Music and Desire:
Music’s Role Within and Musical
Adaptations of Tennessee Williams’
A Streetcar Named Desire
By Sara Altenhoff and Grant Alexander
Music in A Streetcar Named Desire
In this part of New Orleans, you are practically always
just around the corner or a few doors down the
street, from a tinny piano being played with the
infatuated fluency of brown fingers. This “blue piano”
expresses the spirit of the life which goes on here.
—Streetcar, Scene One
•As Williams explains in the opening of the play, music
is a central element in establishing New Orleans as the
geographical setting throughout Streetcar.
•Historically, music has played a central role in shaping
the character of New Orleans. As early as 1838, the
city’s daily paper, Picayune, printed an article
complaining about the very feat Williams describes
above; the article criticizes the emergence and
sustained presence of brass bands in the city, which
“could be found on every corner” (Abel).
More Than a Beginning and an End
• Not only do the sounds of the
improvisational “blue piano”
begin and end the play, reminding
readers of the “spirit of the life” of
the setting of New Orleans, but
the “blue piano”—along with the
songs “Paper Doll,” the
“Varsouviana,” and “It’s Only a
Paper Moon”—are repeated at
crucial moments in the play,
emphasizing the significant role of
music to the plot in addition to
the geographical setting.
“My baby doll’s left me!”
• In Scene Three, just moments
before Stanley Kowalski’s character
screams the line “STELLAAA,” which
Marlon Brando’s performance has
since made famous, the song
“Paper Doll” is described in the
stage directions as being played
“slow and blue” in the “bar around
the corner.”
• Recorded by the Mills Brothers in
1942, the lyrics of “Paper Doll” sum
up Stanley’s dilemma perfectly: “I
guess I’ve played the doll game o’er
and o’er/I just quarreled with Sue/
that’s why I’m blue/She’s gone
away and left me just like all dolls
do” (
“We danced the Varsouviana!”
• In Scene Six, as Blanche reveals
to Mitch the tragic story of her
first marriage, she explains that
the last song she danced to
with her husband before his
suicide was the “Varsouviana.”
• Throughout the remainder of
Streetcar, the “rapid, feverish
polka tune” is repeatedly
heard in Blanche’s mind,
particularly as her nervous
breakdown comes to a climax.
“But it wouldn’t be make believe, if
you believed in me…”
• In Scene Seven, while Blanche
hums “It’s Only a Paper Moon,”
Stanley reveals to Stella the truth
about Blanche’s past.
• The song, originally written for a
Broadway play that subsequently
failed, was revived and became
popular with Ella Fitzgerald’s
recording during the end of
• The song lyrics reference multiple
“make believe” situations that
exemplify Blanche’s wish for a
world of “magic,” not “realism.”
Ella Fitzgerald
Streetcar: The Opera
• In 1998, composer
Andre Previn’s opera
adaptation of the play
opened at the San
Francisco Opera starring
American soprano
Renee Fleming as
Blanche and Rodney
Gilfry as Stanley.
(Above) Rodney Gilfry as Stanley and Renee Fleming as Blanche
Opera, continued
“Previn said ‘It's the most sensational operatic idea.
When we announced it, I said to the press, “I
believe it's always been an opera -- it's just that the
music was missing.” It's really the most poetically
beautiful play an American has produced. Also,
there have been an inordinate number of stage
productions of the play. To put a slight moratorium
on it as a play and do it in another medium is not
such a bad idea’” (Myers, 34).
Though the score subtly suggests jazz, the sound of
New Orleans jazz itself is absent from the opera, as
Previn was reluctant to feature it: “‘I thought that
was too easy,’ he insists. ‘The fact that it happens to
be down there is one thing, and you can't disregard
it. But for me to bring in that type of jazz is really
like holding up a big sign. I didn't think it was
necessary. I have certain phrases in the orchestra
where I would like the trumpet player or the
clarinet player to know their way around a jazz
phrase, even though it's not written as a jazz
phrase. But jazz doesn't find its way into the opera's
vocal line at all’” (Myers, 40).
On Fleming as Blanche, Previn said, “‘Renee is, in
terms of playing Blanche, just wonderful, because
she has that amazing vulnerability as well as the
womanliness’” (Myers, 38).
(Above) Renee Fleming as Blanche DuBois
•On playing Blanche, Fleming, before the opera’s opening,
said “‘I remember hearing news clips when I was growing up
about various women who had done the role and then had a
nervous breakdown,’ she says. ‘On the other hand, Andre
Previn has taken a lot of my interpretive work and done it for
me, in the sense that the music will really shape who she is in
this operatic format. So we'll see. I think the marriage is going
to work’” (Myers, 38).
Blanche Sings!
• Renee Fleming singing is
probably the best-known piece
of music from the opera:
Blanche’s aria, “I Want Magic!”
Streetcar: The Ballet
• Although Streetcar was
first adapted as a ballet
piece as early as the
1950s, it wasn’t until
1983 that it took on its
current form, as staged
by German
choreographer John
Neumeier for the
Stuttgart Ballet Company.
(Above) Alessandra Ferri as Blanche in the 2004
Stuttgart revival
Ballet, continued
Neumeier decided to show Blanche's past
in the ballet’s first act, showing her
husband Allan and her later sexual
liaisons, events not shown in the original
play. The ballet’s first half is “a silent, slow
act that unfolds to Prokofjev's ‘Visions
Fugitives’ like behind a veil…the ballet
begins with the terrified Blanche sitting
on a hospital bed, haunted by her
memories” (Reinhardt).
(Left and above) Stuttgart Ballet production photos
Ballet, continued
The ballet’s second act picks up where the original
stage play begins, with Blanche’s arrival in New
Orleans. This second act is “totally different in
pace, music and movement…[i]t's set to Alfred
Schnittke's First Symphony, a polystylistic and
intense, sometimes violent piece with citations of
classical and jazz music” (Reinhardt).
As for the famous rape scene that is the play’s
climax, “Neumeier shows the whole rape as a
fierce battle between the two dancers.” After the
rape, Blanche “slips into a world of her own: she
puts on her wedding dress and a tiara, the Belle
Reve couples appear before her eyes…[s]he has
gone mad and only agrees to come with the nurse
that Stanley brings along when she sees the
doctor: he is danced by the same dancer as her
fiancée, and he comforts her with the same tender
movement to her forehead as Allan used to do”
The ballet ends the same as it begins, with
Blanche sitting on her bed in her room in the
mental institution.
(Above) Alessandra Ferri as Blanche and
Jason Reilly as Stanley
Blanche Dances!
• Maria Eichwald dances the
opening scene in the Stuttgart
revival production
Works Cited
• Abel, E. Lawrence. Singing the New Nation: How Music
Shaped the Confederacy. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole
Books, 2000. Print.
• Myers, Eric. "Making Streetcar Sing." Opera News 63.3 (1998):
34-40. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 14 Apr.
• Reinhardt, Angela. "Stuttgart Ballet, A Streetcar Named
Desire’ (Endstation Sehnsucht)." Ballet Magazine (January
2004). Web. 19 Apr. 2011.
• Williams, Tennessee. A Streetcar Named Desire. New York:
New Directions, 2004. Print.