Does the title of this post ring a 'southern belle'? It was the name of the musical version of 'A Streetcar Named Desire' featured in an episode of The Simpsons years ago. A brilliantly hilarious parody, wonderfully executed.
In reality, musicalizing the Tennessee Williams classic would be an incredibly difficult task. Sure the characters and situations are over-the-top (a necessity in musical theatre), but the original and film versions are so etched into our culture's mind that straying from them in an attempt to add a musical aspect (and receive any kind of positive recognition) would be virtually impossible to pull off. Also, before writing any musical, the creative team has to ask themselves 'Does this absolutely HAVE to be musicalized?' If the answer is anything but a resounding 'YES!', it's probably best not to touch the original piece.
All that said, last year I was tasked with exactly that project...to write a song for Blanche Dubois from a specific moment of 'Streetcar...' (The play...not the Simpsons parody!)
The moment we were given is Act One, scene three, immediately following Stanley attacking Stella. In this beat, Williams briefly elaborates on the newly forming connection between Blanche and Mitch. (One of Stanley's poker buddies.)
Blanche has just witnessed the attack, and subsequently overseen her sister, Stella, making love to the man who beat her. She is dumbfounded when Mitch approaches her...
All quiet on the Potomac now?
Oh! She ran downstairs and went back in there with him.
Sure she did.
I'm terrified! I'm not used to such-
Naw, it's a shame this had to happen when you just got here. But don't take it serious.
Violence! Is so-
Set down on the steps and have a cigarette with me.
I'm not properly dressed...
That don't make no difference in the Quarter.
Such a pretty silver case.
I showed you the inscription, didn't I?
(Looking to the sky.)
There’s so much –So much confusion in the world…
DISEASE, DEATH AND DISASTERS,
AS THE ONES PUT FORTH BY POE,
WELL, THE LOSS OF LOVE IS TRULY THE WORST TRAGEDY I KNOW,
(She looks up at Stella and Stanley’s apartment.)
BUT LOVE LIKE THIS,
THAT STRIKES WITH SUCH INTOXICATED RAGE-
(She cuts herself and the music off, a bit embarrassed as she sees MITCH is staring at her.)
Would you listen to me! I’ve a handsome, lofty gentleman offering me a Lucky, and what do I do? Submit to my frazzled nerves. It’s that third drink again…I mentioned that I had three tonight?
(MITCH nods with a slight smile.)
I’m not accustomed –two is the limit…
(the blue hint of a blues song creeps up in the distance.)
A late encore from that blues man. How sad he must be, making that piano moan all hours of the night.
(MITCH looks a bit confused. The music transforms into a waltz-y lullaby. SHE looks at MITCH.)
Still, it’s not without its beauty. Quite soothing, actually. Makes me want to sway with it.
(She sways gently with the lullaby.)
HEAR THE STRAIN,
FIRST A GENTLE VERSE, THEN A REFRAIN…
THEN COMES AN URGE YOU CAN’T CONTAIN
THESE TIMES IMPLORE WE NOT IGNORE THE SOUND.
SO WHEN THE MUSIC CAN BE FOUND,
SHAKING THE SHRILL LIGHT OF DAY,
LOST IN THE LOVELY BALLET…
NOT A CARE.
A BRIEF REPRIEVE IS IN THE EVENING AIR.
SO TAKE MY HAND, AND LET'S PREPARE
I’m sure a cavalier such as you is quite used to having a full dance card, Mr…Mitchell?
Mitch. Honestly, I don’t get out to dance halls much. At all, really…
Why, that’s just a shame…there’s nothing, nothing in this world quite like tripping the light fantastic…
THE MUSIC FLOATS,
A SWEET CASCADE…
WE HAVE ONE TASK AROUND THE MASQUERADE,
THE LIGHTS HAVE DIMMED, SO IN THE SHADE
CHEEK TO CHEEK,
HAND IN HAND…
PASSIONS BLOOM AND THEY ASSUME COMMAND,
WE HAVE NO CHOICE BUT HEED THE BAND…
GLIDING OUR WAY THROUGH THE THRONG,
LOSING OURSELVES TO THE SONG!
(BLANCHE begins to move more to the music as it picks up speed, and soon sweeps MITCH up in the moment with her.)
DA, DA, DA, DA, DUM…
DA, DA, DA, DA, DUM…
DA, DA, DA, DA, DUM!
(The two pause, close to one another. A musical riff plays as BLANCHE looks up at MITCH, locking eyes for a moment. SHE then pulls away quickly, cheeks flushing.)
I’m so sorry! What a silly thing you must think I am!
I don’t think you’re silly at all.
(gaining confidence. Musical riff)
Can I…that is...do you think…
Shhhh…. I should be getting in now.
HEAR IT SOFT,
THERE’S THE STRAIN…
FIRST, A GENTLE VERSE, THEN…
Thank you for being so kind!
I need kindness now.
(The music swells. Blackout.)
Obviously the above scene begins and ends with Tennessee Williams' words, but we decided to extend the scene in order to assist Blanche in laying the groundwork for her seduction of Mitch. My goal as the librettist/lyricist was to make it difficult to discern between Tennessee's words and ours for the adaptation. Everything she says and sings has to be in Blanche's 'voice', or we lose our listener/reader. Also, I wanted to give a sense of the fantasy she likes to live in, and give off to her suitors, hence the flowery imagery. She wants the world to be as beautiful as she feels it should be, so that's the picture she paints. And in this particular scene, she is enticing with a picture of a giant ballroom, filled with beautiful visions and people...something we can be sure Mitch has never seen before in person.
Musically, this tune is a waltz. (My composer for this project was Adam Michael Kaufman.) It's clean and pretty at first, though it grows distorted as the song progresses. The 3/4 meter holds significance with Blanche's past. It also feels slightly off balance, and subconsciously gives the listener the idea that there is something off with the words she is singing/saying. Since every interaction she has with Mitch is an attempt to gain his interest and manipulate him, we wanted the music underneath to help tell that story, even when the words seem sincere.
Did the moment need to be extended?
Not for the play. The play has a wonderful scene shortly before this, where we see Blanche and Mitch first meet and hit it off well. The development of the relationship only required this brief moment to show just how kind a guy Mitch is, and instill in her mind that he is the right one to go after. This is accomplished in the original dialogue.
...since this would be an adaptation, it is entirely possible that the earlier scene may have been shortened, or even turned into a 'songlet' to set up for this fully realized moment of connection. Regardless, this was what we were given to musicalize, and we saw it as an attempt to solidify Mitch as her target, and see her begin her 'act' for him...so that's exactly what we elaborated on.
And now, the BIG QUESTION...
If you had to choose, which moment from 'Streetcar...' do you think would be best to musicalize? Why?
Leave your thoughts in the comments below!
Until next time...
...of 'Lee'rical Wordplay...
...in case there was any question...