From 'Millie' to 'Fun Home': Composer Jeanine Tesori looks back on 10 of her songs
You may not know Jeanine Tesori’s name by heart, but you’ve likely heard something from her extensive collection of songs and scores, which have colored Broadway and the theater world for the last two decades.
Tesori is represented on Broadway this year with Fun Home—her exquisite new musical with lyricist Lisa Kron, which is largely favored to clean up at this year’s Tony Awards. Although Fun Home represents a new marker in Tesori’s career, the breadth of her history in theater shows a talent that spans genres and styles. This is, after all, a composer who birthed a star with the jazzy Thoroughly Modern Millie, tackled an ogre with pop in Shrek, and gave voice to the blues in Caroline, or Change.
“It’s a challenging art form because it’s slippery, it has variables, and it takes a really long time, and then, after all of this time, it depends on one night and its fate is sealed,” Tesori tells EW. “And then you don’t even know if the fate is sealed because maybe ten years later, when the timing is different, it’ll be looked at a different way. Musicals are not for those who are easily unhinged, honestly, but I have to say, I love doing them.”
In celebration of Fun Home, EW asked Tesori to look back on the creative process and select the most fun and most difficult songwriting experiences from each of her Broadway credits.
VIOLET (1997 Off Broadway; 2014 Broadway)
Lyrics by Brian Crawley
The easiest: “Lay Down Your Head”
“That was the first one, and often the first songs are the ones that get really near and dear. It’s the first step of the journey. It allowed us to find Violet’s voice. I was living in a lighthouse when I wrote it, and it was one of those experiences I remember thinking, will anyone ever hear this outside of this room? And so that memory co-exists with the other memories of who’s performed it since and where it’s traveled. I sang it at a memorial for our dear friend Mary Whitaker, who was a violinist, who was murdered last August, so it’s now got a very complicated history. But for me, it was the beginning of everything. It was the beginning of my career as a writer, it was the beginning of my understanding of the process that I needed in order to write, which is to get away—if not geographically, then in terms of creating solitude and the space to write. It’s easier said than done. That song reminds me about all of those things.”
The most challenging: “Look at Me”
“Something like ‘Look at Me’ is really tough because it’s a lot of language, and how do you do that song and still stay true to the vernacular? I produced thousands of hours of recordings in Nashville from when I was 23 to 30, and I knew all those studio guys, the front porch players, and I knew the way they talked. I just thought, how do you get this complicated idea inside and have it not stand out like a sore thumb? That was a challenge in pushing the form without declaring, I’m going to go in and push the form. I wanted Violet to really reach out as a character. She’s at her lowest, scraping bottom with the heel of her shoe, and she’s saying, ‘I have nothing. I can’t leave this building the way I came in.’ That’s not usually a form that comes with bluegrass and that national sound. So that one took a while, I will say.”
THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE (2000 La Jolla; 2002 Broadway)
Lyrics by Dick Scanlan
The most fun: “Forget About the Boy”
“It almost wrote itself. I used to do this as a student, where you follow the harmonic structure of something already written and then you write your own thing to it, and because I knew I was going to be doing this song in counterpoint to ‘Jimmy,’ it was such a joy to write that and get it really solid. That never happens to me. My writing is just putting stuff in a pasta machine and [rrr-rrr].
I really love understanding the design of what a song’s going to be—what’s the directive, what’s the activation? Nine times out of ten, I’m not a writer who gets things right out of the gate. I knew that this was going to have to be a little jolt and what it was going to have to do [as a tap number]. I already talked to the choreographer, so Dick and I were super clear about it and then it just wrote itself out and it was so fun. And it never happens like that!”
The most challenging: “Gimme Gimme”
“[It was challenging] only because it was originally slated as a reprise of ‘Jimmy’ and I kept saying to Dick, ‘I know it’s not a reprise.’ It’s just atypical for an 11 o’clock number. I knew that that had to be something else. It wasn’t difficult to write but we wrote it for Sutton [Foster], whom we had just gotten to know because she had just taken over the part. We played it for everyone in the lobby and as soon as we ended, the stage manager stopped her stopwatch and said, ‘Four minutes and three seconds’ or whatever it was, and everybody left and ran away. And Dick looked at me and I said, ‘Look, we’ll write something else if it doesn’t work.’ We thought it was just the biggest bomb of a song because no one had said anything.
But they literally tech-ed it three minutes later, and we put it in the show that night and the conductor went over the railing out of the pit and played it on the piano by the side [of the stage]. It hadn’t been orchestrated, so it stood out that way, too. And it wasn’t until Sutton finished singing it that it just worked, and we just looked at each other and thought, oh my God you really never know. Looking back at it now, so many shows later, I often think, we wouldn’t be having those conversations—we would know it was not a reprise. That just comes with doing them over and over again.”
CAROLINE, OR CHANGE (2003 Off Broadway; 2004 Broadway)
Lyrics by Tony Kushner
The most fun: “I Hate The Bus”
“Tony had written an A and a B. It wasn’t in song form and I set part of it. The beauty of that piece, when he gave it to me, was it had a certain…it was complete, and I wondered what I was going to be able to add to it. We needed refrain, we needed something the ear can anchor onto, so the listener can relax inside repetition. If it were A B C D E F, it’s very difficult for your ear to get familiar and get to know something. You get to know a song by when it returns. So that was one of the first things that he and I worked on. He’s incredibly flexible and loves to rewrite, but also understands when something should stay, and I really loved working with him.”
The most challenging: “Lot’s Wife”
“Most, most, most difficult. I think it was the one where Tony and I worked very, very hard and at one point I said to him, it’s ultimately a song about a mother’s love and understanding that she has to go underground so that her kid can live in truly oxygenated air. That’s part of the heartbreak of parenting. My daughter, ten years ago, was seven, and I was really starting to understand the cruelty of parenting in that way that you raise them in order for them to leave you, and I could not understand that. You really have to have the shingles tight on the roof. And I see it now that she’s 17. We are raising this kid in order [for her] to be able to leave and have an independent life, and so it took a real journey to get to that song. Many, many rewrites and conversations and lots of language and back and forth.”
SHREK (2008 Broadway)
Lyrics by David Lindsay-Abaire
The easiest: “When Words Fail”
“Strangely enough, the waltz was the easiest. David wrote it and I said it and we taught it and it went in [the show]. It was one of those things that, again, when the assignment is really clear, there is such joy because it’s not trying to figure out what the job is. Is the job a dishwasher? The head of a bank? What is this song applying for? And when it’s not clear, it just takes a while to figure out. But that one was really, really clear. It was all about possibility and this guy who’s a hero who looks like the villain, summoning up the strength to go out on a limb. He’s auditioning himself for this new role as a romantic hero. It’s really touching and very funny and at the very end, he completely fails, in his perception. So it’s all a show about what it looks like versus what is. It’s just a simple, sweet song. David’s sensibility is so true there, and his humor is so off the cuff—I just had to get out of the way.”
The most challenging: “This Is Our Story”
“I think the finale for Shrek was the hardest because people associate that Neil Diamond song, ‘I’m a Believer,’ and we went back and forth about what we should do there in the finale to wrap that up. There were quite a few finales before the final one about ‘our story’—about authorship and how, as much as you can, you write your own book, and once we had that idea, then it became really fun. We put in ‘I’m a Believer’ at the curtain call, like what they did in the movie, and that ended up being fine.”
FUN HOME (2013 Off Broadway; 2015 Broadway)
Lyrics by Lisa Kron
The easiest: “Ring of Keys”
“It was the first thing we wrote after some little musical gestures. Sometimes in a show, I need to almost do the fabric swatches of the sound—this is the world, this is what the soundscape is. My friend used to work on Miami Vice back in the day and they had this saying, ‘It’s Vice or not Vice.’ And I think that’s similar for me. What’s the sound and what makes it not the sound, so that you don’t just keep throwing stuff in? You understand the limitations the way a baby is swaddled and you feel the edges of it. So ‘Ring of Keys’ was very grounding for me, getting the acoustic sound.”
The most challenging: “Edges of the World”
“That’s the other extreme. Again, how do you have someone sing who doesn’t have language? Lisa and I together thought, well, he would put [these feelings] in a house. That’s a metaphor for beginning. He takes this ramshackle house that would not be such an arduous task back in the day, and he takes it on and the question is, can I do this? At my age? Of course, he’s not really talking about a house, but that’s the language he understands. He understands language of restoration. He doesn’t understand the language of personal transformation or possibility. So we went through the house, the gaping holes and the pipes. We Googled our faces off.
“I spoke to so many families who grew up in funeral homes and I spoke to embalmers about how they work and how it makes you think about the world. It was such a crazy way to go into the world. I’m the daughter of a doctor and [my father] saw life very much as things that were well and not well—how you divide the world up, what you can live with and what you can remove. Writing something like that doesn’t always fit easily, but I think for us it took a while to figure out, oh, there he is. That’s where he’s going. And we just have to get him there.”