A Streetcar Named Desire is a deeply musical work, from the strands of melody that are intertwined with the stage directions to the heroine's poetic speeches that punctuate the dialog like arias. And yet, it is a work that has notably resisted musical adaptation.
In the play itself, music plays a significant role both as a mood setter and as a source of characterization. Williams indicates a "blue piano" in the stage directions, spilling over from a nearby saloon, that comes and goes throughout the entire play. This contextualizing music is diegetic, as it exists within the narrative of the play-world as the entertainment at the Four Deuces, but because Williams closely prescribes when the blue piano should be audible it functions similarly to non-diegetic scoring. The blue piano is usually invoked in scenes of great passion; Williams states in the opening stage directions that it "expresses the spirit of the life" of Elysian Fields. It is indicated that this music should be most present in the parallel scenes of Stella's lustful reunion with Stanley in Scene 3 and Blanche's rape in Scene 9, as well as at the very beginning and end of the play, in the two moments that the Kowalskis share without Blanche in their lives.
In contrast, the Varsouviana polka is used by Williams to highlight themes of death. This music is diegetic only for Blanche – when we hear the polka, we are hearing what is inside her mind. This memory worms its way to the forefront of her consciousness when she is recalling her husband and when she feels emotionally threatened, and serves to highlight her disintegrating sanity. Like the "click" that Brick awaits while drinking in Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, Blanche must wait for the polka to play out till the gunshot that ended her husband's life before she can shake off the auditory hallucination.
Other music in the play has a more traditionally diegetic function, and even furthers the plot. Blanche's rendition of "Paper Moon" in the bath bothers Stanley while highlighting themes of illusion and belief ("but it wouldn't be make-believe if you believed in me"). And Stanley beats Stella after throwing her radio out the window.
Perhaps it is because of the strong presence of music in the plot and staging of Streetcar that it is sometimes thought of in terms of musical theater. The great theater conductor Lehman Engel, in his influential work on the Broadway musical libretto, "Words With Music," identified the emotion and pathos and passion of Streetcar as prime material for musicalization, contrasting it to the work of more cold-blooded contemporary dramatists like Albee and Pinter. Bernard Holland at the New York Times suggested that Blanche's speeches are essentially spoken arias and that the poker games are crying out to become ensemble numbers.
But both of these commentators answered their own questions as to why Streetcar is so fundamentally a straight play, despite all the musical qualities. Engel observes that characterizations in musicals, especially from the classic period, are immediate and uncomplicated. We are told who everyone is as soon as they step on stage, and the story moves forward through action alone. But Streetcar is of a class of personal history plays, like Miller's "All My Sons" and Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf," with an almost negligible amount of "action." The slow reveal of Blanche's character *is* the plot, and the exposition is indistinguishable from the character development. She enters unannounced, unmentioned, and we spend the next 90 minutes figuring out just who she is – and we don't really get the answer until the last few scenes of the play. And following the 1988 premiere of Andre Previn's opera of Streetcar – which did not adapt the play but rather used the original text as the libretto, setting Williams' words directly – Holland's review in the Times criticized the adaptation's characterization. The power of the play, he writes, lies in "the gradual disintegration of Blanche's outer defenses, not in sensuous arias."
But no one has commented as thoroughly and effectively on the un-musical nature of the original play as that unimpeachable source of cultural and literary commentary: "The Simpsons." The classic fourth season episode "A Streetcar Named Marge" lampoons community theater, musical adaptations of straight plays, and Streetcar itself with an extended sequence showing us clips of Marge and Flanders in a musical adaptation of Streetcar (entitled "Oh! Streetcar!," a play on "Oh! Calcutta!"), written by series composer Alf Clausen.
"Oh! Streetcar!" distorts the original play, triumphantly and hilariously. From what we see of this musical, it opens with an ensemble number denigrating "stinking rotten vomiting vile New Orleans;" provides Blanche with a standard introductory number ("I'm a faded Southern belle without a dime"); lets Ned Flanders as Stanley power-ballad his cries for Stella ("Can't you hear me yell-a? You're puttin' me through hell-a. Stella, Stell-ahhh!"); and gives Apu as the paperboy a spotlight moment ("Will this bewitching floozy seduce this humble newsie?"). In short, Oh! Streetcar! does exactly what any musical adaptation of Streetcar would do. It does not become purposely bad until the finale, which willfully distorts Blanche's departing line into a hook for an upbeat ensemble number ("a stranger's just a friend you haven't met!"), thereby assuring that the audience knows that this "musical" just doesn't get it.
"A Streetcar Named Marge" and its "Oh! Streetcar!" demonstrates just how absurd musicalizations of dramatic literature can be when they attempt to force into a different genre's contours the highly fluid complexity of a character like Blanche DuBois. Thus, even though music plays a very important role in A Streetcar Named Desire, in the end it is only a device servicing the other characterization goals of Tennessee Williams.