Fun Home composer Jeanine Tesori: ‘Musicals are slippery, but I love the puzzle of them’
Jeanine Tesori has been described as ‘the most prolific and honoured female theatrical composer in history’. Now two of her hits, Fun Home and Caroline, Or Change, are West End-bound. She speaks to Mark Shenton
When composer Jeanine Tesori won the Tony award for best original score, with her librettist Lisa Kron, they became the first female writing team in history to win in the category. That was just three years ago. The lack of women writing musical theatre remains an issue, Tesori tells me from her studio in New York. “There haven’t been many and there are still not.”
She made the point of hailing the women trailblazers on Broadway as she accepted the Tony for her work on Fun Home in 2015, paying tribute to Lucy Simon – who in 1991 was only the third woman to have a Broadway musical produced – and her collaborator Marsha Norman.
Simon once told me it was “very rare for a female team to be allowed in” to a big musical production and said the rarest of all were women composers. Tesori is an exception, described – on Wikipedia – as “the most prolific and honoured female theatrical composer in history”.
She has blazed her own trail, but is quick to praise those who helped her. “I had wonderful teachers in school who were strong women,” she says. “When I started in theatre, there were a lot of women, such as Linda Twine, Sarah Caldwell and Tania Leon.”
Many influences helped shape the young Tesori. Richard Benda, who taught her from age five to 12, stands out. “His great strength was allowing me to play by ear and also to understand theory – to use the mind and the ear at the same time.”
It’s an approach that has stood her in good stead, enabling her to become one of Broadway’s most chameleon-like musical theatre voices. Each show sounds entirely different to the one before. Each is tailored to the specific dramatic needs of the occasion, whether for the light and fluffy delight of Thoroughly Modern Millie, or the more insinuating, darker musical reach of Caroline, Or Change.
She says of her time at college: “I really loved the musicology courses and learning about other cultures.” It all fed into her work, which has an intrinsic understanding of form. You can’t break the rules as a musician until you first know what they are.
It was between Barnard College and Columbia University – where she transferred to pursue a music major – that she landed her first paid theatre job. She took a semester off to be musical director on a production of the Broadway classic Bye Bye Birdie at a junior high school in her home town of Manhasset on Long Island. “I saw an ad for the job in a penny-saver [a free advertising periodical in the US]. I was 19 and I was paid $300.”
It proved instructive, and Tesori still believes that kind of practical experience early on is crucial for an aspiring composer. “Most of what you learn is not in school,” she says. “I was chasing technique and the idea of going to graduate school for a long time, but my mentor told me: ‘You’re in school, it’s the world of music in life’.”
Her mentor was Buryl Red, and she credits him with helping her development from the age of 24 until he died five years ago. “He told me to take the plunge and not to let fear stop you. The fear is not a stop sign – it’s a go.” She adds: “And now I take people under my wing whenever I can.”
Tesori’s Broadway career began as a dance music arranger on two classics – the 1995 revival of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying and the 1998 revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music. “The pit is the mail room of a Broadway show – that’s where you really learn by observing what is going on,” she says. Her own music was heard on Broadway for the first time in Nicholas Hytner’s production of Twelfth Night for Lincoln Center Theater in 1998.
Q&A: Jeanine Tesori
What was your first job?
I was paid $300 to music-direct a junior high school production of Bye Bye Birdie when I was 19.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
That most of what you learn is not in school but in life. You need to take the plunge and not to let the fear stop you. It’s not a stop sign – it actually means go.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
Buryl Red, who was my mentor from when I was 24 until he died five years ago.
What’s your best advice for auditions?
It’s your job to tell the story, not to get the job.
If you hadn’t been a composer, what would you have been?
I would be a teacher for sure – I love teaching very much.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
I tend not to sit in the house when I’m watching my own shows. I sit apart from them – I never sat in the audience for Fun Home until the opening night – instead, I sat under where the followspot operator came down a ladder.
Her breakthrough in writing music came a year earlier, when her award-winning original musical Violet premiered at Off-Broadway’s Playwrights Horizons. “The beauty of not knowing anything is that I didn’t know what not to do,” she says. “I was determined after that to study narrative and read Shakespeare and Greek plays to understand what the principles are, and why musicals are so hard.”
Tesori says many musicals fail “because there are so many variables, they are really slippery. Hal Prince calls them a house of cards, and he’s right. But I love the puzzle of them”.
She’s only just seen the premiere of her newest, and possibly most ambitious, musical – Soft Power, co-written with David Henry Hwang, which tells of an executive from China visiting America who falls in love with Hillary Clinton, as the power balance between the two countries shifts after the 2016 election.
Artistic risk and time has been afforded to Tesori following the success of shows such as Thoroughly Modern Millie and Shrek. “They have allowed me to venture into other places where the gestation period is so long, I can afford to do it,” she says.
Now, she finds herself in the position of having the latter two arrive in London at the same time. Fun Home arrives at the Young Vic this month, and Caroline, Or Change is at the Playhouse in November – a transfer of Chichester Festival Theatre’s production from last year, which had a London run at Hampstead.
Tesori says: “I love that production [Caroline, Or Change]. I feel [director] Michael Longhurst did his own thing in such a deep way, it behaves nothing like the original, though it still has the parameter of the original beautiful libretto. He owned it and claimed it, directing it like a play.” She was not at all involved in the creative decisions around it: “Not one thing. As a writer, it was a real lesson – just stay out of people’s way.”
Fun Home took the possibilities of musical theatre to another level. If Tesori routinely sets a high bar for herself, each project she commits to forces her to go higher. She recounts talking to actor David Oyelowo about his choices. “He said: ‘I take everything that scares me.’ And I like to do the same. I live in a mild state of terror all the time, so I must be doing something right.”
While many musicals choose tried-and-tested ‘brand’ names of well-known films or books to adapt – and Tesori has done her share of those, with shows such as Thoroughly Modern Millie and Shrek – Fun Home is based on an autobiographical graphic novel by Alison Bechdel, which tells the story of a young lesbian cartoonist coming to terms with revelations about her father’s sexuality.
Jeanine Tesori’s top tips
• Study playwriting – I know many people who are wonderful songwriters, but that for me is not what it takes to write musical theatre. It’s long form, looking to the circuitous route of where you begin and where you end. It’s theme and variations, which I learned from dance music.
• Be a student always – study music and musicals endlessly.
• Be kind – That should be number one. It’s a team effort, so don’t be an arsehole.
Previously, Tesori has said adapting it as a musical was both natural and incredibly arduous. “The graphic novel is filled with thousands of cells that tell stories within themselves. So how is it going to be in a long arc instead of in little bits and pieces? And how are we going to tell that in a theatrical way? It took five years to figure that out,” she told Indiewire.
Those problems were solved by director Sam Gold, who is recreating his Tony-award winning direction in London. But opening the show was only one of the issues to face: how would such an unconventional musical thrive on Broadway?
And this is where the all-important endorsement of being recognised by the Tonys came into play. “When Caroline, Or Change lost the Tony for best score, part of me woke up,” Tesori says. “I was very naive in the beginning about awards, and didn’t know how they worked at all.
“How can you possibly compare something so subjective as a musical in this way? But Fun Home required those five Tonys. We did everything we could to make sure it won, because it was a necessary thing. And we are so proud we did.”
Now she’s thrilled to be bringing it to the Young Vic. “Like the Public in New York, it’s a community space – the invitation is open to come in and have a pint or a cup of coffee. It’s not just about going to see something there, it’s about being there.”
CV: Jeanine Tesori
Born: 1961, Manhasset, Long Island, New York
Training: Barnard College, then Columbia University
• Violet – Off-Broadway (1997), Broadway (2014)
• Thoroughly Modern Millie, Broadway (2000)
• Caroline, Or Change (2004)
• Shrek (2008)
• Fun Home (2011)
• Soft Power (2018)
• Drama Desk Award for outstanding music in a play for Nicholas Hytner’s production of Twelfth Night at Lincoln Center (1999)
• Drama Desk Award for outstanding music for Caroline, or Change (2004)
• Tony for best original score for Fun Home – shared with Lisa Kron (2015)
Agent: John Buzzetti, WME
Fun Home is at London’s Young Vic until September 1. Caroline, Or Change is at London’s Playhouse Theatre from November 20-February 9, 2019