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Tom Penn plays the drums in rehearsals for A Streetcar Named Desire, his eyes focused on the action onstage.

Composing A Streetcar Named Desire

Angus MacRae details his process and ideation for creating A Streetcar Named Desire‘s composition.


Both Summer and Smoke and A Streetcar Named Desire prominently feature live music on stage. In the case of Summer and Smoke, the set design consisted of a crescent of seven pianos which were played by the actors. A Streetcar Named Desire features a drummer (Tom Penn) at the heart of the production. Is there a reason why these instruments have been so central to both productions? Do they represent something symbolically? And why pianos and drums specifically?

Well, in the case of Summer and Smoke, the honest truth is that the pianos were first and foremost conceived by Tom Scutt, the designer, before I was connected to the show, and I was brought on as a composer to help realise the vision of a live score played by the actors on stage. It was a daunting challenge! But I’d already written a piece for 6 pianos earlier that year, so had a few ideas about overcoming the challenges of a multi-piano score.

In Summer and Smoke, the inspiration for the pianos was a reference that exists in the script about the central character, Alma, having been a piano teacher. Building on this idea, the lyricism and musicality of Williams’s writing seemed to naturally lend itself to this bold approach, and we knew that visually it would be hugely striking.

In our early conversations for A Streetcar Named Desire, Rebecca Frecknall and I knew that we wanted to continue the dialogue with our earlier work and also feature live music. This is a much more famous play with music at its core, and correspondingly firmer audience preconceptions about what that music should be. Whilst the more traditional approach is to root the musical landscape in the 1940s jazz of the era, we knew from early on that this approach wouldn’t serve the narrative function we wanted the music to play. In my mind, that style of music has become romanticised by age, and can create a nostalgia that isn’t helpful for the story of Blanche’s breakdown, which is so central to the play. Afterall, from Blanche’s perspective, the music of New Orleans that surrounds her is oppressive, not nostalgic. It represents a life she is desperate to escape from and stands in contradiction to the ‘make believe’ world she dreams of.

Building on this, both Rebecca and I were also inspired by the natural rhythm of the dialogue and felt that a score focussed on percussion, with additional live vocals, would allow us to approach the play in a fresh way, rooting the music more firmly in Blanche’s psyche, with vocals allowing us moments of escapism and lyricism as a counterpoint.

The score still takes a broad inspiration from the jazz music of the time, along with the eclectic cultural influences that have always inspired music in New Orleans, but it has been warped and distorted through Blanche’s lens.

In Summer and Smoke, it felt like your score was often viscerally channelling the emotions and psychology of the lead character Alma (played by Patsy Ferran). Was that something you were aiming for?

Absolutely! When writing a score, I always begin my conversations with a director by trying to pin down exactly whose story we are trying to tell. It really is an essential creative choice to know whose perspective we as an audience should be understanding events from, since it would be very easy to muddle the story, rather than shed additional light on it, by trying to tell competing narratives simultaneously. In Summer and Smoke, we were absolutely driven by telling the story from Alma’s perspective. The emotional core of the music was intended to correspond with her emotional core – to help an audience feel what she is feeling. The pianos could come to represent Alma’s inner thoughts and feelings, the exposed piano strings becoming quite literally her heart strings.

For Streetcar, we are absolutely taking a similar approach and aiming to tell the story from Blanche’s perspective. It is always the question we return to when assessing whether we have made the right choices creatively – does the music tell Blanche’s story? Does the way it makes us feel correspond with the way Blanche would be feeling at any given moment? It can be a tricky balance to strike, but it gives the score a clear purpose and direction. The joy of working so closely with the actors in the rehearsal room is that I can speak directly with them to ensure that we are all working together to tell the same emotional story. Their input can be valuable to the shape of the music in a scene.

Are you able to talk a bit about your process for composing the music for both productions? Was it all written before rehearsals started or do you compose in the room during the rehearsal period? Do you work with the performers on composition?

The processes for the two shows have been quite different, with my approach for Streetcar being informed by the knowledge I acquired in the creation of Summer and Smoke, alongside other projects such as the largely improvised live score for the Prologue to Cabaret, which I worked on last year.

Whilst it was a collaborative process, much of the music for Summer and Smoke was written and fully notated away from the rehearsal room, and then taught to the actors. This approach allowed me to weave themes and motifs through the score that would have been more challenging to create through a collective devised process, but the challenge of that approach is that it is relatively inflexible, with changes on stage being tricky to adjust to quickly.

With Streetcar, I knew I wanted to work in a more reactive and fluid way, and core to that idea was finding an actor percussionist (Tom Penn, who also plays the role of the Doctor in the play) who was open to experimentation and a more devised approach. None of the music in the show is scored in a traditional sense. Instead it has been sculpted – hewn from a rough palette of ideas generated through workshopping and then coerced into shape collaboratively. I can’t state strongly enough how much of a collective effort this process has been. My job has primarily been to have oversight on the arc of the score and to devise creative ways to sculpt those raw ingredients into a score that serves the narrative.

Angus MacRae crouches as he directs a drummer behind a kit.
Angus MacRae in rehearsals for A Streetcar Named Desire.

You’ve collaborated a few times with director Rebecca Frecknall. What is it like working with her?

It’s great. Her rehearsals are run like extended workshops, meaning that new ideas are always welcome and anything can be tried or proposed. She has a real understanding that the best moments come through collaboration and that starting is the most important thing – no matter how rough or incomplete the idea is. There is a noticeable lack of ego in her rehearsal rooms – it’s a fully democratic space where everybody’s ideas are welcome and given equal importance. That approach adds up to very tight knit companies who feel woven into the fabric of the work they are creating. She also has a brilliant dramaturgical brain, with a firm grasp of subtext and the subtleties of the narrative – meaning she always understands what the function of music should be in a scene, and whether we are serving that function.

Do you collaborate closely with the Sound Designer on productions too? In this case, Peter Rice. How are your roles connected?

In the case of Streetcar, they are bound inextricably together, since we are both driven by the motivation of deriving all of the sound and music world from the drum kit. The additional recorded elements that Peter has woven through the sound world were all derived from processed recordings made from the kit – so yes, in this instance the two worlds couldn’t be more closely connected!

Peter has been a fantastic collaborator in this process. Not only has his technical knowledge enabled us to make bold creative choices and amplify and exaggerate sounds we’ve derived from the kit, but his creative impulses have brought a huge amount of originality to the score too.

For a lot plays, sound design is very significant but it’s purely pre-recorded sound. What do you feel live music adds to theatre? 

I think it’s one of the key aspects of what makes theatre worthwhile and differentiates it from the world of film. For me, live performance is at its most thrilling when it feels like the creatives and performers are taking risks and every performance will be different as a result. Whilst I certainly feel that pre-recorded sound and music has a big place in theatre (and there are many ways of designing it so that it can be reactive to events on stage), you can’t beat a live performer, particularly one who is working onstage collaboratively with the rest of the cast, reacting and sculpting the score to the nuances of the performance on any given night. As a composer it means relinquishing a good deal of control and embracing the fact that mistakes will happen or that it won’t be ‘perfect’ every night – but that’s what’s most thrilling for the audience! And even better, perhaps some happy accident will heighten the score beyond anything that could have been pre-recorded or designed. With live music, the score is never ‘locked’ – it can carry on evolving and developing throughout the show’s run, much like the performances of the actors.

Can you tell us a bit about your work away from theatre? Do you release music as an artist as well?

Whilst I started my composing career working almost exclusively in theatre, it now makes up a comparatively small part of the work that I do. I’m fortunate that the shows I do work on tend to be ambitious and exciting from a music perspective, and that’s exactly the space I want to be working in.

Outside of the theatre, I release music as an artist which I find hugely satisfying creatively. It gives me space to explore new musical territory without having to find the right project to allow me the space and budget to do it. And increasingly it defines the kind of projects I get asked to work on, which is my perfect scenario, since I feel that I write my best scores when they align creatively with my own artistic impulses.

I also write music for other artistic mediums – mainly film, TV and contemporary dance. Each have their own challenges and the variation is what really keeps me moving forward artistically. Working in theatre is where I learn the most, though, and that new knowledge inevitably weaves its way into my own solo work. In the case of Streetcar I have been fortunate to spend 5 weeks of rehearsals working one-on-one with a fantastic percussionist, and the amount of knowledge I acquire in that time would be very difficult (or very costly!) to acquire elsewhere. I have no doubt that percussion will be a large part of my next solo project!

A Streetcar Named Desire runs until 4 February 2023.