In “Some Bombs,” a chapter from the new book Shy by Mary Rodgers and Jesse Green, the Broadway composer talks about an ill-fated attempt at a musical with Marshall Barer, the librettist/lyricist with whom she’d had a bona fide hit, Once Upon a Mattress, in 1959.
A few notes to set up the following: “Robbie” is Robert Lantz, Rodgers’s agent; “Hal” is producer/director Harold Prince; “Daddy” is, in case you didn’t know, Broadway giant Richard Rodgers; and the death of her young son Matthew, referred to in passing here, has been detailed in a previous chapter.
A review of Shy appears here.
All rancid charm and Berlinisher bubbles after the success of The Mad Show, Robbie called in early 1966 with an irresistible offer. “Would you and Marshall be interested in making a musical out of The Member of the Wedding? You can have any producer and director you like.”
“Yes, we would,” I answered instantly and plurally.
It was not just a huge opportunity; it was a beautiful one. I had sobbed through the play’s premiere in 1950. What affected me most was the loneliness and tomboy anger of Frankie; she was one pissed-off little character, left out, bossed around, passionate in a world determined to crush oddballs. I never once thought of her connection to me because the details were so different, based as they were on McCullers’s own childhood in Georgia. But part of the reason I have always been drawn to writing about kids, and to having them, too, is that I knew that feeling all too well. Childhood is the most miserable punishment ever exacted upon anybody; you’re just fucking stuck there with no control over your life until you’re 18. I was barely a year older than that when I saw the play; the memory of walking around the reservoir with my sister one Sunday and muttering “three more years, three more years” was still fresh. “Three more years and what?” she asked, because she was younger and had chosen a different way of dealing with the dilemma. You could be headstrong but disliked or a worm but praised—and I was the headstrong one.
Headstrong if naïve. McCullers was Robbie’s client, and his pal Floria Lasky was her lawyer, so it was all a tightly tied-up package, another of his prime triangulations except with four sides. The only slight hitch, he said, was that we had to get McCullers’s blessing in person, and though she was definitely interested she was also very ill.
So sometime that spring, Robbie hired a car and we were driven to South Nyack to her great big horrible house. Though she was only 49, she’d already had a stroke; she was living in a small room on the ground floor with nurses fussing about. They should have fussed a little more: She was a mess, the ugliest thing I’d ever seen, with scrambled teeth and short, greasy hair. When we arrived, she was lying in bed drinking Maker’s Mark, with an enema bag festooned over a shower rod in full view.
Whether she was drunk or not, she certainly wasn’t interested in what I had to say about our approach to the project. All she wanted to do was talk about the party that the play’s producers had thrown after the 1950 Broadway opening, and ask, like a demented child, whether we’d be having a party as nice as that one. I said, “Well, first we have to write the musical,” but she kept on asking about the food and liquor.
So much for her blessing; Dracula could have obtained it if he promised a buffet and an open bar at Joe Allen.
Over the next months, she would call me practically every day and ask, “Well, Miss Mary, how is everything coming along?” After I grumbled to Robbie about the constant interruption, he tried to explain to her that we couldn’t even start writing until the contracts were signed—which wasn’t quite true. In fact, Marshall and I wrote most of the songs without a contract that summer and fall, a period of time punctuated but somehow not interrupted by Matthew’s death.
I don’t mean that the work wasn’t influenced by it; how could it not be? I just didn’t sense the connection even as I found myself making unsettled harmonies, strange rhythms, and abrasive clusters: things I wouldn’t previously have dared to do. One song [“Something Known”] I wrote at my friend Sally Brown’s piano—I was always looking for friends with pianos in homes that didn’t have five people asking for lunch—gave me chills as I pawed my way through it. It was as if by working myself into Frankie’s story I was working myself out of mine.
Maybe it was just that the material demanded a very different treatment, and Marshall’s poetic, non-jokey lyrics modeled that for me. Or maybe I was getting better with age. I remember thinking I was finally experiencing the kind of freedom that Daddy must have felt when working on Carousel. Everything about that show led him to write differently; everything about this one, including who I was when it came to me, led me to write differently, too.
It’s a good thing Marshall and I were working so well on our own, figuring out where the musical moments needed to be and what they should feel like, because we had a lot of trouble finding an actual book writer. It certainly wasn’t going to be McCullers, even though the deal we finally signed gave her, in addition to a .5 percent royalty for the underlying rights, a 2 percent royalty for the libretto. Marshall and I were allotted 2 percent each, and everyone else would have to scrape what they could from the rest of the pool. I think I got an advance of $1,250, which was the last penny I made from Wedding during three years of work.
If the show was cursed, as I came to think, there were at least three witches doing the cursing. Remember Robbie Lantz’s promise that we could have any producer and director we wanted? We wanted Hal, and so the day before he was leaving New York in October of 1966 for the pre-Broadway tryout of Cabaret in Boston, we auditioned what we’d written of the Wedding score for him. He loved it and said he would postpone his trip by a day in order that we might play it again, for Joe Stein, who he thought would be a great book writer. Joe [who wrote the book for Fiddler on the Roof] would not have been my choice, but what the hell? The second meeting went as well as the first and Hal agreed to produce and direct. When I left his office, I flew to the nearest phone booth, called Robbie and pretty much shouted, “Hal wants to do it!”
“But darling,” he oozed, “we can’t give it to Hal, he’s too inexperienced.”
I got furious, but you know how I get furious: not enough. “But you said…!”
“What makes you think he can direct this? He can’t. He’s never directed anything.” [Prince had in fact directed four Broadway shows by then. What Lantz probably meant is that none of them was a hit, unlike the ones he had produced but not directed.]
“But you said…!”
“Maybe I did, but this is not possible.” He hung up, not violently but with a click of finality.
No one else—by which I mean Marshall—had the guts to tell Hal, so I was the lucky messenger; he didn’t talk to me for two years. I wouldn’t have talked to me, either.
That probably should have been our cue to decamp, but we loved the material too much. I mean that literally: We loved it too much, which is a mistake, because you’ll put up with anything, including things you shouldn’t, when you’re in love. And sure enough, Robbie soon called to say, “Don’t despair: I have the perfect producer for you,” presenting us with the fait unaccompli of Ted Mann, a no-talent shit, just awful, and, big surprise, Floria’s client. He agreed to produce the show because he really wanted to direct it, but Robbie didn’t tell us that part. The deal was signed, and the production was announced in the papers with McCullers named as the book writer—which was absurd because she was nearly dead and a few months later would be dead the rest of the way.
That gave Ted cover to hire a real book writer, only instead he hired James Leo Herlihy, a sweet guy who had written the novel Midnight Cowboy and would later kill himself. As I discovered when I went to San Francisco to work with him in 1967, too late to experience the Summer of Love, but the Winter of Love was adorable, too, he could plot till the cows came home. But we already had a plot. The rest of what a musical book writer has to do—structure the scenes to lead to the songs, create characters who have reasons to sing—he couldn’t. He knew it and bowed out.
Next, Joe Hardy, who had just directed the Off-Broadway version of House of Flowers, came aboard, supposedly to write the book and direct. I can hardly untangle the mess now but, after a year or so, the following things happened: (1) Ted fired Joe; (2) Marshall and I quit in protest, withdrawing our nearly full score; (3) Ted fired himself; and (4) the whole thing landed back in Robbie’s hands. At which point, with the amazing nerve only a true machinator can muster, he wrote me to say that, far from a roadblock, this was an opportunity, and I was now free to play the score for Harold Prince “or any other first-rate producer”!
This time I really did collect my marbles and go home. I fired Robbie, or tried to, but he pointed out that we had no contract.
Post-script: That was not actually the end of the musical version of The Member of the Wedding. When the rights reverted to the McCullers estate, Mann commissioned a new score from George Wood, an actor, cabaret pianist, and songwriter who, under the stage name G. Wood, was an original member of Mann’s Circle in the Square company. Lantz attempted to reinstate the Rodgers-Barer score by arranging to have it performed for McCullers’s sister, Rita Smith, but she either declined to hear it or, as another version of this story suggests, listened to it with Julie Harris and didn’t like it. In any case, Smith awarded the rights to Wood. Wood’s version of the show, called F. Jasmine Addams, produced and directed by Mann, was announced for Broadway but instead opened, after 22 previews, at Mann’s Circle in the Square Downtown in October 1971. Clive Barnes, in the Times, called the score “thin and unmemorable.” It lasted five days; the schadenfreude lasted a good deal longer.
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