The Music of A Streetcar Named Desire
Published in Film Score Monthly Online
To step aboard A Streetcar Named Desire is to take an emotional and musical journey. Tennessee Williams’ poetic dialogue is music to the ears. And he set his Pulitzer Prize-winning drama in the New Orleans French Quarter, the sounds of which inspired 35 musical stage directions, including 19 cues of source music.
Elia Kazan’s landmark 1951 film and its groundbreaking score by Alex North remain the standards by which all other Streetcar productions and scores are measured. And though it has been difficult to match the film’s overall success, two television adaptations and an opera provided unique challenges to some of film music’s most gifted composers.
“A landmark in the history of Hollywood music”
North and Kazan met in 1937, but it wasn’t until the original 1949 stage production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman that the two finally had a chance to work together. Kazan, who had also directed the original stage production of Streetcar in 1947, was impressed with North’s chamber score for Salesman. When it came time to film Streetcar, Kazan fought to have him brought on board, and North repaid the director’s confidence with a true classic of film scoring.
It is commonly acknowledged that North composed the first functional, dramatic jazz score for a film. Up until then, jazz had been generally used only as source music. “Emotionally it is lowdown basin street blues,” said North in interviews at the time, “sad, glad, mad New Orleans jazz in terms of human beings. And that’s the kind of music that drummed in my head.” He wanted to convey “the internal, rather than external aspects of the film…. The music was related to the characters at all times and not the action. Instead of ‘themes’ for the specific characters, there were mental statements, so to speak.”
A descending half-step in the trumpets and trombones at the beginning of the main titles serves as the principal motif connected with Stanley (Marlon Brando) and his sexuality. The violins follow with the second main theme, representing Blanche (Vivien Leigh) and Stella’s (Kim Hunter) “lost” childhood home, Belle Reve, punctuated by harsh trumpets, wailing clarinets, wah-wah-muted trombones, and a crawling rhythm in the low register of the piano.
Stanley’s two-note motif serves as the basis for his first appearance with Blanche. Built over a pizzicato bass, the theme is introduced by a muted trumpet above slinking saxophones. North liked the saxophone because it oozed sex appeal: “It can wail, be mournful and can arouse the physical and the sexual.” Though a clarinet solo introduces Blanche’s theme, a haunting trumpet solo and strings bring more emotion to the melody as the compassion grows between Mitch (Karl Malden) and Blanche.
No scene from the film is more famous than Brando in his torn T-shirt bellowing “Stella!” at the top of his lungs. Kim Hunter’s performance was cut by the censors on the grounds that her physical reaction to Brando’s yell represented “a moment of orgasm,” and North had to replace his music because it was considered too “suggestive.” The original jazz clarinet solo remained, but a “mournful” French horn and strings replaced the “sensuous music” that North originally composed.
A recurring musical reference in the play is the “Varsouviana,” a French polka tune that accompanies Blanche’s haunted memories of the death of her young husband. The theme is a painful recollection tinkling on celesta, and North increases the dissonance accompanying the tune as Blanche becomes more unbalanced. He employs variations of the melody as she laments her passing physical beauty. The clarinet underscoring Stanley’s seduction of Blanche was meant to evoke “what sounded like the wail of all women suffering, the women of the world,” said North.
One of the biggest changes forced on the film was the ending. In the play, after Blanche is taken away to the asylum, Stella stays with Stanley and life continues as if nothing has happened. In the film, she runs away from his bellowing, underscored by a grand Hollywood finale in the orchestra. “I didn’t want to go out big,” said North. “But in those days…they insisted I make a big statement for the end…and there’s always the question of retribution. Stanley had to be blamed at the end.”
Few critics knew what to make of North’s pioneering score, so it was rarely mentioned in reviews. Eminent critic Bosley Crowther of The New York Times was one of the lone voices who appreciated North’s efforts, which is not surprising given what scholar Ken Sutak later wrote in his analysis for Pro Musica Sana: “North’s score tore at an audience—it seared the heart and begged compassion of the intellect simultaneously.”
It was surprising (and just) that North’s revolutionary music was included in the 12 Academy Award® nominations the film received. (His expanded score for the Death of a Salesman film netted him a rare second nomination the same year.) What was not surprising was the Academy’s choice of Franz Waxman’s more traditional (though excellent) A Place in the Sun over North’s psychological study in music.
Fifty-five years have not dimmed the “colored lights” of North’s remarkable achievement. Film historian Tony Thomas rightfully called it “a landmark in the history of Hollywood music.”
“A very unusual move…”
After initial plans for a Streetcar feature film remake (starring Sylvester Stallone no less!) fell through in 1981, Williams allowed the play to be filmed for television. The first adaptation was broadcast on ABC in 1984. Prior to his death in 1983, Williams put back most of the play’s dialogue censored from the earlier film, and his choice of Ann-Margret to play Blanche turned the broadcast into one of the most anticipated television events of the year. The second film starred Jessica Lange and Alec Baldwin, fresh from their critically reviled 1992 Broadway production, in the most complete version of the play so far on film. Though it was filmed shortly after the New York run, the project sat on the shelf until it was broadcast on CBS in 1995. Marvin Hamlisch and David Mansfield handled the respective scoring duties of the two versions.
Both composers felt the shadow of Alex North, but they took varied approaches in the handling of jazz in their scores. With the presence of New Orleans’ legendary Preservation Hall Jazz Band for the Four Deuces source cues, Hamlisch stated in a 2003 interview in FSM that he didn’t want to “necessarily stray from the sound of the Quarter.” By contrast, in an interview for this article, Mansfield said, “I wanted to handle…the New Orleans atmosphere with down-and-dirty blues instead of jazz. I also wanted [the score] to be highly thematic; no more than a handful of basic melodies.”
Mansfield’s score is harmonically starker than Hamlisch’s. He tips his hat to North in his main titles, employing a two-note motif in vicious low string and timpani chords, followed by an almost manic rendition of Blanche’s theme. “The nature of the story is violent,” said Mansfield, “not only Stanley, but the interior life of Blanche.” Mansfield’s belief that “the sultry atmosphere of the Quarter is a familiar, soothing relief, not an assault,” as evidenced by a smooth transition into a blues trumpet and piano.
No doubt inspired by Ann-Margret’s softer Blanche, Hamlisch used saxophone and banjo to give a Southern feel to her theme, while descending violins later hint at her mental instability. “[I tried] to get a lot of pathos out of the saxophone,” said Hamlisch, “and make it not just sexy but to reach out for people’s souls and the way they felt.” The bridge of Blanche’s theme is a lazy dotted-note rhythm in the piano that later innocently conveys her flirting with Mitch (Randy Quaid). Hamlisch’s gift for melody shines in a beautiful piano solo for the developing relationship between the two characters. The cue captures their desperate love, while the low strings undulating underneath give the cue a quiet sense of yearning.[audio:streetcar-hamlisch.mp3]
Inspired by Lange’s “fragile canary-in-a-coal-mine,” Mansfield handled Blanche with “a combination of late romantic and Americana orchestral writing.” Blanche’s theme is played as a flute and piano duet, a meandering melody that hovers around the harmonies, waiting to rest on a tonic chord. “I wanted a lot of tension under the surface of the theme,” said Mansfield, “even when it was scored to be serene or beautiful. The idea of Blanche as always off-kilter, never more than a stone’s throw away from losing it was what drove me…. [Flute and piano] gave the theme a light, glass-like quality.”
The musical portrayals of Stanley offer an interesting contrast in styles. Hamlisch employed a wailing saxophone to convey Stanley’s (Treat Williams) brutish sexuality wildly out of control. Mansfield used the raw chords from his main titles to punctuate the scene and build tension, as Blanche is being verbally, emotionally and physically beaten.
Blanche’s mental state toward the end of the film also offers an interesting comparison. In a simple descending three-note figure in the piano, Hamlisch focuses on the poignancy of her denial of reality as she waits for the fictional arrival of an old suitor (“Shep Huntley”). Mansfield scored big with a raw, emotional string orchestra during the “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers” sequence. He commented, “As a violinist I tend to reach for strings first for those emotions, often without any other colors. Sometimes I overdo it, and ignore opportunities with the woods and brass. Hopefully this time it was the right choice.”
Though both composers received good notices, most reviewers were understandably more focused on the performances of Ann-Margret and Lange. However, almost 20 years later, Hamlisch counted his blessings: “I always felt that Streetcar was something that, had it been for the big screen, I probably would have never been offered. I was thrilled to get that assignment because sometimes you like to get out of your box.” For Mansfield, it was all about “those incredible words…. [When], as a film composer, do you get to work with dialogue like that (rhetorical question—the answer is ‘never’)? It was a very moving experience.”
“You can hear the heat rising from the pavement.”
When the San Francisco Opera announced the premiere of an operatic version of Streetcar in 1996, it ended a difficult search for the right musical voice to make Williams’ dialogue sing. Leonard Bernstein had passed on the project, and Stephen Sondheim felt that the play needed no music. When André Previn was offered the commission, he immediately said yes: “I believe [Streetcar has] always been an opera—it’s just that the music was missing.”
Previn, making his first foray into opera, might have seemed the logical choice due to his jazz background, but he didn’t want to succumb to a jazz score. “I thought that would be too easy,” he said. “The fact that it happens to [take place in New Orleans] 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…. It’s as if Berg had done Lulu all in three-quarter time just because he was in Vienna.” Though there were moments in which Previn wanted his orchestra to “know their way around a jazz phrase,” he kept jazz inflections out of the vocal lines completely, setting Philip Littell’s libretto as close to normal speech patterns as possible.
The score contains echoes of Previn’s film work, but he bristled when the subject was brought up in interviews. “What I write now has nothing to do with the music that I wrote for the screen or my stage musicals, nothing at all. I haven’t even set foot in a movie studio since 1965…. I haven’t consciously drawn upon my earlier work.” Though he admitted that a lot of the music was “not real glamorous,” he still considered it a tonal work. “It isn’t as tonal as, say, [Carlisle Floyd’s] Susannah,” he said. “But on the other hand, it’s not going to keep Elliott Carter awake…. I want things to be relatively singable. I want what I wrote for the orchestra to be playable.” “Singable” and “playable” are immediately evident in the opening minutes of the opera.
The bended notes in the Prelude “establishes the tawdriness and mental instability behind Blanche’s pretensions with big, brassy chords that sound like bluesy bebop falling apart.” (USA Today) Because the opera was written for Renée Fleming, Blanche is definitely the star, more so than in any other incarnation of the play. Her first big aria comes with her monologue about the loss of Belle Reve. The jazz motif and trumpet lick from the opening Prelude comment on the “breathing and bleeding and crying and sickness and dying,” until the aria peaks with a cry of “Death is expensive!”
The music turns expectedly violent leading up to Stanley hitting Stella and the primordial scream (thankfully not sung) of “Stella!” However, what could have been a memorable moment for a baritone instead upsets the balance of the drama, as Previn doesn’t supply the character with an aria anywhere in the opera. Yet, he invests Mitch’s tenor line with moments of eloquence that only music can provide. And Stella’s sinuous morning-after vocalese provides a memorable moment for a character that often ranks fourth in the play’s quartet of main characters. “The languorous melody [is] potent enough to make you miss it the next time you see the play,” wrote The Village Voice. But Blanche is the star, and as such, her “I Want Magic” has become the opera’s most performed aria.
The orchestral prologues and interludes set the mood and bridge the scenes, keeping the musical line constantly flowing, investing the opera with drama even in between the major set-pieces. The rape interlude is particularly vivid in its musical clash of wills between Stanley and Blanche, and it is Previn’s music that continues the horrifying scene in our minds.
Previn’s finest moment, and the high point of the opera, comes in the final scene. Blanche’s vision of being buried at sea (“I can smell the sea air”) was cut from the film. In the hands of Previn, the brief monologue becomes a poignant comment on the peace that she has been seeking the entire play, exuding “time-stopping rapture, recalling the farewell-to-life transcendence pervading Strauss’ Four Last Songs” (The Cleveland Plain Dealer).
The opera’s ending provides the perfect ethereal coda to Blanche’s breakdown. As she wanders off into the mist, quiet timpani beats, trumpet solo, and string clusters recall the finale of West Side Story. And Previn graciously gives his hard-working soprano the final sung notes: a haunting refrain of “Whoever you are.”
Since Streetcar was facing audiences for the first time, the composer expressed his trepidation at the opera’s reception: “I don’t think it would be possible to have written a long opera based on one of the great plays in the English language and not be apprehensive about whether you’ve done it any kind of justice, or whether you’re going to destroy it.” Either way, Previn made sure he had future projects lined up, in case of the worst: “I just think it’s a very good idea to have something to go to on the morning after the opening night.”
The negative reviews posed a temptation to use traveling metaphors that was too great for many critics. Opera magazine said that the opera “cries out for more than a score that trundles along efficiently calling at all stops from Copland to Barber,” while Variety simply stated, “Streetcar runs off track.” Bernard Holland in The New York Times, however, chose a different form of transportation: “[Previn and director Colin Graham] have probably traveled south during their lives but appeared not even to have rolled down the car window.”
But there was also plenty of praise to go around. Richard Dyer in the Boston Globe wrote, “Previn has created a viable opera…[the music] creates its own hypnotically engaging world…. It is skillful music, intelligent, responsive, sensitive and atmospheric—you can hear the heat rising from the pavement.” The Philadelphia Inquirer went so far to call it “a work that will have to be considered in any appraisal of opera’s grand march to the millennium.” And Mario R. Mercado in Opera News said, “The Previn Streetcar deserves to be staged and heard often. It can claim a secure place among contributions to the opera genre at the century’s end. Subsequent productions were staged in New Orleans, San Diego, Austin and the National Opera in Washington, D.C. And the original San Francisco production was taped for telecast on PBS.
Only time will tell if Previn’s Streetcar will inhabit a place in the standard repertoire. The composer, however, described his role in its creation with humility: “I didn’t set out to make a big statement, I didn’t set out to prove anything, or to disprove anything. I just wanted to write it, and whatever has come out has come out.”
Whether any production of A Streetcar Named Desire can surpass the musical expectations set by the 1951 film remains to be seen. But there is no doubt that Tennessee Williams’ classic drama will continue to inspire and challenge composers for generations to come.