In a play written by Tennessee Williams, music is the sound of paradise drifting in from around the corner, across the alley, from the room next door, the promise of love and happiness just out of reach, leading us on to believe in the possibility of love and harmony somewhere, if not where we are, listening in circumstances far removed from love or happiness.
Alison Fraser begins her extraordinary voyage to paradise through Tennessee Williams: Words and Music led on by extraordinary New Orleans musicians, the Gentlemen Callers, under the baton — alongside the hot piano chords — of orchestrator Allison Leyton-Brown.
James Singleton’s sly bass teases out Fraser’s sultry “If I Didn’t Care” and off we go. The song is sung in Williams’ play Vieux Carré, where it accompanies sobbing. Fraser pours it out in her pure dark alto.
Why do I lie awake each night and dream all day long?
Muted Dixieland brass gathers for Fraser’s invitation via Blanche DuBois in Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire.
Voulez-vous coucher avec moi, ce soir?
“If I Didn’t Care” and the dozen tunes that follow were chosen by Tennessee Williams to be sung in his plays — Streetcar among others — as counterpoint to his dialogue. Her voice in the clear now, Fraser gets clearer with the lyrics of “It’s Only a Paper Moon.”
It wouldn’t be make believe if you believed in me.
J. Walter Hawkes on a sweet trombone takes up the invitation to believe. In Streetcar, what we hear of “Paper Moon,” according to the playwright’s directions, is Blanche singing offstage in the shower, while onstage, between the verses, her reputation turns to dirt. Fraser gets down to that too, but later. For now she sets out with grace, as songs overheard in a play by Williams are often called to do. The band swings along as Fraser’s soft speaking voice threads to the center with Blanche’s honest explanation.
Soft people have got to shimmer and glow — put a — paper lantern over the light.
That’s a ukulele shimmering as Fraser strums “You’re the Only Star (In My Blue Heaven),” a tune as guileless as her admission from it:
Until you come in sight my heart is lonely.
A bumptious Tex-Mex classic is next, “New San Antonio Rose,” grinding down from Bourbon Street in Williams’ one-act Auto da Fé as if to answer a question.
How can I speak any plainer?
The answer arrives in the lyric.
Deep within my heart, lies a melody…
Just what she means can be made plain only in music, not words.
Wayne Maureau drums in the polka beat. The trombone digs out a melody. The brass pulls up in force. We slam into the next song, “Yellow Dog Blues” — famously wailed into an Edison wax cylinder by Bessie Smith, but here the woman singing holds the words above the wail:
Moaning, moaning all night long “Where’s my easy rider gone?”
Out of J. Walter Hawkes’s trombone slides the whistle of the train that runs from Memphis to Mississippi — the train called the Yazoo Delta, nicknamed “The Yellow Dog.” Hawkes swoops down into the role of easy rider. Man and train, both yellow dogs, run away, both due to return, but when?
Waiting for a man to return is what these songs are all about. Tennessee Williams claimed that before he even knew Blanche Dubois’ name he caught his first glimpse of her in a vision of a woman sitting in moonlight waiting for someone who would never arrive. From that the rest of Streetcar followed.
Fraser passes on a pick-up line from a fantasia of a play by Williams, Camino Real:
Do you remember Jean Harlow?
calling to mind Hollywood’s first blonde bombshell and a garden of future Harlow incarnations including, one now realizes, pistol-hot platinum blonde Alison Fraser. This much of a muchness introduces “Sweet Leilani” plucked out on the uke, boiled down to the sugary essence of the wind-up Victrola Williams remembered all his life playing behind him when he fell in love for the first time. Included in five of his plays, the song concludes with the words:
You are my paradise completed, you are my dream come true.
Now Fraser turns from the musicians and the music. “I want to go away,” she announces, tripping into a feverish monologue from the short marvelous play Talk to Me Like the Rain and Let Me Listen. The cadence of the spoken words piles into a melody against which Williams pits a languid Mexican romancero, “Estrellita,” supplied by John Eubanks on guitar. Fraser drops her guard, waiting, as she says, for someone who might not come: arrived at the heart of the matter, a woman waiting until in dreams, or in music, or in madness, her lover appears.
“Come le Rose” follows, an Italian beauty from The Rose Tattoo, performed as a duet with a lush piano line from Allison Leyton-Brown filling in the voice Fraser seems to hear in her mind.
Che il tuo cuore diceva al mio cuor…
[What your heart is saying to my heart…]
The trombone smoothes a path for the bass and muted brass to glide into Duke Ellington’s classic “Sophisticated Lady.” The lyric might as well be the history of Blanche DuBois.
They say into your early life romance came
and in this heart of yours burned a flame,
a flame that flickered one day and died…
The music pours like some thick liqueur. Making her way through the painful words, like a drunk looking in a mirror, trying to keep steady and not quite doing it, this lady, far from sophisticated, is on a downward spiral.
In the next track, one spin farther down the spiral, the horns bray the opening bars of W.C. Handy’s torrid
“St. Louis Blues.” Fraser descends.
Got the St. Louis Blues just as blue as I can be.
That man got a heart like a rock cast in the sea
or else he wouldn’t have gone so far from me.
Bobby Campo on trumpet, then Jason Mingledorff on tenor sax, sneak to center from the sidelines. Fraser catches fever from the heated brass and Allison Leyton-Brown’s smoking keyboard.
It’s the old dirt from Streetcar, what’s said about Blanche when she sings “Paper Moon” in the shower: that soldiers on leave from the local army camp would gather on her lawn to call out her name — and sometimes she’d answer their calls.
Sister Blanche is no lily! Ha! Ha!
Fraser bites into the words as if Blanche overheard them in the shower while singing, that her reputation is gone, that she’s washed up like poison. The eerie sweetness of Leyton-Brown’s arrangement — and playing — etches the words of “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles,” another Williams favorite heard in five of his plays.
Pretty bubbles in the air, they fly so high,
nearly reach the sky,
then like my dreams they fade and die.
“The Party’s Over Now” concludes the set, a Noël Coward elegy sung in Clothes for a Summer Hotel, the last play by Williams to be produced on Broadway. Fraser drops to the deepest part of her remarkable range.
The thrill is gone to linger on, would spoil it anyhow.
There’s a coda. When she announced she wanted to go away in Talk to Me Like the Rain and Let Me Listen, she meant away from the edge of the world, into space, then even beyond whatever there is beyond space.
Till finally I won’t have any body at all, and the wind picks me up in its cool
white arms forever, and takes me away!
The trombone blows something other than notes. The music and the words end. But there’s a heavenly encore.
Bells ring, birds sing!
Sun is shining, no more pining!
Don’t sigh, don’t cry.
Bye Bye Blues!
While the music lasts, those of us listening can entertain the possibility of Paradise, if not ever enter.
- David Kaplan