers
Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Mary Rodgers, who, as the daughter of a famous musical theatre composer (Richard Rodgers), a musical theatre successful composer herself (Once Upon a Mattress) and the mother of a musical theatre composer (Adam Guettel), held a singular place in the history of the American theatre, died June 26. She was 83.

Ms. Rodgers grew up in a household steeped in music and theatre culture. She was born Jan. 11, 1931, to Richard Rodgers and his wife Dorothy Bell Feiner Rodgers. Richard Rodgers was not at that point the theatre eminence he would become—though he had already been working with lyricist Lorenz Hart for a decade. But, by the time Mary was 18, he was the author of Pal Joey, The Boys from Syracuse, I'd Rather Be Right (all with Hart), and Oklahoma!, Carousel, Allegro and South Pacific.

Ms. Rodgers found success herself in the theatre at an early age. When still in her 20s, she wrote, with lyricist Marshall Barer and bookwriters Jay Thompson and Dean Fuller, Once Upon a Mattress, a musical adaptation of the Hans Christian Anderson fable "The Princess and the Pea." The piece began life as a short play written at the Tamiment adult summer camp in 1958. When it opened at Off-Broadway's Phoenix Theatre the following year, reviews were mixed. But the show—light and likable—proved popular. It transferred to Broadway's Alvin Theatre, and then the St. James, playing just over a year, all told. It made a star out of its lead actress, Carol Burnett, who made comic hay out of the awkward Princess Winnifred. Burnett and the musical received Tony nominations.

The show thereafter proved a staple in regional and community theatre circles. It was filmed for television in 1964, and again in 1972, both times with Burnett. A Broadway revival in 1996 starred Sarah Jessica Parker.

Ms. Rodgers never again enjoyed the same kind of success on Broadway. A revue featuring her songs, From A to Z, closed after a month in 1960. A new musical, Hot Spot, did the same in 1963. The Madwoman of Central Park West, a one-person musical starring Phyllis Newman, played 85 performances in 1979. Outside of Mattress, her most notable success as a composer was "The Boy From…," a comic number that spoofed the popular song "The Girl From Ipanema," written with her childhood friend Stephen Sondheim.



The latter song was drawn from The Mad Show, a successful revue based on MAD magazine that ran a couple years Off-Broadway beginning in 1966. On it, Ms. Rodgers collaborated with librettists Stan Hart and Larry Siegel, and lyricists Marshall Barer and Steven Vinaver. She ended up collaborating with Sondheim on "The Boy From…" when Barer, who was temperamental and prone to tantrums, walked out of the show. "He was exuberantly all over the place," Rodgers told Playbill.com, about Barer. "It could be daunting for new producers, but he was always like that. He took every drug known to man; he was crazy." The original cast featured Linda Lavin, Jo Anne Worley and Paul Sand.

The scion of a musical giant, Mary Rodgers became the mother of a notable composer when her son with Henry Guettel, Adam, began producing work in the 1990s. He first made his mark with Floyd Collins, an edgy musical based on a famous 1925 incident where a man got trapped in a Kentucky cave. His fame was furthered with the debut of the 2003 musical The Light in the Piazza, which won him a Tony Award.

Mary Rodgers also wrote children's books, most notable "Freaky Friday," in which a mother and daughter trade bodies. It was twice made into a film. Rodgers wrote the screenplay for the first one, in 1976. Other books included "A Billion for Boris," "Summer Switch" and "The Rotten Book." Regarding her stage career, she once said, "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."

Mary Rodgers Guettel is survived by her sister, Linda Rodgers Emory, five children, and seven grandchildren and step-grandchildren.