Diahann Carroll was one of the first Black actors to break down longtime prejudices in casting: the first Black performer to have her own sitcom, Julia (1968-1971), and the first Black person to win an Emmy Award in the category of Best Actress in a Leading Role in a Comedy Series. I remember being so astonished by a beautiful Black woman in a sitcom lead; not as the maid or other domestic.
She was also the first Black woman to win a Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical for her performance in No Strings (1962), written especially for her by composer Richard Rodgers, and amazingly, an interracial romance that never mentions color.
Born Carol Diann Johnson in the Bronx, New York, she grew up in Harlem, where she started singing with a Harlem church choir when she was six years old. At 12 years old, she was a recipient of a Metropolitan Opera scholarship to study at the New York High School of Music and Art. After graduating she attended New York University, majoring in Sociology.
She started modeling for Ebony magazine, and she won a talent contest using the name of Diahann Carroll. The contest brought her offers to perform on radio and television and in nightclubs while still in her teens. Her big break came in 1954 when Truman Capote chose her for a leading part in the Broadway musical House Of Flowers, based on his short story and for which he wrote the book and lyrics, and the great Harold Arlen wrote the tunes. Carroll played a young sex worker on some unnamed Caribbean Island, and she had the best song in the show, A Sleepin’ Bee, and the next best song, I Never Has Seen Snow.
Also in 1954, Carroll had her first film role. In Otto Preminger’s Carmen Jones, she plays a friend of Dorothy Dandridge in the title role, performing in the quintet Whizzin’ Away Along De Track. Carroll was dubbed because her own gorgeous voice was not considered operatic enough, and she was dubbed again when she palyed Clara, the young mother who sings the lullaby Summertime in Porgy and Bess (1959), Preminger’s film adaptation of George and Ira Gershwin’s opera.
She received an Academy Award nomination for her title role in the romantic Claudine (1974). Carroll’s other film credits include Paris Blues (1961) with Sidney Poitier and Paul Newman, the noir The Split (1968), and the thriller Eve’s Bayou (1997).
No Strings, among its many novelties, features both words and lyrics by Rodgers, a composer remembered mostly as part of a team, first with Lorenz Hart and later with Oscar Hammerstein; and the orchestrations that call for no string instruments. It returns to the Rodger’s swinging pre-Hammerstein days of the 1920s and 1930s, when urbanity was considered a virtue, but this musical is important because Rodgers showed that he was savvy about social change.
No Strings‘ book is by Samuel A. Taylor. It is about an affair between a young fashion model and an older novelist. It presents romance as a sparkling, yet stinging thing, with a score that is equal parts mordant and moody, from a hymn to hedonism, Eager Beaver, to the dark, wistful Sweetest Sounds.
It is defiantly pre-Hair; the sort of musical where a drop-dead gorgeous female lead is mentored by a French connoisseur of women who demands no sexual favors in return; where she says sincerely: ”I still have so much to learn about wine and art.”
When No Strings was being produced, the issue of Civil Rights, voter registration for Blacks, integration, and fairness and equality in the workplace, was starting to gain momentum in the USA, but it was a topic rarely tackled on Broadway.
Neither the book nor score make mention of race, nor does it have an impact on any decisions made by the romantic couple, but Rodgers still addresses the issue. Other than the model’s reference to her growing up north of Central Park (Harlem), there is nothing in the script to suggest she is a Black American. It was only in the casting of beautiful Carroll and masculine baritone Richard Kiley as lovers that the subject of interracial romance surfaced, but any production of the show easily could be cast with two leads of the same race without changing the content in any significant way. The casting in 1962 was especially socially progressive at the time.
Rodgers got the idea for casting a Black actor as the female lead after seeing Carroll on The Tonight Show. He had already seen her perform and knew he wanted to work with her, and even had her audition for the lead in Flower Drum Song (1958), because she didn’t come across as Asian, as the role required. Can you believe that? Rodgers felt that the casting in No Strings spoke for itself and any specific references to race in the play were unnecessary. Rodgers:
”Rather than shrinking from the issue of race, such an approach would demonstrate our respect for the audience’s ability to accept our theme free from rhetoric or sermons.”
However, the characters’ reluctance to discuss race was just as controversial as the casting. The casting formula was repeated when Barbara McNair and Howard Keel replaced Carroll and Kiley in the run, Art Lund and Beverly Todd in the London production, and every revival I have ever encountered (No Strings deserves more revivals).
The musical ran for a respectable 580 performances. It received a Tony nomination for Best Musical, Rodgers won for Best Score, and Joe Layton won for his choreography. There was also that Tony win for Carroll, and added another “first” to her resume.
Ironically, a couple of years late, Warner Bros. planned on making a film version of No Strings, and Rodgers said nothing when the studio wanted to have Asian actor Nancy Kwan as the lead. Carroll found this out about it by reading Variety.
In episode 87 of the nighttime soap opera Dynasty (1981-89) in 1985, when Dominique Deveraux first meets Alexis Colby (Joan Collins), Carroll moved another obstacle towards racial equality. Her Dominique was glamorous, sophisticated, wealthy, smart, and just as conniving as Alexis. She also just happened to be Black.
Carroll appeared on stage in projects previously considered the territory for white actors: Same Time, Next Year (1977), Agnes Of God (1983), Sunset Boulevard (1995), and On Golden Pond (2004).
Diahann Carroll was taken by cancer in 2019.