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Mary Rodgers

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Back when Adam Guettel's The Light in the Piazza opened on Broadway in 2005, it was what we call a "nervous hit." The critics appreciated it, by and large, but with a slightly apologetic tone; they seemed to feel the necessity to warn viewers that it was "special" and "fragile," as in this is my sort of musical but maybe you won't quite like it. I wasn't a first-night drama critic at the time, but I wrote a column heartily stating that The Light in the Piazza was exceptional and urging theatergoers-on-the-fence to immediately see the show or buy the CD so they could fall in love with it themselves.

The next morning, I received an e-mail from Mary Rodgers -- mother of Adam, daughter of Richard, and a composer in her own right -- saying "I of course agree." But going on to say that she was writing not only because she appreciated what I said, but the way I expressed it; that I clearly understood what they were trying to do, and gave a convincing and well-reasoned explanation of why Piazza was such a major accomplishment.

I introduced myself to Mary the next time I saw her -- I had already worked briefly with her husband, Henry (Hank) Guettel -- and we thereafter spoke whenever we ran into each other at some theatre or other. When I was writing my 2009 book The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations, we had a couple of long discussions; not only about the work of her father, but about the world that she observed as a child.

Two of the key, if virtually unknown, players in musical theatre in the first half of the 20th century were music publishers Max and Louis Dreyfus. They pulled strings like puppet masters and treated their stable (which included Rodgers, Kern, Gershwin and Porter) like benevolent despots, albeit sometimes more despotic than benevolent. "They were killers," Mary said, "Daddy called them the Dreyfei." (We're talking about Richard Rodgers and she calls him daddy?) This was enlightening, inside information which pointed me towards an understanding of how this Machiavellian pair of outsiders were able to earn millions manipulating songwriters and producers. Mary was a link to another world, and a protective but not obstructive guardian of her father's work.

Hank -- who died in October -- had a nephew with the very same, not-very-common name as mine; to Hank, I was always "the other Steven Suskin." In February, I received a card from Mary thanking me for "the lovely violets, Hank would have loved them." Said violets were presumably a condolence offering from the other me; whoever typed the envelope for Mary must have found my address and looked no further. I sent back the card with a note, taking the opportunity to say hello.

And also to make a request regarding Mary's forthcoming memoir. After reading disparaging remarks about poor Larry Hart again and again over the decades -- all seemingly stemming from a few long-ago interviews filled with unattributed rumors and hearsay, rather than actual facts -- I entreated Mary to please give us a sense of what the man, who apparently adored her, was actually like.

I immediately received a response (with the salutation "Dear The Other One"). She affirmed that Hart was an alcoholic and she was "pretty sure" was a homosexual. "He was a poor, unfortunate, tortured soul, perhaps most of the time, but he also was funny, loved children (me and my sister), dogs (his chow named Kiki), and my father. I was fourteen when he died, and it was a heartbreaker for all of us, because it was a blessing, a relief, and a deep sorrow."

She also noted that the music her father wrote with Hart -- as opposed to Hammerstein -- was "mischievous, and saucy, and daring, and silly, and heartbreaking, which was the real Larry."

Mary Rodgers died yesterday, at the age of 83. I do hope that her book is forthcoming, as she was a firsthand observer of and participant in our musical theater world. And one who was willing to speak candidly, with good nature and humor.