Women in Theatre: Jeanine Tesori, composer

Women in Theatre: Jeanine Tesori, composer



for her very first musical she won the prestigious New York Drama Critics Circle Award for her next three shows she was nominated for Tony's is she a director a choreographer a designer an actor welcome to women in theater I'm Linda whiner theater critic of Newsday and our guest today is Jeanine Tesori composer the rare woman to have broken into the big time and one of the very brightest of the bright new musical voices did the success of violet your first real musical surprise you you know the working definition of success is one that seems to keep changing how but little loved it it was a success there it is you know searching for the working definition now I have it was just stop the tape it you know I violet represented for me a crossing over from musical direction and conducting into writing I was the associate conductor of Tommy at that time and I was having a condom I think the strong would be miserable time there and not because I was a woman and not because any of that those things that I think I get frequently asked but because I was really out of place I'd learned a lot from doing shows as a conductor and I think there is is really a ceiling as conductor of a show because one tells oneself that oh I can write during the day and I can do these things but shows don't just you know it's not just eight shows a week it was a tremendous amount that goes into the running of a show and so in the middle of that I thought I'm gonna take a year and I gave myself a Walden like experience and I rented a lighthouse I you rented the nineteenth-century light I did near Montreal I did near Montreal and I me and a guy named I forgot his name was a wonderful guy from pro piano drove up in a truck a grand piano and we set it up in computers and all these things and he drove away and there I was and I I had just gotten the verbal agreement to do violet from the the author Doris Betts who wrote the short straw and I thought I'm gonna write for one year here and give myself you know I'm an extremist of course you know I had to do my Virginia Woolf thing and go out to the lighthouse you know and I really learned a lot about unstructured time because as a conductor as a student as a teacher one has really structured time you have to do this by this you have to be at rehearsal at 10 you know a writer just has your you know a blank literally a blank page I always thought that's a journalist if I didn't have a deadline I would never write I feel that way as a as a writer as well and when I learned is that you have to impose your own deadlines when there aren't any especially that you you know what I used to do in ninth grade of Waiting to the very last moment to do a paper or do this you can't do that with shows although some people do you really it can't did you eat a lot I'm sorry no I thought that I would be you know well I just have butterfingers all day but I didn't I it just it turned out that I was really born to work in unstructured time and I didn't realize that because I had one more stupid question about that did you have a TV you know I hear the funny thing about is the the the countryside up there which is the Adirondacks you get one station and I realized halfway through my stay up there and I have friends in the area so it wasn't you know I didn't become that man crazy woman getting fedexes from New York but I realized that when someone asked me halfway what channels do you get I thought you know I don't know because I had not turned it on and that was a real clue that to me that there's something happening that I had really decide to see this it's creative fantasy about I want to go off to a lighthouse and and if I could do that I would make violent and right or egotist so just figure out I remember saying to someone when I was on the phone I was talking to him and saying look if it goes no further than the living room that's where it goes I'm not writing it for its life I mean why wouldn't with someone write about a girl with a scar on a bus if they really wanted a big commercial run but I didn't think that way back then I think more that way now being older but back then I just thought I'd get appeals to me I love this character I love the story I'm just gonna write it and if it doesn't ever get out of the snow bank cause I got snowed in a lot up there and you get to the point where you'd see the Fed Ex man I think do you like your job you want a cup of coffee those tubes they're hard you know it's pathetic everything so but I I was never really lonely and I really thought okay I'm gonna do this and I'm not gonna accept one more conducting job ever so now when someone says do you conduct I just thought oh god how are you pretty good conductor for a composer it's hilarious you know your husband's also a conductor yeah and my married then I'm sorry Michael ref don't I go rafter okay rafter thank you and you were married then and when you disappeared for the year no I was we were not together I was just unattached and any you know I went up alone and at the end of the year you came down from the mountain mm-hmm and and how complete was violent we we at the end of that year we had been accepted into the O'Neill and that's that was really what he went from the O'Neill to Lincoln Center to playwrights and that was real as soon as I came down from the mountain I went to a conductors symposium that I had auditioned for and gotten into quite some time before I had decided to leave and went down there and it was just a wonderful way to come back to study other people's scores more as how they composed it as opposed to learning how to conduct it with the ultimate dream of being you know I always had this dream that I'd be this conductor of some you know I don't know what because I'm really not a classical conductor i'ma show conductor and I you know I just thought that was going to be my career path but but it became clear to me at some point doing shows that it was not what I was really built to do now your degree was in music from Barnard but originally you were gonna be a doctor like your dad yeah I actually got my music degree from Columbia cos Barnard at that point and I'm not sure now had a very fluttery you know ethereal approach to music that drove me completely crazy because I was really interested in the science of it like I could understand I think that you know your individual your individuality brings your passion and you voice and I didn't need any some anybody giving me some frou-frou notion of what an orchestration is like tell me where the damn bassoon plays so I can put that on paper you're not interested in there and in the other I went to the music school and they used to sneer at prog music you know if it wasn't pure right even opera was you know or songs their their their story-driven it's not pure music right how did they deal with someone who wanted to do musical theater well at that point you know I had switched over from pre-med and I did my music major in two years so I was I'm pretty intense as a person anyway or so I've heard although I don't see myself that way but the I was really in an intensive to do everything in two years there and really get down to the science of it I was also working as a conductor at that point on an off-broadway show so I didn't if they did that I really didn't notice that professors I had at Columbia were fantastic and really they responded to you know at that point it was almost switching from organic chemistry to species counterpoint was not they used the similar part of my brain because it was intervallic and math based and and I really needed that I really needed that kind of training solid training and then I just thought well I'll develop the rest you know as I just get older now very rare to have a woman in the pit oh yeah dr. right as conductor there a lot of women in the pit but as a conductor pianist yes we're young and why do you think that is you know I've asked myself that I've started I've tried to start mentoring programs which I do now on an individual basis when I go to high schools around the country and I do master classes and I ask if anyone is writing theater music literally no one raises their hand and if they do when they're usually two people the performers that you know you feel the wind from the wash their hands go up and the people writing they're just not writing for the theater they are just not and these are you know arts programs which is upsetting to me and I'm inspired by what Sally Ride is done for science programs with the girls around the country and having a competition that's sponsored by house I've always you know at some point I'll try to do the same for music I think that there is a point where rhythm piano just like they're not you don't see a lot of rock female drummers that's something that for some reason is is you know I maybe it's the muscle of it or early on they're not captured by rhythm which I was and always always have been and I think it's you people just get led into especially when they're 9 and 10 violin classical piano and you were playing piano I was playing nearly 800 wise when you were 3 years old yes I did you were little Mozart yeah kundo little somebody yeah but I loved pop music and I had an extraordinary teacher who taught me how to write out lead sheets when I was 7 and how to transpose you were living in Long Island living alone yet right and he just come to the house and he did not it's a real great lesson of teaching kids because he did not distinguish between the import of classical music or pop music so I did not grow up thinking lesser like you were saying about pure music I he just didn't teach me that we learned Shostakovich and you know right alongside with all the Carole King which I knew still to this day I can play by heart because it was piano-driven so all of those piano-driven albums I listened to and memorized every note of because it really captured it was something for me and I think I just went from there so here's the different sides of you which even if I knew nothing else about you I knew that you went from violet which was a very dark wonderful Americana cinderella story with with ended with surreal southern music combined in original ways and then there you were at Twelfth Night Twelfth Night came next we were doing incidental music for Nicholas Hytner from the National and at the Lincoln Center way and and Dan there you were the composer for Thoroughly Modern Millie right no and yes iconic yes yes I got I got a what who is this person right so how did that happen I have you know I think again it was from my training that my teacher said to me if it's music and you respond to it that's good enough and you know I had a really strict upbringing really strict Sicilian Italian family and I think that you know what came out of that there was good and bad the good that came out of it is I'd really don't listen to other people I've learned to not from you know unless there's a kind of criticism and informal criticism that I can get something from that it you know literally there's a little ding that goes on I think I should listen to that it doesn't I don't pay it any attention it's business to me is it mean the box office is doesn't mean the box office or can I learn from that and think if I go down this road and I understand this so I have so many interests and I think part of what fueled something like Twelfth Night was my daughter was five months six months and she was the daughter Sienna Naima Darcy Anna and I thought who is now seven seven that um and so I became really interested in all these different sounds for instruments I didn't know I've had a keen interest in world music for a long time yeah we're from Twelfth Night it was really there was exotic I'm on it very drum type percussion drum drums and and modal was a modalities in and I don't really remember I remember the drums yeah there was a lot of we Nick the assignment was to make a timeless place 'less and no electronics and you're making oh you just tie my hand on my back to him and poke out my eye and so I decided to interview musicians not audition them to find out how many things I wanted to get musicians who did many many things they all had to sing I made up a language for them to sing in and we had a player Mark Stewart who then was hired by Paul Simon after he saw Twelfth Night who plays the guitar electric all the guitars all the banjos and a cellist and he plays something called the daksa phone which is a wooden electronic instrument and it was the only electronic that we had just because it was this outrageously original sound that you couldn't quite it exists between sound and music so for all of the water imagery we'd have this it wasn't a sound effect and it wasn't music and we we just went down this line right in the middle and the whole thing was done in orchestrated in three weeks so it was a real lesson of you know get it – it was so enchanting looking Bob Crawley sets and yes little lights and and it was really another world going to another world the acting had a little problem but sorry I'm sorry Helen Hunt was his stick okay but it was such a beautiful looking production founded production absolutely so when they when you were first called to work on Thoroughly Modern Millie which became the best musical of blahblah year right mm mm – yeah okay at the beginning they were going to be using just American Songbook right yeah they had yeah they basically hired me as an arranger okay and a music supervisor because I had done so much dance arranger work and dance dance music is you know a lot of people think it's the lowest of the totem poles but when I did it I didn't find that because I used to contribute as a collaborator that was the fun of it is you get to visit another team and you don't have to put in the four or five years before that yeah I wasn't just these we'll get back to the but when you brought up the arranger dance arranger and music arranger do you write then connective tissue in someone else's voice yes you really do then literally you know you have to almost become another composer and when I was conducting and studying conducting which I really did publicly it was you know based on public humiliation it is the only real way I think to to learn to conduct is to just do it and fall on you know your face and leave a trace of you know I eyeliner on the ground and and I think that the great conductors got so deeply inside the music that it wasn't really about their beat when you look at Van carrion or Bernstein you know there's this Koussevitzky it wasn't about the clarity of bead it was that they had so clearly gotten inside another person's voice it was as if they were writing it and so the the players follow as if they were writing writing it you know defining it as they want as opposed to following which doesn't interest to me because that's obeying and that's you know boring I think so they when ice Christianese nothing appeal to you yes but the the idea of arranging was just fun because you guys to visit someone else's voice and I did a ton of shows how to succeed Secret Garden sound of music and it was it was really a fun kind of thing to do and then you're done which is lovely you walk away from it and having had someone kind of experience for a couple months and so you thought maybe that's what you were going to be doing with Thoroughly Modern Millie which was seemed to be a totally ridiculous idea for me so glad she wasn't a good movie it was a movie movie in 1967 and it had a couple of songs and Julie Andrews in it right and then you guys just took it and made it something your own loopy we did we had a great time you know and the the history of something which I think often happens with projects that they really trickle down they did Millie as a movie because they couldn't get the rights to the boyfriend and Julie Andrews was this huge star and they had her for three months to do a shoot and they had no product because they they would not get the rights so they literally made this story up it didn't make any sense she was a British actress with a British accent from Kansas and the white slave trade was hilarious yeah I wrote it at night and I shot it during the day and they used all of these you know and I think that that loopy quality gave it some weird structure but she was so good in it and it was really based on her performance I think a lot of Mary Poppins in the way you know that character doesn't make things happen it's really about the family and yet she's so winning and beautiful and close up the camera goes in I think the same thing was true for him from the lane so we go from Thoroughly Modern Millie – Caroline or change hmm serious musical with a book by Tony Kushner sort of autobiographical about a little boy growing up Jewish and in Louisiana directed by George Seawolf three of the most interesting talented you know people working what kind of collaboration was that it was one of my absolute favorites and still is I think because it's you know it's in LA right now and going to San Francisco the we we just became a really wonderful triangle is like one of those pull things that you put the pool balls in to make them and we are so incredibly different and it was clearly the collaboration that was going to work or explode it was not going to be anywhere in between because it was a fourth voice yes that's what I really I thought they did that this was one of those collaborations where it isn't Kushner and it isn't to Soaring and it isn't George Woolf you know it's it's a fourth thing it is it is and I think what we were trying to do was we weren't we didn't have an agenda setting out that we're going to experiment with form that we wanted to rival anything any other show that had some anthropomorphic you know these appliances that's saying it was about scenes and scene partners and just saying what if what if and Tony really had laid all of that the structure out beforehand and I was really interesting and mining you know I said to him this is gonna end up being through soon and he said no no no it's a book musical an I that it's really made it's really through composers really through composed but he didn't write it that way he wrote it all in Reverse and it was until we workshop doctor one where he said you are look it's it's what happened it just found itself in this voice and I think it's separated was interesting people loved it a champion really didn't like it and that was kind of exciting to I mean you want everybody loved everything but there was an extreme reaction to it which I thought I found very interesting okay and yeah I'm just so jealous that you got to work with Tony Kushner all the time this is not a not an honorable thing for critic to say because obviously you know we're on different sides but he of the whatever but he's so brilliant this and he's so much fun and a real man he really is a generous spirit and our fights were really good I would bet they were really good because we have never I feel as close to him and in a way and there I've never left or there very few collaborations I've left because it doesn't interest me to have you know a friction field time based on ego it's so boring it's like give me a really good debate about why something should work or not but don't puff up like the Michelin you know guys like you know yawn you know tell me why something you you have passion for something to work or not work the other is just like your daughter calls him Tony Krishna Krishna I think that so good pretty good now um are you working with him on something else we are we're just going to outline a new piece and we're hoping that you know it's go as a film rights to Caroline they want to do it all so how sad are you that you didn't get to write them the music for the night opera angels in America oh no I'm not sad about it yeah I I think that you know I've toyed with setting parts of it but it's so beautiful it is if I love it as a play I don't think I'd really want to touch it do you really read it aloud every every time you're safe yeah I really do it just reminds me you know it reminds me um you don't go to the theatre much you know I became a Tony voter last year so welcome to my world yeah nobody knows the trouble we've seen right you know I don't really enjoy having to you have to go see things because if you're voting you have to go see them but I look forward to not being a voter anymore it's not about seeing them for free but I just the it's if there's a lot to go and I'd really much rather because there it becomes voices in your head and I I really like science silence and at home you know and when our families is quieting down that's my favorite time I don't blast any kind of music because I start working it's really hard for me to just stop and I think that's the same for I love going to play because I don't have to it's it's really just at this point very difficult for me to start to not start oh look what they oh oh that key you know oh that but you know it's just it's not really I can't really enter this season so far you're in luck because there haven't been very many musicals but although this is um this is we're right now in December of 2004 I think in the spring season there we're going to be in trouble done you can ride right you're gonna have to go do it do you despair when people despair about the American musical theatre Oh blah blah blah thank you okay I mean other than doing that forever yeah it's just a different kind of despair now you know I I mean I get very short with it it's just like shut up and write you know all for all the people are despairingly you know Sondheim said they despaired when he was writing but no one was writing like Jerome Kern uh-huh it's always going to be something I think the truth of it is that you the reality is it's much more of a tourist audience and that's a reality that's very different I don't despair I just think well you know that is what it is there there are certain things you know that are wonderful and I think part of it is that the talent pool has gotten so strong for people who have really been able to act and sing and and really be able to move really well the musical theater talent New York City is yeah there's this group of fascinating composer lyricist musical makers now right and each one different yeah each one going out on you know a different edge and so I think it's much more interesting time in many ways where the time is rushing by and I just wanted to ask I had this image because I read something that you said when you were conducting secret garden the little girls would all comment intermission and want to talk to you in the audience how great is that what did you tell them it's pretty great because I'm I started conducting because I saw Linda twine on stage doing the Lena Horne show and and that first image of her is just absolutely a Polaroid inside my head and she's a very good friend of mine now and I think that you know little girls or young girls I was nineteen eighteen at that point I started conducting when I was 19 I really needed to see you know the visual of it for some reason there was something about you know she was very much in charge but she was wearing a dress and it wasn't this thick you know backless I mean she's a fierce woman very feminine very fierce and I needed to literally see that and I think it's very different than reading a bio is saying when you see it in action and you think oh oh it just stays with you a very long time and it did with with me and then when she conducted Carolina on Broadway it was this unbelievable circle you know that that happened and so I was really pleased about these girls who would come up and say I didn't know that and it's just one more thing you know that you just have to really be out there and present yeah I'm it's hard to believe that this is news isn't it but I guess so anyway Jeanine Tesori so glad you're here so glad you're out there making musicals for me yeah I'm just very possessive here you make musicals for me right and the other little girls thanks so much and thank you for being here on behalf of the League of professional theatre women I'm Linda whiner and this has been women in theatre you

3 Comments

  • Strebor513 says:

    Tesori is so smart. I wish she got a little more recognition for the body of work she has put out. I honestly think she could compose a hit Disney movie. One that rivals Frozen (which I think musically can be outdone though those songs worked very well) or any one of Disney's very well composed musical movies, perhaps.

  • john a says:

    Jeanine. Keep working on your endeavors. You enrich our world. You deserved the tony for Shrek. Kudos!

  • Layda d.A. says:

    Truly inspirational. I love the theatre, yes, but this interview was really insightful as to how to go about a work of art from scratch. Makes me believe I can do it too. Thank you for the video.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *