The sound of musical theater

Dan Belnavis in the SpeakEasy Stage production of VIOLET. PHOTO BY: Glenn Perry PhotographyJeanine Tesori was a jock, a classical music kid and a pre-med major. Then she broke through the glass ceiling of musical theater. 

By Olivia Munk '16

Jeanine Tesori


If you grew up as a “musical theater kid,” there is a strong possibility that you were weaned on the music of Jeanine Tesori. The composer of Fun Home, Thoroughly Modern Millie, Shrek the Musical, Caroline, or Change and Violet, Tesori made history last year alongside playwright Lisa Kron, when the two women became the first all-female writing team to win a Tony Award for a musical score (Fun Home). Prior to Fun Home, Tesori collected a bevy of Tony and Drama Desk nominations (and two Drama Desk wins for Caroline, or Change and Twelfth Night). It must be gratifying, too, to know that budding performers around the world belt out the tunes “Gimme Gimme” and “On My Way” in voice lessons and auditions. 

The Office for the Arts at Harvard’s JAMS! (January Arts and Media Seminars) and Boston’s Speakeasy Stage Company will host Tesori in a conversation 1 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 21 in room 113, SEVER HALL in Harvard Yard. I spoke with Tesori about her childhood playing sports and classical music, how the industry is changing to support more musical theater and why it’s important to make your own work.

In college, you switched from studying pre-med to music. What inspired the change?
When I was 17, at the beginning of my freshman year at Barnard, the music scene of ’79-’80 [in NYC] was amazing. My friends and I would go downtown and see all these great shows, and until then, I never really knew how many things were available. It reignited my love of music, which I’d played from about ages 3 to 14, and then quit for a while. That’s when it all started. There were amazing folk players downtown and on campus; the scene was really incredible. I followed the [medical] science major from my freshman year into the next year, and then I taught at Stagedoor Manor. That just changed my ways. I took a semester off from school. That’s always been a pattern for me. I have to stop everything and think about things – and then turn the corner. And that was it. I never looked back.

Fun Home made history as the first all-female writing team to win a Tony for a musical’s score. How do you see the industry changing?
Everything goes in circles. There was a time when storytellers did not want to write for musical theater. The central storytellers were maybe not headed for musical theater, and that has definitely changed. I’ve always been in awe of the musical theater form because it’s a very, very slippery art form. I feel like there was a time, at least when I would go to meetings, and people would say, “That’s so musical theater” – and it wasn’t meant as a compliment. I think you can’t really say that now. I don’t really know what that would mean now, and that’s a good sign. When you say, “that sounds like musical theater,” which composer are you talking about? Which genre are you talking about?  Who’s in that show? It’s not “oompah oompah” anymore, and that’s a really welcome change.

Who were some of your favorite composers, or musicals, growing up?Alison McCartan in the SpeakEasy Stage production of VIOLET. PHOTO BY: Glenn Perry Photography
I didn’t listen to musicals growing up. I was a jock. That’s one of the things that I think served me well. I wasn’t one of those kids grasping my cast album of Company, But I was playing classical music and pop music all the way through. I didn’t even know that there was musical theater. I sort of did – we did musicals in elementary school – but I wasn’t aware of it, and it wasn’t valued in my house more than anything else. I was playing Stravinsky and pop tunes and Carol King, sight-reading my way through lessons. It wasn’t really until I was 18 or 19 that I was even aware that there was this industry. I came to it super late, and I came to it from a completely different background. My enthusiasm for it has never waned since. I get frustrated with it, because it’s so hard to make musicals, but I really love them. 

When you’re composing music for an original musical (such as Fun Home), does your process differ from if you’re doing for an existing text or story (such as Shrek or Twelfth Night)?
What’s huge is that one is “tabula rasa,” and one isn’t. It’s almost a relief to know that you’re writing with Shakespeare, and he isn’t there to say anything, but it’s a given. I think that’s where the science background, for me, is very helpful, because that’s your control. Things that are in your control (and I think it’s aptly named) aren’t changing; they aren’t variables. Here are the lyrics, you can repeat them, you can edit them, but here are the lyrics that he wrote, and here are the songs in Twelfth Night. Everything else is up for grabs. But when we did Caroline, or Change, and I was working with the man from whom the story came, and he was the source, it was, well, we can do whatever we want, and that was much harder. It’s much easier if someone says, you have 10 minutes, and it has to be 10 minutes long, no more, no less. Then I don’t have to think about that. But if they say, “write something” – 10 minutes, 10 hours, 10 years? 

What advice do you have for students who want to become composers?
Learn how to self-assign. That is the hardest thing, because you’re going into a world after years and years of someone else telling you when to write something, and in what category, giving you definitions and limitations and freedom. Then, it’s going to be you, and only you, and that is the drop off the cliff. But if there’s a way to learn how to deal with unstructured time—I literally mean “self assign” to say, what do I need to learn, what do I want to write, and by when—And that’s what’s really hard. There’s no teacher, usually, standing over you when you want to be a writer. Giving you an assignment, for a paper—those papers turn into your own work, done for yourself, generated from yourself, and that’s the biggest twist: Practicing, doing something. My daughter’s a senior. She was cast in a part she wasn’t as enthusiastic about. I said, do your own thing then. Get some people together, get in the studio, and put it on. And she looked at me like a dog watching television. This time is your own. You don’t have to wait for any of us, the adults, to tell you what part you should be. Put yourself in the part of another show. I could hear her thinking “can I do that?” and I said, yes! You actually have to do that, or you won’t break away from the pack 

Jeanine Tesori will be in conversation about a life in the arts, 1 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 21, Room 113, SEVER HALL in Harvard Yard. The event is free and open to all Harvard affiliates and the public. Register here

This project is supported by the Bernard H. and Mildred Kayden Artist in Residence Fund.