Not only did Jeanine Tesori make history Sunday night, becoming part of the first all-female writing team to win a Tony award for Best Musical Score for the hit Broadway musical, “Fun Home”; the win was a first for her, personally. Tesori was once a pre-med student at Barnard, but switched to her first love, music. More than 30 years later, the love affair is still very much alive. NY1’s Budd Mishkin filed this One on 1 profile.
Broadway composer Jeanine Tesori started playing piano at the age of three.
Wherever she goes, she hears music, whether she likes it or not. She even hears music in the tones of city subway announcements.
Jeanine Tesori makes beautiful music, no matter who the singer.
She's received Tony nominations as the composer for the shows “Twelfth Night,” “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” “Caroline or Change” and “Shrek.”
Now, she’s working on the much praised “Fun Home,” a musical almost a decade in the making.
"You have to have a certain interiority to make this kind of work. It's not for those people that need instant gratitude. I mean, that's what I love. I mean you go to Zabar's and your number comes up and you think ‘oh, it's my lucky day!’” Tesori says.
“Fun Home” is the story of a woman reflecting on her sexual awakening, relationship with her parents and some of life's secrets and understandings.
Tesori and lyricist Lisa Kron based “Fun Home” on the graphic novel memoir by Alison Bechdel, who attended one of the shows with her siblings.
"After the audience left and they stayed, and for the first time, they wept together. That's what the show did. At that moment Lisa and I thought, whatever happens to this show—as the song would say—they can't take that away from us," Tesori says.
To clarify her thoughts—to give structure to a show—Tesori uses a white board in her office, organizing what she calls "the circus bar mitzvah that is my brain."
"The audience, when they come in, know nothing. There's an agreement, a pact right here, and then you go through this little journey. Sometimes I need to—because no show is the same—I need to understand what it looks like, before we write," she says.
Tesori likens creating a musical to playing a chess match.
"Is it the song? Is it the key of the song? Is it the arrangement? Is it the person singing it? Should it be in act two? Is act two act one? Is it what they're wearing? Is the scene change there cutting off the punch line? Is it the way they are looking out? This is my loop. There’s medication specifically for musical theater people," she says.
Jeanine Tesori grew up in Port Washington on Long Island. Her Mom was a nurse, her father a doctor—both working at home.
"I once came home and there was someone in my bed who was too sick to go to hospital. My father said, ‘There is no way I'm sending that kid to the hospital. He took your bed. You sleep on the couch.’ I was like ‘Yeah, of course, that's what you do,’" Tesori says.
Tesori says her father instilled in his four daughters the toughness she would later need to withstand the slings and arrows of the theater world.
“The expectation was ‘I'm going to be really hard on you because I want you to go out in the world and be pathfinders. And you're girls, and you're going to have to work so much harder for all of it, and so it will start with me,’" she remembers.
The period of her life that perhaps tells you the most about Jeanine Tesori came in the early 90s. She'd spent a decade as a pianist, arranger and producer, carving out a nice career—but not composing.
So she up and left the city to live in upstate New York near the Canadian border—in a lighthouse.
“It was like giving myself a Walden. I wanted to get a hold of what I was trying to do and I couldn't do it with the noise of the city. I had to get out," she says.
The days were cold and occasionally adventurous.
Tesori: "A squirrel got poisoned and exploded in my living room. You haven't lived until you've seen an exploded squirrel.”
Mishkin: “Time out.”
Tesori: "A friend of mine came over and put some poison down and it ate the poison but then the poison makes it, in a camus way, just explodes.
Mishkin: “I’m sorry…in a?”
Tesori: “Camus, remember? When all the rats…”
But eventually, the year in the lighthouse resulted in Tesori writing her first musical, “Violet.”
“There's nothing like being on a giant lake and having it freeze and thaw to understand that process is not linear," she says. “I needed to find out what a natural process was, of going through some seasons in a really beautiful place to understand something about writing for me."
The journey would get no easier.
Long before “Violet” came to Broadway in 2014, it lasted a month off Broadway in 1997, closing after a bad review.
"And I went to bed for three days. I was pregnant and literally, I stayed in bed for three days. And finally, my then-husband said, ‘You have got to get out of bed. You just have to get out of bed. That's all I'm asking you to do.’ It was the kindest thing," she recalls."It was so hard of a lesson but thank God. If that had worked and been a success I would have never learned the real reason to write is to write and of course you have to write for coin and you have to do all of that stuff, but the real reason to write is to make something."
And Tesori has. She is the artistic director of Encores Off Center, a program that stages well known off Broadway musicals at City Center each summer.
She was the recipient of a 2015 honor for her off Broadway work and the first female composer to get a star on the playwright's sidewalk outside the Lucille Lortel theater.
Tesori has also received her fifth Tony Award nomination for “Fun Home.”
Tesori: "I’ve lost them all. I've lost all those awards. My daughter and I have perfected this, you know, and then someone else stands up.”
Mishkin: “That’s pretty good.”
Tesori: “I know."
In Tesori's eyes, “Fun Home” is a winner, having nothing to do with awards.
“This piece, which is so pivotal and part of a national conversation, added to the conversation—as opposed to ‘I told you. I told you that wouldn't sell. I told you that musical with a butch woman in the middle—I told you they wouldn't come see it.’ Well, they are," she says.
Tesori is engaged to be married.
She has a teenaged daughter from a previous marriage.
It's hardly been a direct route for Tesori from Long Island to Broadway. The toughness she learned long ago has often come into play.
Tesori says only now after all these years does she have a grasp on what it's like to make a musical drama.
"The struggle to me is not synonymous with suffering. It isn't that. It's more, I cannot believe how fortunate I am to have started so young and to have gotten the support I did from key people at pivotal ages to not quit," she says.