In Finishing the Hat, his insight-laden assessment of his own work and that of others, Stephen Sondheim writes that his 1981 show, Merrily We Roll Along, was in part an attempt to recapture his “exuberant early days,” a period in which his lifelong friend, Mary Rodgers, figured prominently. As we approach Mary Rodgers’ memorial, to be held this Monday, at New York’s Town Hall, and the imminent Lincoln Center Theater revival of The King and I, I have been thinking about the legacy of R & H – their exuberant days – and why it continues to exert such a tidal pull on theatregoers around the world.
As it happens, I asked Mary Rodgers about this very subject during the run of LCT’s previous R & H production, South Pacific, in 2008. I had met her on the production’s first day of rehearsal, but it was only when the revival’s cast album was being recorded, months later, that we had a chance to chat. During a break in the studio activity, I re-introduced myself, addressing her as “Ms. Rodgers.” “Please,” she replied, as if I’d implied she was ancient rather than what she really was: energetic, “call me Mary.”
Why are the R & H shows, I asked her, so evergreen? “For one thing,” Mary said, “everybody still enjoys doing them – schools, community groups, Broadway and off-Broadway.” She added: “This helps create a constant reservoir of awareness: you don’t have to tell a new ticket-buyer what Oklahoma! is, because he probably sang Curly in high school.”
“For another thing,” Mary went on, “the screen adaptations are still popular.” (NBC’s live version of The Sound of Music, to take only the most recent example, was a social-media phenomenon.) “If you didn’t know the von Trapps from being in the glee club, you know them from the DVD.”
“As for more hardened theatergoers,” Mary added, suggesting a third reason, “there’s the element of surprise. The shows cover more emotions than urban sophisticates tend to remember. They think the characters from these shows are warm and cuddly, and then they see the King from The King and I and realize how mistaken they were.”
Finally, she said, the R & H shows have a purity of unironic emotion that imprints itself upon people’s hearts. “They seem to touch our feelings so effortlessly. They have a scope and ambition that’s missing from many musicals now.” Mary’s friend Stephen Sondheim put it another way. In his section on Hammerstein in Finishing the Hat, Sondheim wrote, “He is exposed, sentimental warts and all, every minute and in every word, especially in the songs he wrote with Kern and Rodgers. In the end, it’s the monumentality that matters.”
In her own range of endeavors – composing shows, writing books, serving on boards – Mary Rodgers also had a monumentality, of spirit, and I’m quite sure I’ll keep thinking about her as The King and I marches toward its first rehearsal.
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com.