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” (stlyrics.com) “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 WWII. • 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 world-renowned 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” (Reinhardt). 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. 2011. • 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.