Remember when Americans thought France was simply swell? When there were books, movies and Broadway musicals devoted to celebrating la différence between Parisians and Americans?
No Strings (1962) is a musical, which among its many novelties, features both words and lyrics by Richard 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. No Strings 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, with a book by Samuel A. Taylor, 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 the hymn to hedonism, Eager Beaver, to the dark, wistful Sweetest Sounds.
It is pre-Hair, the sort of musical where its 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 impact upon any decisions made by the romantic couple, but Rodgers still addressed 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’s African-American. It was only in the casting of beautiful Diahann 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 was socially progressive at the time.
Rodgers got the idea for casting a black woman as the lead after seeing Carroll on The Tonight Show. He had seen her perform and knew he wanted to work with her and had her audition for the lead in Flower Drum Song in 1958, but 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 opened on Broadway in 1962 and ran for 580 performances. It received a Tony Award nomination for Best Musical, Rodgers won for Best Score, and Joe Layton won for his choreography. There was also a Tony win for Carroll, a first for a black woman.
Ironically, a couple of years late, Warner Bros. discussed making a film version of No Strings, and Rodgers did nothing when the studio wanted to have Asian actor Nancy Kwan as the lead. Carroll found this out reading the morning paper.
Before No Strings, Carroll had appeared on Broadway in the much misunderstood but exotic musical House Of Flowers (1954) by Harold Arlen (music and lyrics) and Truman Capote (lyrics and book), based on his own short story.
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).