The album is a document of Fraser’s concert The Tennessee Williams Songbook, which premiered at Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival last spring. David Kaplan, the show’s writer and director, has merged the songs heard in Williams' plays with the words the playwright intended to join them. Together, "Tennessee Williams: Words and Music," according to press notes, "tells a moving and passionate new story of their own."
Fraser, who picks ten of her favorite songs from the 30s and 40s — years that were musically influential to Tennessee Williams' literary canon — said to Playbill.com, "He included music in all of his plays, and the songs were picked in large part from The American Songbook. When trying to decide on which songs to include in this article, I realized that aside from the Tennessee Williams cuts which are represented on the new CD, I have made these choices before. After much research and months of listening to hundreds of possible songs, I chose four of them to record on my first solo album 'New York Romance,' and 'A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square' is on the 'Swingtime Canteen' cast album."
Fraser, currently appearing in the national tour of Wicked, shared tracks from her album, her music videos and more.
Allison Leyton-Brown, who produced the album with Fraser, created the new arrangements for "Tennessee Williams: Words and Music" and serves as musical director. She is supported by J. Walter Hawkes on trombone and ukulele, James Singleton on bass, Wayne Maureau on drums, Jason Mingledorff on saxophone, Bobby Campo on trumpet and cornet and John Eubanks on guitar.
"Tennessee Williams: Words and Music" features songs taken from the Tennessee Williams canon: A Streetcar Named Desire (the Harold Arlen classic “It’s Only A Paper Moon”), This Property is Condemned (Gene Autry’s “You’re the Only Star”), Clothes for a Summer Hotel (Nöel Coward’s “The Party’s Over Now”), Something Cloudy, Something Clear (the Oscar-winning Hawaiian staple “Sweet Leilani”) and more. For more information visit Sh-K-Boom.com/Alison-Fraser.
Let's start my favorite songs of the 30s and 40s list with the sprightliest of the ten, "At The Codfish Ball," written by Sidney Mitchell and Lew Pollack for the late, great Shirley Temple's 1936 movie "Captain January." Watching that little girl cheer up a Depression-exhausted nation by chirping the Utopian ditty of plenty (fish galore!) and freedom ("There won't be a hook in sight!") while holding her own with the surprisingly attractive hoofer Buddy Ebsen is cinematic and musical bliss. Plus, a shout-out to the nimble lyrics, including the cutest pun ever ("shell-a-brate") and the astonishingly prescient "water beetles twist and shout."
"Hold Tight" is a jazzy, snazzy Fats Waller tune made hugely popular by the Andrews Sisters. The title alone was an apt sentiment to have in 1939, the very brink of World War II, but much of the song's success was due to the "Banned in Boston" effect. Once Walter Winchell snidely spread the word that the seemingly innocent song was rife with sexual innuendo ("When I come home late at night I want my favorite dish- fish!") sales skyrocketed.
Peggy Lee was one of the most original vocalists of the 20th century, but what many people don't remember about her is that she was also a terrific songwriter. Her co-compositions include "It's A Good Day," "Johnny Guitar" and the songs from "Lady and The Tramp," but my favorite Lee tune is "I Don't Know Enough About You," a 1946 hit with the refreshing view that smart is sexy. "I know a little bit about a lot of things, but I don't know enough about you…" she purrs. The sultry songstress slyly educates her listeners with the irrefutable fact that even if you are a blonde, bombshell band singer with a lively, informed mind the slam-dunk way to a man's heart is just to get him to talk about himself!
1940 brought the Blitz to London — 57 consecutive days of Luftwaffe bombing. The relentless pounding did indeed make "the whole damned world turn upside down," as phrased in the Eric Maschwitz-Manning Sherwin tune "A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square," published in the same year. Children were sent away to the country or even to America for safety (a teenaged Angela Lansbury landed here at that time), landmarks and homes were reduced to rubble, almost 20,000 people were killed, and normalcy was not to return for many years. Were birds singing in parks at this time? Highly unlikely. Just as unlikely as the prospect of falling in love. To me, this song sings about faith in the power of love and the resilience of a beleaguered city: the nightingales will return to London Town, and love will prevail.
I will admit I was reluctant to include "Sophisticated Lady," the 1932 Duke Ellington-Mitchell Parrish jazz standard, in the "Tennessee Williams: Words and Music" project because it is so strongly identified with the greatest vocal stylists ever, Billie Holliday and Frank Sinatra. But my director David Kaplan was adamant, and in the process of trying to find my own spin on it, I found myself becoming more and more fascinated with the song's construction. The music says one thing, the lyrics another. Ellington's tune is lush and elegant, but lyricist Parrish's take on the theme struck me as ironic. Rather than being laudatory of Ellington's soigné creature, he seemed to be keenly observant of the fact that the woman is anything but sophisticated. She is lonely, depressed and trying desperately to fill her sad hours with meaningless, possibly paying male connections. However, the divergent views meld brilliantly in the bridge: "Smoking, drinking, never thinking of tomorrow. Nonchalant. Diamonds shining, dancing, dining with some man in a restaurant. Is that what you really want? No…" Ellington's sleek tune paired with Parrish's judgmental lyrics combine to paint a picture of a lost, drunken woman who is having major trouble staying steady on her feet. That scenario is the polar opposite of sophisticated, thus the fascinating dichotomy.
Good conversationalists know the best way to get someone to talk to them is to ask an interesting question. Perhaps this is why "If I Didn't Care," Jack Lawrence's 1939 standard, proved to be the sixth best-selling song of all time when recorded by The Ink Spots. Every sentence in the song is in the form of a question, which makes the content highly invitational. The singer requires you to engage with him. You are not just listening, you are participating because you have to think about what your answer would be. And, the questions keep coming, all 14 of them, ending with "If I didn't care, would it be the same? Would all my prayers begin and end with just your name? And, could I be sure that this was love beyond compare? Would all this be true if I didn't care for you?" You have no choice but to pay rapt attention, otherwise you will miss something. The singer is always one step ahead of all your answers, and then boom, it's over, leaving you wanting more.
"Deep within my heart lies a melody, a song of Old San Antone/Where in dreams I live with the memory beneath the stars all alone." A toe-tapping tune summons for a lonely cowboy the bittersweet memory of a lost love. The song "New San Antonio Rose," written in 1938 by Bob Wills, and recorded by him and his Texas Playboys in 1940, is a Tex-Mex delight. I defy you to listen to that joyful mariachi break and not at least think about doing a Texas two-step. And, as for my recording of it on the "Tennessee Williams: Words and Music" CD? There might be yodeling involved.
"It's Only A Paper Moon" by Harold Arlen, E.Y. Harburg and Billy Rose was written in 1932, the midst of The Great Depression. The country was in desperate need of escapism in the form of "paper moons," "muslin trees" and "cardboard seas," anything to get their minds off the bleak hopelessness of the day. Shirley Temple, Busby Berkeley, the Marx Brothers, Greta Garbo and her impossible glamour, screwball comedies and Western serials? All were deeply necessary to maintain sanity in the face of dire poverty. This song is the linchpin of "Tennessee Williams: Words and Music" because it mirrors the sentiment that a creative use of illusion helps us to survive a cruel world. But it goes a step further. If, as Blanche DuBois asks of her naïve gentleman caller Mitch, the illusion she has carefully constructed is accepted at face value, it could become reality. She could become the woman Mitch has been enchanted by. She sings the song in the bathtub, oblivious to the fact that simultaneously Stanley is busy destroying her fantasy world. "Sister Blanche is no lily! Ha!…" The fragile paper moon has been torn and crumpled, and her aging face is haggard in the new harsh light. In this light the song is achingly sad, a hope shattered, a dream forever unfulfilled.
I have loved Noel Coward since my mother introduced me to his works when I was in junior high school, but oddly I had never heard of the 1932 song "The Party's Over Now" until David Kaplan suggested ending our "Tennessee Williams: Words and Music" show with it. He played me a haunting recording of it by Barbara Lea, and I was struck by its simplicity. The tune is almost lullaby like — it has a soothing quality, as if to say, it's time for bed. And, the words echo that feeling: "Life is sweet, but time is fleet beneath the magic of the moon. Dancing time may be sublime but it is ended all too soon…" Yes, it's time for bed. Or is it time for a more permanent release? In the context of our show, the blonde protagonist follows the downward trajectory of Blanche's emotional journey. She isn't just going to bed, she is going away for good. Coward's lyrics taken in this context have a chilling tone of finality: "The thrill is gone; to linger on would spoil it anyhow — Let's creep away from the day, for the party's over now…"
The last song I will include, "I Wish You Love," was written by Charles Trenet and Léo Chauliac in 1942 but wasn't given English lyrics until 1957. The music is dramatic and romantic and, well… French, but it is the lyrics I will address. Albert Beach wrote a lovely aspirational text to the melody provided. After repeated listening, I found myself aspiring to do what the singer does. In the wake of a failed romance and a broken heart, he shows generosity of spirit. Instead of carrying resentment in his soul, he forgives. Instead of wishing his ex would get hit by a bus, he wishes her (or him) love. The song resonates with the wisdom gained from the lesson learned, and if a song can make you want to be a better person? Well, that's a hell of a song: "My breaking heart and I agree that you and I could never be. So with my best, my very best, I set you free. I wish you shelter from the storm, a cozy fire to keep you warm, But most of all when snowflakes fall, I wish you love"