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Q&A: Terence Blanchard and a New ‘Streetcar Named Desire’

Click to enlarge. Blair Underwood as Stanley raises his beer with the card players in the new production of “A Streetcar Named Desire” on Broadway. Photo by Ken Howard.

Terence Blanchard grew up around musicians in New Orleans, was an only child and his mother was a part-time opera singer. So it’s shouldn’t be much of a surprise that he began playing the piano at the age of 5 and picked up the trumpet by 8. Four decades later, he has become an influential jazz musician, film composer and educator.

Terence BlanchardBlanchard is a five-time Grammy Award winner with more than 29 albums to his credit and has composed 50 films scores and received a Golden Globe nomination for Spike Lee’s “25th Hour.” He’s also artistic director of the Henry Mancini Institute at the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music and regularly tours with his quintet

This month, Blanchard returns to Broadway with an original score for a new production: a multiracial revival of Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire,” staring Blair Underwood, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Nicole Ari Parker and Wood Harris, and directed by Emily Mann.

Art Beat caught up with Blanchard in between classes to discuss his musical influences, passion for arts education, the differences between composing for film and theatre and his upcoming opera about a boxing legend.

How did you get involved composing the score for the new revival of “A Streetcar Named Desire?”

The producer, Stephen Byrd, called me about doing a multiracial version of the production and really wanted me to be a part of it. He wanted to have some authentic New Orleans music to be the backdrop for the play. I was immediately excited about doing it. It’s been a great working experience. Emily Mann [the director] has been a joy to work with; she’s very creative, a very passionate director, very hands on, but very focused on how she wants to tell the story about Stanley, Stella, Blanche and Mitch. I’ve enjoyed working on the project. When I saw it on stage the first day of previews, it blew me away, because you start to realize this is a part of our history. It’s a great piece of literature. It’s been a great production that has been done many, many times, but I think this is one of the first times it’s been done as a multiracial production on Broadway.

Is that what makes this adaptation different from previous staged productions of Williams’ work?

I think that’s the main thing; it’s the multiracial aspect of it. It’s the fact that we’re trying to bring authentic New Orleans music. Even when you read the screenplay, one of the things that struck me is Tennessee’s passion for the city. New Orleans is romantic and has a magnetic pull to it. Those who spend more time there tend to fall in love with the city’s simple lifestyle. A friend of mine said, “New Orleans is a city of moments.” I thought that was the best description that anybody could have about the city, because you don’t need much to have a good time in New Orleans, but you can have profound experiences just by relating with people and doing simple things, like [enjoying the] music and food.

Click to enlarge. Nicole Ari Parker as Blanche and Blair Underwood as Stanley in “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Photo by Ken Howard.

You grew up in New Orleans and you played with Wynton Marsalis as a child. How influential was your upbringing and your peers to your career?

Growing up in New Orleans has always had an effect on all of us. New Orleans is the type of place where music is just something that’s part of the fabric of everyday life. And as a result, how we relate to the music is just something that’s in us. Another part of the music that I’ve always loved is that New Orleans music has a type of communal spirit inherently built into it. If you listen to it, you will hear a number of musicians playing at one time, all coming together to create one unified thing. That’s something that I think is more of a reflection of who we are as people. It’s had a big influence on what I do musically even to this day. As far as my peers go, well, I grew up with some very talented people: Donald Harrison, Wynton, Kent Jordan, Nicholas Payton, all of those guys. We were all motivating each other to be better, to work hard, to move forward and strive for new heights. And it’s still that way to this day.

*You have more than 50 film scores to your credit in the last two decades, including many of Spike Lee’s films, as well as George Lucas’ “Red Tails.” Is there a different creative process composing for film and television versus for a live theater? *

Yes, in a sense. For the most part, when you’re dealing with film, the music is there to enhance the story by being sometimes the backdrop. With this production for “Streetcar,” Emily has been bold in using music in the midst of dialog, and it’s worked extremely well. So in that sense, it’s very cinematic in its portrayal of the story. With my first particular Broadway experience that necessarily didn’t happen. The music was more used as a transitional piece to move through the scenes. The big difference, though, is how the music is used. You don’t really have musical transitions in film because there is just not a need for it. But in the theater, the music can help you move through time, move from set to set and change the pace and color from one scene to the next.

Do you have a preference between composing for film, TV or theater?

No, my preference is that it’s something interesting to work on. I love being challenged. I love the whole idea of working in new areas, and film has been something I’ve done for awhile now. And now doing my second Broadway play, it’s been an interesting and beautiful experience for me.

Last fall you became the artistic director of the Henry Mancini Institute at the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music, and this after serving in the same capacity at the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz at USC for over a decade. Is arts education important to you?

It’s something that really helped me to develop not only as a musician but as a human being. Ellis Marsalis, Roger Dickerson, George Jenson, Alvin Batiste — these were all heroes in my community in New Orleans. These were people who gave their life, dedicated their lives to teaching all of us. And I looked at these guys as people who are true champions for art and music. These guys worked tirelessly in terms of helping us understand what it took to be an artist, what it took to be a musician, what it took to be a responsible person in society. So for me, it’s only incumbent at this stage in my life to think about how do I give back to the community. And this is one of the ways that I do that. I love teaching, because everybody deserves a chance at growth and learning. All of the things that I teach were handed to me by some great minds. So it’s not like I’m coming up with all of these things myself. But at the same time, I do have experience being a performer that can really be helpful to some young musicians, and I’ve been having a great time doing it.

What’s next for you?

I was commissioned to write an opera for the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, and it’s going to premiere in June 2013. Denyce Graves is going to be a part of it, which is great. We are excited about that. The opera is about boxing and a boxer named Emile Griffith. I’ve been a big fight fan for a long time, and the life story of Emile Griffith is of wonderment and disappointment, in a way — not in him but in our culture and in our community.

Emile was a fighter who reportedly was gay and never came out. He fought a guy in ’65 by the name of Benny Paret. Paret outed him in a press conference. Emile had a premonition that something bad was going to go on in the fight. Once he got in the ring, I think it was their third fight, too, once he got in the ring, he hit Benny 17 times without Benny being able to respond. Benny hit the ground, went into a coma for four days and died. Emile continued to fight for a little while, but things got a little rough for him.

What struck me about his life, or what made me really want to do an opera about him, is because I read this book called “Nine, Ten and Out!” which is an autobiography of his. In the book he said, I killed a man and the world forgave me, he said, but I love the man and the world could never forgive me.

It struck me as something that’s very odd and very wrong with our society. That’s where the disappointment comes in, because you would think that at this point and time — and it’s really appropriate given everything that’s going on with the political races and all the things that the people are saying as part of the campaign strategies — but it’s really interesting and it’s sad to think that somebody could reach the height of their chosen profession and still not be open enough to share it publically with the person they love. That’s got to be a rough and exasperating experience.

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