Like father like daughter

Mary Rodgers is the 'King and I's biggest fan. She would be - the composer was her father. Louise Jury meets a woman on a musical mission
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The Independent Culture

Mary Rodgers, bearer of one of the most famous surnames in musical theatre, has seen a lot of productions of her father's shows in her 69 years. And she thinks the most recent version of The King and I which opens at the London Palladium this Wednesday should run and run.

"It's the most startlingly lovely production I've seen in a long time," she said as she flew in from New York for the opening. "It has a look of joy and exuberance about it."

The King and I, written by Richard Rodgers with the lyricist Oscar Hammerstein in 1951, tells the story of an English governess and the King of Siam - memorably played by Yul Brynner in the 1956 film adaptation.

When this production first opened in Australia nine years ago, Mary Rodgers took a look, as she does with all major productions, and was impressed. She quickly telephoned home to the States, asking the other family members with whom she looks after the Rodgers and Hammerstein estate to confirm her opinion. She urged its transfer to Broadway, where honours were heaped upon it, and now to London, more than 20 years after the show was last seen in the West End.

Every detail has been carefully overseen. The Rodgers and Hammerstein Organisation has control over casting, the director, even the staging. "As an organisation we've got quite a lot of power which we have a reputation for being happy to use," she says, with an engaging smile demolishing any image of the tyrant. She just wants to do service to the works. "I want to be moved, and I still am when a production is good."

What has bowled Mary over this time is the set. "My favourite thing is the red floor, it's red like Dorothy's shoes in The Wizard of Oz." And she thinks the standard of production in Britain is higher than ever, with major advances even in the eight years since the Royal National Theatre's acclaimed and much-loved production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Carousel.

"There are extraordinary performances coming out of here," she said. In her childhood, she remembers the British doing marvellous revues, then she believes the Americans gained the upper hand in musical theatre. "But there's an enormous difference in the musicians and dancers now. They all sing wonderfully and manage accents. You used to be able to tell a British actor doing an American accent all the way, but they all sound totally American to my ear now and that's not easy to do."

British talent like Nicholas Hytner, who directed Carousel, Trevor Nunn, director of the recent National production of Oklahoma!, and Christopher Renshaw, who is directing The King and I, bring a "fresh eye", she adds. "They find different values that make what might have seemed old-fashioned contemporary. We go to previews with a script to look for changes because it seems so new, but there haven't actually been any."

Mary Rodgers has been, unsurprisingly, a fan of her father's work all her life. As a teenager, she chose to go to Wellesley College because it was near Boston "and all Daddy's shows went there and I could go and stay in the Ritz". Their relationship was not close; she was raised strictly and her father was not an easy man. "The most lovable thing about my father was what he wrote. He sat down and it appeared to roll off his fingers," she says. "Geniuses are difficult. But they're entitled to be."

She thinks time has proved he was an important artist. "There was a period of a lot of rock musicals, but people keep coming back to this stuff. It's being done more rather than less. You say "Rodgers and Hammerstein" to a small child in Idaho and they probably don't know them, but they know 'Doh a Deer' [from The Sound of Music]."

When younger, Mary Rodgers enjoyed her own composing career, beginning with the 1959 Broadway musical, Once Upon a Mattress. But she has given up her own writing to concentrate on looking after her father's works and on fostering new talent as Chairman of the board of the Juilliard School of Music in New York. "Compared with what my father has done or what I think my son, Adam Guettel (also a composer), is going to do, I think my talent is definitely a notch down. I don't mind that being the case at all, never have, but you do think how you want to spend your time."

In London, that involves catching up on lots of theatre. She wants to see Hytner's production of Cressida and, at the recommendation of Stephen Sondheim, the musical Spend, Spend, Spend. And of course, she'll be paying the Palladium another visit.