No Strings, which was one of the hits of the 1961-’62 theatrical season, is a show that everyone interested in the history of musical theater should see – a work that is cited as hugely important on many levels (some social) yet which is almost never staged. (This is only the second production I know of since I have been coming to the theater, and I too am a product of the 1961-’62 theatrical season.)
As everyone knows, this is the first show that Richard Rodgers wrote after the death of his second long time collaborator, Oscar Hammerstein, and the only full-length Broadway show for which he penned the lyrics as well as the music. It was also notable that he succeeded on his own where he had failed with Hammerstein in writing a contemporary urban story set in the present day – all of the classic Rodgers & Hammerstein works (except State Fair) took place either long ago or far away or involve a heavily element of cross cultural exotica (Westerners in Asia, in South Pacific and The King and I, Asians in America, in Flower Drum Song). Every time they wrote a modern-day show in current day America (Allegro, Me and Juliet, and Pipe Dream), the result was an epic flop. Unlike No Strings, the seven major R&H hits were all based on existing plays, novels, or stories; none of Hammerstein’s completely original scenarios ever got off the ground.
No Strings was something of a false spring for Rodgers, and its triumphs – both that he successfully wrote his own lyrics and that the show was an indisputed hit and money-maker (in both New York and London) – were never fully repeated. As a lyricist, Rodgers himself had none of the familiar poetic optimism of Hammerstein nor the signature bittersweet cynicism of Hart, but he got the job done. While all the music is at Rodgers’s usual high level, with his familiar counterpoint and a bewitching use of modulations (and even a dramatic minor-to-major switch on the opener, “The Sweetest Sounds”), some of the lyrics would have benefited from the give-and-take that was the hallmark of the composer’s collaborative process. “Loads of Love,” in particular, seems half-finished: “I just want money, a nice position,” is the kind of awkward, non-specific line that neither Hart nor Hammerstein would have been satisfied with.
Contrastingly, the two best known songs, “The Sweetest Sounds” (famously later sung by Judy Garland) and “Look No Further” show that Rodgers, when he wanted, could take the time to get something perfect all by himself. (Indeed, the score won Rodgers a Tony award.) “Look No Further” is one of the greatest-ever lyrics to a Rodgers melody, making an especially use of catchy rhyming and repeated words at the ending and beginning of lines, ie,
“Look no further, be still,
Don't move an inch away, stay!
Stay with one who loves you,
Look no further, dear.”
(Incidentally if you have never heard the 1962 recording by Nat King Cole, arranged and conducted by Ralph Carmichael, you’re depriving yourself of the great pleasures of life. It’s included in the Broadway to Main Street podcast that is linked below.)
What also distinguishes No Strings from the Hammerstein shows in particular is how the characters exist in a wholly different moral universe from anything Hammerstein could have imagined. Rodgers and book writer Samuel Taylor a leading man and a woman who, as the author of those early shows would have probably judged, were compromised morally: a successful African American model who nonetheless lets a rich, older white man support her and a prize-winning novelist who refuses to write anything new as he instead couch-surfs his way across Europe.
In 1943, Rodgers and Hammerstein introduced a raft of new ideas to musical theater that they proceeded to play with like kids with a new box of toys: songs that advance the story, songs that delineated character, the integration of dance into the action. In 1962, Rodgers is playing with a new set of toys, more social than dramatic, he seems delighted to give us a story (admittedly more true of Europe in 1962 than America) in which black people and white people can interact as equals (and this was a dramatist who consistently advocated for what was then called “tolerance” in his work) and is no less delighted with the prospect of a world where women have total agency in both their professional and personal lives. Both racial and gender equality are like shiny new toys for Rodgers and book writer Samuel Taylor to play with.
Alas, although No Strings was a huge hit in 1962, yet no one ever chose to revive it (except City Center! Encores in 2003, and it was hardly one of their better productions). Further, because of the multi-racial nature of the romantic relationship at the center (Keyonna Knight and Cameron Bond are the highlights of the current J2 production), Rodgers was well aware that there would never be a movie or TV adaptation. Ultimately, all those familiar R & H stories of far away and / or long ago were easier to bring back to later generations, since they were deliberately out-of-step with the current moment. It’s a remarkable show, one that should be seen – and more importantly heard – that is somehow both a footnote and a milestone all at the same time.
For more info on No Strings, the reader is referred to Laurence Maslon’s excellent history of the show on his highly-recommended series, Broadway to Main Street, click here.