Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Alison Fraser on "The Tennessee Williams Songbook"

By Rob Hartmann

Broadway regular (and two-time Tony nominee) Alison Fraser, starring in The Tennessee Williams Songbook at the Provincetown Tennessee Williams Festival, discusses her year of Tennessee Williams, how a ukulele chooses you, going platinum blonde, and singing everything from Bessie Smith blues to Noël Coward.

Rob Hartmann: So you premiered The Tennessee Williams Songbook in Mississippi a few weeks ago.

Alison Fraser: Yes, we premiered down in Columbus, Mississippi, the hometown of Mr. Tennessee Williams, which was really fun. It was incredibly exciting, because we didn’t really know how it was going to go together. It’s a very interesting piece – it’s the music that Tennessee Williams wanted put in his various plays. The music is very eclectic. And then the director David Kaplan, the great Tennessee Williams scholar and the curator of the Provincetown Tennessee Williams Festival – you know he’s a world-class scholar of Tennessee Williams, and a terrific director – David has put various pieces of text in with the songs. So, we didn’t know how this hybrid was going to go over with an audience. And, down in Mississippi we had a very sophisticated audience because it was a Tennessee Williams festival, and there were a lot of scholars there and real aficionados – people who are very, very passionate about Tennessee Williams. And it went over like gangbusters.

Of course, just for heritage’s sake, doing it in his hometown was lovely. But I am really looking forward to doing it in Provincetown. For me, this has been the Year of Tennessee Williams. Last year, I was introduced to the Provincetown Tennessee Williams Festival. David Kaplan had called me because they had lost an actress for the finale of the festival. It was called Dirty Shorts, two wonderful erotically tinged short stories, with Michael Urie.

I thought, I’m a good fit for this because, one, I had just finished Love, Loss, and What I Wore, which is reader’s theater – which is what this was. And two – unbeknownst to David Kaplan – among my many hats, one of them is actually reading erotic literature under the name Alison Valentine. So they got the whole package with me, let me tell ya. (Laughs.)

After that, David called me in November and presented this songbook project. I said it was a spectacular idea – thank you so much, I’m thrilled with this. And we started working on it. And then, oddly enough, in the spring, I got cast opposite Shirley Knight, the great Tennessee Williams actress, in In Masks Outrageous and Austere, Tennessee Williams’ last play, at the Culture Project. She’s a good friend of mine, because I had worked with her before in Come Back, Come Back, Wherever You Are, Arthur Laurents’ last play.

So this has really been the Year of Tennessee Williams for me, and I’m thrilled to go up to Provincetown – it’s really an impressive festival this year. And I have a nine piece band, which is incredible.

RH: And you’re working with Allison Leyton-Brown. (

AF: I knew that she would be a good partner for me on this. I really felt like I needed a female presence on stage with me. And she’s a superb musician – she has a great background in Dixieland and that New Orleans sound that we really need. She’s really a character in the piece as well as the piano player. She’s my familiar, let’s call her. She leads me on my path to musical degradation. (laughs) And redemption!

RH: It sounds like a really interesting collection of songs.

AF: It is, it is. You know, my late husband, Rusty Magee – an astonishing composer –he had this wonderful bit in his live act about “the soundtrack of your life” – the songs that resonate through your entire life, and can evoke certain periods of elation or sadness or romanticism or despondency. That’s what I really think we have here – the soundtrack to Tennessee Williams’ life. As you look at these songs, you can picture him sitting in Columbus, Mississippi with his ear to the tabletop radio and hearing “San Antonio Rose”, or “Sophisticated Lady”, or “St. Louis Blues”, or “Sweet Leilani”. You can really feel his presence in this incredible collection of music. “Bye Bye Blues” is from Vieux Carré; “Come Le Rose” is from The Dog Enchanted by the Divine View. “Estrellita”, which is going to be this magnificent set piece, is from a wonderful short play called Talk To Me Like the Rain … And Let Me Listen. The big monologue I do is from that play. It’s a magnificent monologue which is going to be done opposite a fantastic guitarist playing “Estrellita.”

“It’s Only a Paper Moon” is of course in A Streetcar Named Desire, as is “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles.” If you can’t get the rights to “It’s Only a Paper Moon” when you’re doing Streetcar, you can replace it with “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles” – and we do both of them. “The Pirate King” is used in The Glass Menagerie; “The New San Antonio Rose” is from Auto-da-Fé; “St. Louis Blues” is from a little play called Hello From Bertha.

An interesting thing – I’ve sung Noël Coward a lot – but I had never heard this Coward song, “The Party’s Over Now.” That’s my swan song in this piece.

I’m singing some Bessie Smith blues – I’m singing “Yellow Dog Blues” from Summer and Smoke. And then, from This Property Is Condemned, I’m doing an amazing song that has really found my heart. It’s by Gene Autry, a 1930s song, a Depression song, called “You’re the Only Star In My Blue Heaven.” And when David and I were talking back in November, I said, I know I’m going to hate myself for this later – but David, I have to play the ukulele in this song. And of course I’ve never played the ukulele in my life. I’ve sung my whole life, I’ve done vocal arrangements, but I have never played an instrument on stage before.

So, a few months ago, I started ukulele lessons with the guy we’re so lucky to have, J. Walter Hawkes – he’s won three Emmys for writing songs for TV – he’s a fantastic trombonist, and he’s also a seriously great ukulele player.

I actually went to a ukulele festival with Walter to pick out a ukulele for me. He had been loaning me his grandfather’s ukulele – I think it was a Gibson. I said, Walter, I am so terrified every time I even pick this thing up – I need my own ukulele. (laughs.) So together, we went to the New York Uke Fest. And Walter said to me, “You don’t pick the ukulele – the ukulele picks you.” I must have expensive tastes – or the ukulele does – or it knows a sucker when it sees one (laughs) because the most expensive ukulele in that room chose me.

But it sounds very beautiful. And the thing about ukulele is, if it’s not a good sounding ukulele, you don’t take it seriously. Believe me, I take my ukulele very seriously. (Laughs.)

RH: I think people don’t realize, in putting together an evening like this, what an enormous challenge it is to find that emotional arc among all these disparate pieces, especially when you’re incorporating text.

AF: David has thought it through so beautifully. There’s a great emotional arc to it. The subtitle of the show is “Variations on Blanche.” What you’re really seeing is the emotional trajectory of a woman who is waiting for someone who might not come. You see her going through various moods of elation and romance, tentative flirting and devastation and longing, and into real loss – deep, deep sadness, and then ultimate redemption through music.

But what has really tied the music together is these gorgeous, gorgeous pieces of text. It’s the most marvelous seasoning on this bouillabaisse of music. There are a couple of gender-switching things, which is really fun. Down in Mississippi, I was wondering, how am I going to make the audience buy me as Stanley Kowalski? But if you do it through the clouded memory of Blanche DuBois remembering what Stanley said, then you can do it. He’s a bad memory in her head. And it’s devastating.

I have to say, it’s a difficult emotional trajectory. I really haven’t sung like this in years. When you’re singing something like “Yellow Dog Blues”, you gotta go all out. We’re doing “The New San Antonio Rose” and I said to David, I hear something here, and I think it’s yodeling. And again, I think it’s probably something that Tennessee Williams did hear over the radio. You know, those marvelous, marvelous Bill Monroe recordings, you know, the Columbia recordings from the 30s and 40s. You can’t tell me he didn’t hear that stuff. You know, that yodeling, it’s very plaintive and really comes from the solar plexus. I just felt like this needs to be a real palette of the musical influences that I would say colored Tennessee Williams’ writing. Because of course his text is unbelievably musical.

One of the things I learned from Shirley Knight when I worked with her – I already knew you have to trust the music. But Shirley really taught me to trust Tennessee’s words. And as soon as I opened my mouth for the prose, the text, down in Mississippi, I almost felt like I was in his hands. I felt – he has so protected me as an actress, because these people are hanging on my every word. You could hear a pin drop.

You know, my great passion is originating material, and I’m so, so proud to have originated this. It’s a great, great gift to have been handed this opportunity. I’ll forever be grateful to David Kaplan.

Here’s a funny thing. I do this speech about Jean Harlow. David’s lovely longtime partner, Jerry Stacy, is a fantastic hairdresser. And three of us agreed – you know what? I gotta look like Jean Harlow. (laughs) So, we’ve taken like three months to bring my hair up to almost platinum blonde. So I’m kind of living this piece every day. It’s not just when I’m onstage – because it’s a very severe look. You know, I’m platinum blonde, walking around New York City. And my agents were like, oh wow … that’s a look. And of course, auditioning –  “oh yes, I’m an actress, I can do anything” – no you can’t, because you’re platinum blonde. (Laughs.) But the thing is, I didn’t want to use a wig, because I wanted to be absolutely authentic. I wanted to be able to run my hands through my hair, and mess it up, and, you know, act like it’s real hair. I didn’t want that wiggy thing happening.

You know, I gotta tell you, I don’t think I’ve been this excited about a project in a long time. A new project. David has been incredibly open to my ideas, and that’s when I can thrive, that’s when I can really, really help a new piece. When I feel absolutely necessary to a piece, there’s just no better feeling.

And I really feel like this piece is peculiarly suited to me. I do have a voice that can go all through different styles of music. To have to sing a Bessie Smith song and a Gilbert and Sullivan song in the same night and be equally valid on both of them – that’s not an easy task. And, I have to tell you – to yodel. That’s tough on my voice. To have to go from seriously grinding my voice up in “Yellow Dog Blues” and “St. Louis Woman” to that other stuff, the very pure country folk – it’s tough. We’ll see how it goes.

Tennessee Williams’ words are incredible, and his words combined with the soundtrack of his life, as performed by the great Allison Leyton-Brown and J. Walter Hawkes and the band that we’ll have up in Provincetown, I just think it’s really going to be a special evening.

The perils of becoming Blanche: Alison Fraser goes platinum blonde.
(With hairstylist Jerry Stacy)

Alison Fraser was twice nominated for Tony Awards (for The Secret Garden and Romance/Romance). She is a nationally acclaimed performer who has appeared in concert at such venues as Carnegie Hall, The White House, The Brooklyn Botanic Gardens, The Tisch Center for the Arts, The Folger Shakespeare Library, Joe's Pub and Symphony Space. She will perform her show “New York Romance” at 54 Below in Manhattan on Sunday, November 4th.

The Tennessee Williams Songbook. Directed by David Kaplan, starring Alison Fraser. Music direction by Allison Leyton-Brown.

Performs Sunday September 23, at 5:00 pm.

Town Hall
260 Commercial Street
Provincetown, MA


The Provincetown Tennessee Williams Theater Festival takes place Thursday, September 20 through Sunday, September 23, 2012. Festival passes, including access to all shows, are available now online at or by calling 1-866-789-TENN (8366).  A Carte Blanche Pass includes tickets to all performances as well as access to exclusive donor parties, events, and more.  Special group packages, student prices, and Flex Passes are also available. For full details on Festival performances and events, visit

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