Friday, May 26, 2023

No Strings, and Almost No Lyrics: When Richard Rodgers Went it Alone ...

After the death of his legendary collaborator,  lyricist Oscar Hammerstein, not long after the opening of their final musical, The Sound of Music, Richard Rodgers took on a rather daring interracial work, No Strings, in which the band minus strings played upstage, and one of the two leads was played by an African American, Dihane Carroll. 

Rodgers decided to self-collaborate by turning out the lyrics as well, something he had never before done --- except on occasion with the otherwise brilliant Larry Hart, sometimes having to finish up or revise sloppy verse hastily produced by his erratic and lonely partner.  

Naturally, the New York critics, partly out of respect, it would seem, wanted to like No Strings, and they gave it on balance a set of lukewarm notices.  

I played the cast album last night, many years after reviewing it for the discography in my book, Broadway Musicals: A Hundred Year History.  I had forgotten the haunting enchantment of the first number, The Sweetest Sounds.  It is so so good --- if only what followed  held to the same standard. Of the show's lyrics, wrote Walter Kerr,   "They do not rise into the shadow of that near-poetry that makes lyrics lyrical." Rodgers was not even half another Cole Porter.

To be sure, there are plenty of fetching  tunes on parade, unfortunately trivialized by the simple minded words, which read  more like an outline --- something akin to the rudimentary first steps of a toddler carried along by the stronger hands of a parent

A sample:  The show's final number makes a bold declaration about a brave new kind of implicit we-don't-need-marriage love, which today's woke crowd might cheer:

Let the little folk who need the help, depend upon vows and such,We are much too tall

But then,  a few flimsy lines later, it caves into a kind of moralistic meltdown.

If marriage comes, we'll let it come as one of those perfect things, with no strings at all.

Sure, I see. Yeah.  No,  I mean no.  I was left wondering, is it really as dumb as it sounds? Or was I missing something deeper?

Our most prodigious contributor  to American musical theater returned to his senses three years later, by teaming up with Stephen Sondheim to create a half wonderful, other half respectable score for Do I Hear a Waltz.  Once again, words and music danced in glorious lockstep.

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