Tennessee Williams: A Haunting Celebration of a Great Gay Playwright

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"Do you remember Jean Harlow?" Alison Fraser asked in a genteel southern drawl.

"Wouldn't it be wonderful if you could sprinkle those ashes all over the ground like seeds, and out of each one would sprout another Jean Harlow?" The line is from the play Ten Blocks on the Camino Real, by Tennessee Williams.

Fraser is an award winning cabaret artist, and a two-time Tony nominee. On her new album, “Tennessee Williams: Words and Music” she pays homage to one of the greatest playwrights of the American theater.

Williams (1911-1983) was a Southern gentleman who wrote brilliant plays like “A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” Openly gay as early as the 1940s, his works were gothic melodramas about mad, sexually frustrated Southern ladies who often lived on the fringes of society.

Many of his characters are believed to be stand-ins for Williams himself, who waged a lifelong battle with alcoholism and substance abuse. He was haunted by many personal demons of his own.

"Tennessee Williams is a doorway I can walk through," Fraser told SFGN. "By saying his words and singing the songs he lived and chose to include in his plays, our listeners can walk through that doorway with me and enter his singular world."

On the new album, Fraser sings jazz and pop standards that were heard in various Williams plays. Sprinkled between the songs are lines of dialogue from some of the plays themselves, which Fraser performs in character.

Williams’ words could be simple, yet chilling, conveying the aching loneliness and longing of the character speaking them.

"The great legacy of Tennessee Williams is that the outsiders of this world have as much right to the pursuit of happiness as the insiders," Fraser said.

“His plays are populated with the fragile, the lonely, the discarded, the misfits, the down and out and the spat-upons. To have their lives unfold theatrically through Tennessee Williams deeply compassionate eyes is to have a clean window looking out on a better world, a world in which everyone's story is worth telling, everyone's life is worth living, everyone's dream is valid, no matter how far they veer from the social norm."

In one track, Fraser tells part of Blanche's story from “Streetcar.” The monologue “Sister Blanche is No Lily” is spoken with a plaintive piano background. It's followed by the song “I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles,” which was actually heard in Williams' “Clothes For A Summer Hotel,” yet it underscores the empty circle Blanche found herself trapped in, and the better life she yearned for.

The disc is a document of The Tennessee Williams songbook, a concert which Fraser premiered in New Orleans last year. The music on the 16 tracks is provided by The Gentleman Callers, a New Orleans jazz band. Arrangements are provided by Allison Leyton-Brown, who co-produced the CD with Fraser.

“Tennessee Williams: Words and Music,” is a wonderful homage to a tragic genius. Fraser literally conducts a séance with her voice, reaching out to Williams across the decades. At times it feels as though he's responding, speaking to us through Fraser's vocal stylings.

“Tennessee Williams: Words and Music” by Alison Fraser can be purchased on Amazon.com.

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