Tennessee Williams, Film, Music, Alex North: An Interview with Luigi Zaninelli

By McCraw, Harry W. | The Mississippi Quarterly, Fall 1995 | Go to article overview

Tennessee Williams, Film, Music, Alex North: An Interview with Luigi Zaninelli


McCraw, Harry W., The Mississippi Quarterly


Tennessee Williams's keen appreciation of the power of music to create atmosphere and define character is evident throughout his canon. In Battle of Angels (later Orpheus Descending), Williams's fugitive-kind hero is Val Xavier, a musician whose guitar bears the magical signatures of the great blues singers and musicians. In The Glass Menagerie, Laura Wingfield, paralyzed by shyness and low self-esteem, cannot bear her mother's attempts to improve her social life. She drowns Amanda out by playing one of the phonograph records her father left when he abandoned his family. Just a few seconds of this music -- old-fashioned and nostalgic, heard through a wall of scratchy noise -- brilliantly define Laura's pathos and vulnerability. As her brother Tom dreams of escaping his dreary life at home, faint, nostalgic music from the "Paradise Dance Hall" drifts in through the apartment window, a sad, ironic comment on the illusiveness of Tom's hopes and those of the times.

Williams's inclusion of music as a vital element in his drama continued throughout his career. In his magisterial Tennessee Williams: A Descriptive Bibliography,(1) George W. Crandell devotes Section "E" to "Titles by Williams Set to Music." This section "includes songs with lyrics by Williams and operatic works with librettos by Williams or librettos based upon the works of Williams." Williams numbered several composers among his close friends; the most important of these in the early years was New York-born Paul Bowles. Originally a composer of film music, Bowles abandoned work in film after 1948 to devote himself to incidental music for live theatre. His music was heard in a number of important Williams premieres: The Glass Menagerie (1945), Summer and Smoke (1948), Orpheus Descending (1957), Sweet Bird of Youth (1959), and The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore (1962).(2) Later relationships with composers included Williams's friendship with Lee Hoiby, who scored the music for the 1972 Summer and Smoke and did an operatic version of the play in 1976.

Fifteen film adaptations of Williams's plays were made between 1950 and 1969.(3) When Hollywood transformed Williams's plays into films, many composers were called on to write the scores. Kenyon Hopkins is remembered for his jazz-flavored scores for Baby Doll (1956) and The Fugitive Kind (1960). Composer Alex North, however, deserves pride of place for the quality and significance of the music he wrote for two Williams films, A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) and The Rose Tatoo (1955). North (1910-1991) studied at the Curtis Institute (Philadelphia), the Juilliard School of Music, and the Moscow Conservatory; his teachers included Ernst Toch, Aaron Copland, and Silvestre Revueltas. In 1937, he began his career in film music with two documentaries (Heart of Spain, People of the Cumberland), but he built his reputation as a composer for ballet and live theatre. By 1950 his work had caught the attention of Elia Kazan, who chose North to compose the score for the film version of A Streetcar Named Desire over the Warner Brother's music department's objections to North as an inexperienced outsider. As a concession to star power, Vivien Leigh replaced Jessica Tandy from the original cast in the film version.

Though North considered intimate drama and character development his forte, he also became a composer of choice for literate spectaculars -- Spartacus (Kubrick, 1960), Cleopatra (Mankiewicz, 1963), The Agony and the Ecstasy (Reed, 1965). In the latter part of his career, beginning with The Misfits in 1961, he developed a close association with the legendary John Huston; they also collaborated on Wise Blood (1979), Under the Volcano (1984), Prizzi's Honor (1985), and The Dead (1987). In all, North composed music for sixty-four films and documentaries, plus several TV series. He was nominated for an Academy Award fifteen times but, regrettably, never won; he was the recipient of a Special Academy Award in 1986. …

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