Singing actors have a unique advantage with André Previn’s setting of A Streetcar Named Desire: the chance to step out of the looming shadow of Marlon Brando’s definitive interpretation, which continues to be brought up exhaustively to every actor fortunate enough to play with this masterpiece to this day. He stripped his clothes, swilled his drinks, smashed dishware, hit and raped women and shouted “with heaven-splitting violence” (as indicated in the stage directions by Tennessee Williams) night after night, but did not have to balance that along with a full orchestra while producing an athletic form of singing through self amplification. Therefore, we get to deal with a different animal that still moves and talks and acts like the brute penned by Williams, but in a totally different medium.
The opportunity to portray Kowalski is a real privilege, especially in a new production and in a genre that only added this piece to its repertoire nearly 17 years ago. I knew I had a major task ahead and suddenly recalled the advice Darren K. Woods shared with me as I was preparing Reinaldo in Jorge Martín’s Before Night Falls, “Wes, I know how much you love learning all the facts and historical accuracies that go along with your characters, but always remember, know the music cold before anything else. It’s your job as a musician and obligation to your employers. No one cares that you know what your character ate for breakfast if you don’t know the music.” With that in mind, I immediately secured a piano vocal score for Streetcar (shout out to Glendower Jones of Classical Vocal Reprints).
I spent hours just on rhythm and text alone and eventually I began adding in the pitches and singing out the more difficult passages. Stanley has some punishing moments in tessitura and I needed to get those in my body right away. He is nearly always singing in a blues/jazz/cavalier vocal style against minor 2nds, 9th, 11th and 13th chords. Ultimately, I realized that even after a ton of groundwork, I could only get the pitches right for about a fourth of the music. Luckily, soprano Beverly O’Regan Thiele was performing with Utah Opera Festival and Musical Theater that same summer and is one of the acclaimed interpreters of Previn’s Blanche Dubois. She was all too familiar with the challenge of preparing Streetcar musically and offered invaluable advice as well as recommended a magnificent coach back in NYC by the name of Thomas Bagwell.
When I made my move to NYC I reached out to Thomas and we got right to work. He knows the score inside and out and provided invaluable insight to its structure, what I could expect in the orchestration and what I’d likely be seeing with a conductor. We discussed the best approach and ideal accent for the character based on what I had learned of Kowalski’s background. We found a middle ground of treating the words in an efficient modification that would be understood clearly in a hall and project Stanley’s blue-collar background. A singer is nothing without great collaborators and I am fortunate to know many great pianists, but I simply could not have learned this without Thomas. Thank you buddy!
Next came the second part of this monumental task: researching and piecing together the character of Stanley Kowalski. The timing for this portion, however, could not have been better, since my girlfriend lives in New Orleans in a small house just a few blocks away from the French Quarter. I had yet to make a trip to the city to visit. That decision was easy.