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Mary Rodgers Guettel

interview by Douglas Eby

Mary Rodgers Guettel is a director of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization that handles the work of her father, Richard Rodgers, as well as Oscar Hammerstein, Irving Berlin and others.

At age 66, she is also a board member of ASCAP (the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers) and chairman of the board of the Juilliard School in New York.

When she was 28 she wrote the music for "Once Upon a Mattress", which continues in various incarnations, including a current Broadway production. She also has written a number of children's books.

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In terms of being identified as gifted in school, I went to a private school in New York, in my opinion probably the finest girls school in the country still -- Brearley. And everybody was gifted, in that they didn't even take anybody without an IQ of about 125 just for starters. I wasn't especially musically gifted.

My sister, who also went to that school, was the one who grew up in our family being considered the immensely talented musical one, and I was supposed to be good with words, the way parents tend to pigeonhole kids.

Ironically, she gave up on music and I started writing, because I didn't want to perform and be compared to her. It's odd how things work out. She's now a social worker -- a whole other field. I think as she grew up, she was sort of alienated from the theater world. I'm not sure why. But I stayed madly in love with it, which I've always been.

I fell into writing music originally by making mistakes at my piano lessons, and finding the mistakes were more interesting to me than whatever the composer had written, no matter who he was. But when I was about sixteen I decided to give up playing the piano. I started counterpoint and harmony, and I was a music major at Wellesley, which did not have a composition major then, because they obviously didn't believe that women could or should be composers.

I took part in an interesting symposium with three other women composers a month or so ago, at the Lincoln Center Library, about why there are still very few women composers, particularly in the theater. There must be a certain kind of sociological resistance to it.

My mother and I had a contentious relationship; she was an exacting perfectionist. Whether or not you're suppressed or rebellious has an awful lot to do with what you come out of the womb with (or even what you got into the womb with, because I was a fighter from the moment I showed up). I remember thinking 'This is a very powerful pair of people I'm living with here, and if I don't fight for my own identity, I won't have any.' So I was adversarial whenever humanly possible. Eager to get out of being a child. All the children's books I've written have to do with escapism. I just thought being a child was the worst prison sentence ever pronounced on anybody. Without any parole, either: you were stuck there until you were about eighteen.

The last book I wrote was in 1982 (they're all still in print, I'm happy to report), and it led me into writing screenplays, which is a kind of work I hate, and stopped doing after five movies. You don't have any control over your own material, as a hired hand. But I don't have the time to do those things anymore.

Being chairman of Juilliard is really a full time job, even without being on the board of ASCAP, or a director of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization, which are also full time jobs. All of those positions are utterly engaging for me. They're not creative per se, but I'm now at a point in my life when I'm completely comfortable and happy to be doing those things.

I know exactly how good I am, I think, in terms of writing music and writing books or whatever. If somebody said to me 'Here's a great musical that needs writing and we have the perfect lyric writer' -- I couldn't possibly imagine going to Juilliard and saying I wanted to take a year off, or three years or whatever.

There was a retrospective this Fall of stuff I've written, then the "Once Upon a Mattress" production, plus all the other things I'm doing, and it was almost undoable. I've never been so tired in my life. After a while you begin to think you're not doing anything well, and you probably aren't.

But I love spending my life this way now. Hank and I have a very talented composer son, Adam Guettel, who last year had great success with a musical himself: "Floyd Collins", which has just come out on CD. So even if I felt an obligation to carry on the, quote, 'family composing tradition', I'm relieved of that responsibility because I've got this kid who has much more talent than I ever dreamed of having doing it for me.

But I don't have that kind of ambition, and if you don't, it is probably an indication of how much talent you have. Anybody I've never known whose work I'd throw into the genius category, like my father or Gershwin, or Steve Sondheim -- those people keep on working no matter what.

And there are so many other things I love to do, it's clearly an indication of my ambition or lack of it. Also my realization of exactly where I belong in the firmament of stardom, which is not in it. I'm very happy with what I do; I don't hate my own creative work, I respect it, but I know exactly how good it is.

One of the luxuries I've always felt about being a woman -- and I felt it before the feminist movement came into being, and I've felt it since -- is that women have so many more choices available to them. I mean, I have five children, three grandchildren, two cats, a dog, a wonderful little house in the country, a terrific marriage going on thirty five years: I've got a very full, rich, wonderful, fun life.

The first song I wrote for the off-Broadway production of "Once Upon a Mattress", when I played it for my father, he said 'Why did you do that in the bridge?' And I said, 'I don't know; it sounded good to me.' He said, 'Well, I wouldn't have done that' and I thought right then that asking his opinion would be a mistake; I would never know, if I accepted his advice and criticism, what came from me, and what subliminally or even overtly came from his influence.

And it seemed dangerous; dangerous for me psychologically and in every other way. I think my father understood that intellectually, but never emotionally. He was quite hurt that I did that.

My father did have an alcohol problem, but I did not know about it until I was twenty five. He was an unusual -- if you want to call it -- alcoholic, anyway, in that he was never falling-down drunk. He was less an alcoholic than a depressed person.

And I'm sure that's the major component part of the creative nature. I think creative people are able enough to be able to relieve the pain of being depressed by being creative. It produces its own serotonin high, that's not like anything else.

And probably that's why people keep on writing. My father kept writing long after the point he should have, logically. He didn't have good people to work with. And creatively he had outlived his most fertile period, but he kept doing it and doing it until a couple of months before he died, because it was the only joy he got in life.

As far as knowing I had talent when I was young, certainly composing was something I knew that I knew how to do. Whether I knew how to do it as well as my father, which I certainly didn't and never would, or other people, was something else again. But I knew I had a good ear, and sense of harmony and melody, and as far as developing beyond that, it has to do with doing it.

You just have to keep doing it until you begin to absorb the sounds you like the best that other people have made, whether it's Brahms or Puccini or Rodgers or whoever, and begin to develop your own musical personality.

It was probably a lot easier for me in that even though there were people walking around saying 'Richard Rodgers' daughter must be insane trying to compose music' -- at least I was in the environment where it wasn't quite as difficult as if I'd come from some remote small town.

An awful lot of burgeoning talent has to do with the encouragement you receive from the people around you. And the point, again, is if you want it, you can find it: you can find people to encourage you. I didn't find my mother a warm and fuzzy person, although I respected her tremendously for what she believed in; she had an enormous sense of obligation to society, which she determinedly passed along to me and my sister. She had a lot of very admirable traits; she just wasn't a cozy, cuddly mother.

If you're my kind of personality, you say 'Well, screw that. If she's not the cozy, cuddly person, I'll go out and find somebody who is. I can't remember who I found, but the thing is if you want to survive, you go just go out and look for the people who'll support you emotionally.

I love my life, and it's tremendously fulfilling. To walk into Juilliard, I'm immediately struck by the incredible sense of purpose those kids carry with them everywhere they go. It's not like any other college campus I've ever been near, and I've spent most of my life involved with schools because it's what saved my own life. If I hadn't had Brearley to go to, I don't know what would have happened to me. That was my escape.

At Juilliard I think I'm probably closer to more of the women students, because women are more accessible to each other still than men are. They're more open. The last kids' book I wrote was really about that, about the fact that men, even now, don't have the same quality of friendship that women have, because of the competitiveness of the workplace.

You can't be a major stockbroker and walk in some day and say 'I feel awful. I hate my face and I'm so depressed and I don't think I'm doing anything right.' You'd be out on your ass in a minute. People would say you're crazy. But women can actually do that. Or at least they used to be able to. Now that women are in this competitive arena, too, it's a lot harder for them to have the same kind of friendship with someone in the workplace.

The only strategy I can think of to help you realize your talents -- and I tell people this all the time -- is to be pushy. Send off the letter to that producer, and say 'You don't know me from Adam, but do you have any available job? I'll do anything.' You have to be very inventive and very aggressive, and if you don't have the personality for that, then find a different way to deal with your life. It's always interesting to see where people come from.

People in the theater and in serious music obviously don't all come from New York; they had to get here from somewhere, and it was because they were determined. So whatever it is, if you want it, then go out and get it. If you mail ten letters, maybe somebody will answer one of them.

When I was growing up, there were no role models for me. I've never quite understood what that meant, anyway. It seems to me you have to just know yourself very well and figure out what you want to do with your life, and then go out and find the people who seem to be doing it, or find the people who can help you do it.

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