Podcast Episode 58 Transcript – Jeanine Tesori

Ken: Hey, everybody, it’s Ken here. Listen, on February 23rd at 7pm Eastern Time I’m going to hold a teleseminar and tell you all the secrets of how I got to be where I am today, recording this podcast. It’s called “How to Succeed in the Arts or in Anything.” 7 o’clock, the 23rd – check out my blog for more details. It’s going to be a lot of fun. On with the podcast!

Ken: Hey, everybody. Ken Davenport here. You are listening to the Producer’s Perspective Podcast. This is episode 58, believe it or not, but it’s okay, if this is your first one you picked a great one to start with because today I am honored to have as my guest Tony award-winning composer Jeanine Tesori. Welcome, Jeanine!

Jeanine: I’m very happy to be here.

Ken: So a little known fact is I first met Jeanine when I was the company manager on Thoroughly Modern Millie but what she did not know when we first met is that I was already obsessed with her score to Violet. I had worn out that CD like crazy.

Jeanine: Remember the restraining order?

Ken: That’s right, I was stalking her, “Please, please sing it for me!” She’s also the composer of Shrek, Caroline, or Change, last season’s big Tony award winner for best musical Fun Home, which nabbed her a Tony as well – we’re going to get into that. So, Jeanine, this is the part of the podcast where I would usually ask you where you got started but, as I read over those credits, what I’m so intrigued by is they’re very diverse.

Jeanine: Yes.

Ken: From Thoroughly Modern Millie, Violet, Caroline, or Change, Fun Home, Shrek – when you’re signing up to write the music for a new show, whether it’s an idea of yours or someone comes to you, what do you look for, to say “Oh, that story, that’s a musical, I want to musicalize that?”

Jeanine: It’s a really good question and it’s hard to answer because it’s hard to put into words at this point. Either something sings to me or it doesn’t and it’s really evident right away. It’s sort of, I guess, in a way, looking at a meal and thinking “That’s appetizing.” If a story is porous, almost like pumice stone, and you see that it can absorb another layer, music can serve it in some way, it’s not complete. If something is already complete then I’m not sure what my purpose would be, what my work is going to do, and I also have to find myself in it in some way. If it’s a style of music that I’ve always wondered about and wanted to write in that style or a culture that I want to learn about, I just feel like music is a sort of metro card and you just put it through and travel so many ways. I can’t write all styles because no one can but I studied so much music when I was younger, it was a very eclectic training, so I feel like I have a foundation that is very unusual and it allows me to be very open to different cultures.

Ken: Let’s talk about that, the beginning and the training – how did you get your start in music and in the business?

Jeanine: When I was really young my family believed that everyone should have a musical education. There was always something happening – we had a piano and someone was always playing, badly, and someone was playing flute and someone was doing grand jetés across the floor – I’m one of four girls – and my parents just believed that you had to have a solid training. My grandfather was a conductor and composer in Italy and came here and couldn’t make a living and was pumping gas and died of pneumonia and I think it was what I would call the ancestral pull, it was definitely in there. When I was three I just wouldn’t go away from the piano, I was really drawn to it, and my parents started me with lessons when I was five or six and I really studied intently until I was 14 and then I rebelled because, in the end, I’m really not a player, I was something else, and I didn’t realize that there was something else to be other than a piano player or a concert pianist.

Ken: Why the theatre? When you’re a musician with those kinds of skills, an innate ability and an attraction to it, why writing for the theatre as opposed to writing for film or writing jingles or whatever it was?

Jeanine: As it turns out, I have a real interest in storytelling and I didn’t choose it, it chose me. I had no designs on being a writer at all when I graduated. I started out studying science at Barnard and then switched to the music major at Columbia when my interests changed, not knowing at all what I was going to do with it. It rekindled my love, a real innate, deep love for music, which, if anything, has gotten deeper, but I had no idea how that would be applied – I hadn’t seen enough musical theatre, I hadn’t seen any musical theatre, maybe one show, maybe two musicals, and then, when I was 19, I started staying them ruthlessly. The great thing about being a science major is the way you dissect a frog or a pig – there’s a similar way to look at a musical or a piece and think ‘What makes this work?’ in a Da Vinci-like way. “What’s underneath this and what are the mechanics of it?” and it was, strangely enough, looking back, a great way to start the education – there was no assumption I was going to go into it. There was absolutely no assumption you could make a living at it and I was overjoyed when I got my first job in 1984, 1985, maybe a little bit later, as the associate conductor on the tour of Big River. It was a delight when I got that call from Danny Troob, I just practically fainted, I was so happy.

Ken: It’s a very interesting way to put it, about studying it, dissecting it and learning the intricacies of it as a conductor. In the same way – I’ll relate it to my own experience – I never thought I could make a living as a producer either but I took this job and I was so elated when I first got it – Thoroughly Modern Millie was actually my first Broadway company manager gig and I was able to dissect the intricacies of the business side of Broadway before applying it to what I do now. Do you remember the first song you ever wrote?

Jeanine: I do. Actually, Joey Quinqua who is now a really big mucky-muck at PR and I love him and he was, I think, seven, and I wrote a song that he sang at Stagedoor Manor because no one else was there and we putting something together, a show for little kids, and I set Dream Keeper, Langston Hughes, and he sang it. He was literally the first person, it’s so funny. I did do the varsity show right after I graduated in 1984 for Columbia. I was just starting to think “Well, what is this, composing?” I had studied classically my whole life – I still do, I love classical music – so I think I was also bringing that knowledge of how things are constructed and, theatrically, I started in the mailroom, absolutely, I was in the pit and in those rehearsal rooms much like you. I understand it from the ground up and it’s proven to be so helpful.

Ken: What’s your process for writing a song now?

Jeanine: I organize my desk.

Ken: Yes?

Jeanine: I Google baby armadillos, I do everything, I’m a terrible procrastinator. I can meet a deadline but I have to have one or I don’t write, it’s terrible.

Ken: Really?

Jeanine: Yeah.

Ken: So does a book writer hand you a scene and say, “Hey, this is what I want,” or do you get inspired, like “I want to write a song about that,” but then you just sit on it for a while, until someone says, “It’s got to be done by Thursday?”

Jeanine: Every show is different, they are like kids. I’ve described it like this before – it’s like this one needs braces and this one is fine and doesn’t need any attention, just some love, so it’s knowing that every show is different but my process is I have to know what we’re doing, what makes it “it.” A series of a lot of discussions over a lot of coffee, what the theatrical metaphor is, even if it changes, why we’re writing it, why we’re drawn to it, what in our experience is like it, why someone off the street, what’s the universal truth, just endless, endless understanding, because I think in the tech in the sixth year of doing your show, that’s when it’s going to come out, what started the central question of why am I doing it, why are they singing, why should this be musicalized? A series of asking great, specific questions that hopefully get answered but, for me, I have to start with all of that, and then the design of “Okay, we’re making this building. Is it going to look like falling water? What is this thing that we’re making?” So we’re not just throwing darts in the dark. Then it can change – I think that’s the hardest thing. You write understanding that you’re committing fully to something that may not be there the next day.

Ken: How early do you involve your directors in this process? What I also love, in addition to the diversity of the material that you’ve written and the shows that you’ve been a part of, you’ve worked with such a diverse group of people. From Lisa Kron, of course, on Fun Home, Tony Kushner, and then the directors as well – Michael, George Wolf.

Jeanine: It’s a bar mitzvah, I’m telling you.

Ken: I’d like to be at that bar mitzvah.

Jeanine: You’re invited.

Ken: There would be some very interesting conversations.

Jeanine: That’s right – my 40th birthday party was absolutely great, lots of people. I’m interested in the conversation, I think. I like learning, especially from playwrights. I like being in the room with people who are smarter, who I can learn something from. I don’t want to keep making the same thing – not that you would make the same thing but I think if you know, for me, and it’s very specific, I really enjoy the newness of that relationship and not knowing where the other person is going to go. I’m writing another piece with all the playwrights I work with but I really enjoy their strengths; their strengths bring out a different strength in me. You watch Serena Williams play with all of these players and it brings out a certain thing in her game – she’s got short staccato when she plays the Italian player who was long and very legato, it brought out something different in her game, she had to respond to it, and I thought, “That’s exactly what it’s like to work with someone different. Why would the tennis player always play the same player?”

Ken: One of the things I was so amazed by, watching you all work during Millie, was the preview process of that show.

Jeanine: Oh God.

Ken: I wish we had a camera because Jeanine just shook her head and rolled her eyes, like “Oh, my God.”

Jeanine: I remember memorizing the carpet in the Marquis because, remember, we would go upstairs to the war room and my eyes would follow that crazy carpet, thinking “Are we ever going to get out of this hotel alive?”

Ken: Yeah, I used to have to make sure you had plenty of food and coffee up in that room every night. It was tough, and we had Hal Luftig and Kristin both on the podcast and both of them talked about the first preview and being like, “Okay, we’ve got some work to do,” and you guys going up to that room. What’s that pressure like during previews?

Jeanine: I like that pressure, I thrive on that. I think that for a career in theatre you have to be not just good, you have to be good and fast when it matters. I used to do a lot of recordings in Nashville, it’s what they call the red light syndrome. They say a lot of people can play really well but when the red light goes on and you’re recording, you have to play. It’s hard because there’s an awareness, a third eye, you’re looking at that light and it’s the mind game of “I have to write well right now,” and, for some reason, it doesn’t get to me that much. I don’t know if it’s being a parent and I think “Okay, I have two hours to write, I’m going to write for two hours and come out with something. It might be terrible but there will be something at the end of two hours, that’s non-negotiable,” and I think that’s the same thing in previews. musicals, to me, are a great puzzle with a lot of moving pieces and an understanding of “Okay, that’s going to stay the same but if I change this thing, it’s all about context, maybe that will work but that will shift and that will shift,” and having a great director who will lead you into battle and say “We’re going to do it this way and then we’re going to do this and this and this,” because, as you know, previews in musicals are expensive in New York, everything has to be re-cued and that’s not even including the music work. It’s like an upholstered chair – you just start with the frame and then it just layers and layers, so that work is expensive. I try to do as much as I can right before. We did that with Millie, I just wasn’t as skilled and I’ve learned a couple more things to do since then, a couple.

Ken: What show of yours has changed the most during the preview process?

Jeanine: Well I think Millie definitely changed a tremendous amount. The way that I like to develop things now, I want to be lighter on the feet, so I loved working at the Lab at the Public because it was piano only and I could bring something in at seven o’clock and we would put it in at eight o’clock because it’s on a piano and there’s no orchestration, you don’t have to recue it, the lights basically go on and off and yet there’s a paying audience, the audience is paying $15, and yet they’re paying and they’re not workshopped, and I loved that, I’ve never felt so free. Sam Gold would wear this funky hat and he would grab a beer and he would appear before every show and say ‘Look, you’re going to leave here and you’re going to say “That show needs work’ and you’ll be right and that’s what we’re doing,” so it just liberated everybody. It was a very snark-free zone because we just called it, that’s what we’re doing, we’re in a relationship with our audience to try to make this better and we wrote and wrote and wrote. So what ended up, at the end of the Lab at the Public, versus what we started with, was an entirely different show.

Ken: My next question was going to be you develop shows in non-profit environments and for commercial producers and which one do you like the best? I have a feeling what you’re going to say now so let me ask you this – do you think there’s a way to do that in the for-profit world? Do you think if we were doing a show together and I said “Hey, I’ve got this crazy idea – let’s rent New World Stages for one of the theatres for the summer, or some theatre downtown, and we’ll charge people $15 and we’ll do a three week run of the show and we’ll see what happens?”

Jeanine: I guess the thing I’ve learned more and more is I don’t know what I don’t know and there’s always a new way to do something. There’s always room to do something that you haven’t done it before and then either, like a character on stage, you’re victorious or you go away in defeat. I need a lot of time to work because it itself is a puzzle and then you light it in either the round or the proscenium and then it changes completely. I’ve seen things work in a room and you think “Oh my God, that’s a huge hit,” and then you light it and you put it under an arch and it doesn’t work, there’s something about the metaphor or the concept or the something at its core and sometimes it’s just a mystery, how could that not work? If something is reviewed here in New York City too quickly there’s almost an “Oh, that’s too bad,” aspect of it and I really admire producers who say “Yes, but that’s not the end for us.” So I guess I would love to do that, as long as people let us work and don’t review a half finished piece. Then I would love to do that; I think that’s a great idea.

Ken: You’ve also worked with a number of different producers, from independents to corporations. What do you look for in that relationship? What sort of support or what’s the ideal producer that you would want to work with?

Jeanine: For me, you know, I’ve never had a really bad experience with a producer. I think that I learned very early on to debate and to do it with less and less aggression. I used to use a lot of that, the Sicilian would come out and I would come ranting and raving and I just made people miserable and I thought I probably had something to say that was smart but all people were reacting to was I was such a cow while I was delivering it. I’m not going to do that anymore, I’m just going to offer it up, not apologize but just say “Here are my thoughts, can we just put them into the middle, empty them up in the poker game.” So what I appreciate about a producer is one who will really hold me to the fire and say “We’re doing a workshop, we’re doing a lab on this day,” because I absolutely need that, and one who let us have process. It comes in all different forms – I’ve worked in every different arena and I had a wonderful time working with Bill Damaschke at DreamWorks. Bill was our closest partner there but Jeffrey was really on it and gave us some great notes and I think it’s because he didn’t get too close to the material – he would come, flying from Bangladesh, wherever he was, and he would say “Zoop, zoop, zoop, zoop, zoop,” and that was a great combination. Bill was on it a lot, Jeffrey would come in, so in the producers group it’s really helpful for me to have one person who gathers up the notes or whatever and I always want to hear it – let me hear all of it. I always ask the dressers and stagehands because they really know. Those dressers are, in my experience, the smartest, greatest people because they hear it, they hear the rhythm of the show, they don’t always watch it, and there’s an understanding. I remember asking someone, one of the TDs, about a show and he said “It’s not going to work, too much scenery.” He could tell by the load in that it was not going to work.

Ken: What show?

Jeanine: I’m not going to say.

Ken: When we turn it we’ll come back to it. Wow, that’s fascinating, I’ve never heard anyone say that, the dressers just listening and not seeing.

Jeanine: Well most of them, they were performers or still are performers. A lot of them are trained beautifully so they have great opinions and there’s one particularly, Jeffrey at Fun Home, I talk to him all the time during previews. He’s just wonderful, smart, and he would deliver his opinion very clearly.

Ken: I’m going to say this, and he would love me talking about him, so Jeffrey was the star dresser on Show Boat, on my first Broadway gig as the assistant, and you’re 100% right, he knows a ton about musicals – and he knows how to iron a shirt.

Jeanine: He sure does.

Ken: He taught me how to iron a shirt the right way, so thank you.

Jeanine: He knows how to iron a musical – get all those creases out.

Ken: Oh boy, he’s going to love this when he hears it! One of the things that I love about the success of Fun Home, both artistically and definitely commercially, which I’ve blogged about, is that, and me included, so many people, when they hear the pitch for Fun Home and what it’s about, they’re like That can’t be a musical.” We’ve talked a little bit about generally what you’re attracted to, but what specifically about that show, when you heard that subject matter, did you go “Oh yeah, this sings to me?”

Jeanine: Oh, for sure, 100%. I read it – it was brought to me, it wasn’t my idea; it was a great idea, it wasn’t mine. I think the thing people fall short on is they don’t distinguish plot from story. The plot of Fun Home is challenging, the story is not, so if you lead with the elevator pitch of what happens people will go “Huh?” but if you lead with the story, as Mark Harris, who is one of my favorite writers, he said “You should only go to Fun Home if you’re a parent or a child,” and he’s exactly right – if you know the pull of looking for your parents in any way, shape or form, or the pull of being a parent, those two things, that is the story and it’s to be seen by those who you’re in a deep and primal relationship with as a family unit and it never goes away – I don’t know one person who isn’t pulled in some way by the people who made them. But the plot, it seems like how can that possibly sing and I think it was Mike Nichols who had the greatest definition of plot and story – the plot is the king dies, the queen dies, but the story is the king dies, the queen dies of a broken heart – and it’s such a great and quick definition of the difference and the story is the one that sings. I’m not going to sing about the tragedy of it, people are going to get that. What I’m going to sing about are the consequences and the stakes of loving someone and the need to be recognized as a daughter or a father in society and what happens when it doesn’t happen. That’s why we tried to work with the party/pain ratio really carefully so that it wasn’t constant heartbreak, you just get some relief from it.

Ken: So here comes James Lipton question number one for you, which is if the Smithsonian called tomorrow and said “Jeanine, what a body of work you have. We’ve got room for one song in the institute. What song would you want preserved forever?”

Jeanine: Oh, lord.

Ken: It’s a fancy way of asking you what’s your favorite song?

Jeanine: It really is like saying “Who’s your favorite kid?”

Ken: You have only one daughter so that’s very easy.

Jeanine: I guess, when it all comes down to it, “Gimme Gimme,” and one of the reasons is we wrote it for Sutton, it was so theatrical and happened with her going into the show. Dick and I wrote it based on a really strong pull that I had that it shouldn’t be a reprise of “Jimmy” at that point. He went with it, which I was so grateful for – our rules were whoever has the strong idea we go with. We played it for everybody right before we teched it, the stage manager clocked it and as soon as we finished, literally, everybody ran in and started to tech it and I remember looking at him and we said to each other “It will just be in there for now and we can always rewrite it.” We thought it was just a big flop-a-roo of a song and then, that night, they teched it and Michael Rafter jumped over the railing to play it on piano and the response to the song by the audience was just one I will never forget and it was a great lesson of you just don’t know. You have to hang on – as my friend would say, ”live long enough” – and that was before there was any brass or any of those bells and whistles and everything else was orchestrated. So I think it’s inextricably tied to the experience and the song and Sutton, who I love so much, she’s so dear to me, as is Dick.

Ken: So Lynn Ahrens was on the podcast a few episodes ago and she took me a little bit to task, in the nicest way possible that only Lynn can do, and she was saying “Ken, you’ve got to have more women writers on the podcast,” and we have actually – I looked at my ratio and I had more men on the podcast than women and I was like “Oh my God, I’ve got to do something about this.” What’s it like being a woman writer in this industry? Do you feel it’s different, is it not different, are their benefits?

Jeanine: It’s a complicated, great question, and I really appreciate you looking at the count. The Guild, led by Lisa Kron, Marsha Norman, made the count, and to make people put some lenses in and say “How are we looking at the world? Do we have parity?” And it’s the only way to learn so I really appreciate that your response was to ask more women. Going through the world as a woman is different than going through it as a man so, sure, yes, at the end of the day I’ve really found that there are certain things that, if you’re in the room when it happens, it’s gender-fluid – it doesn’t matter; the idea matters, the presentation of the idea matters, the life force behind it matters, the way that you take a stand for someone else matters, but being allowed in the room is so key – it’s one of the reasons that I’m just trying to do everything I can to usher in young women and to learn the science, what I understand the science of writing is, the science of collaboration, because you have to be in the room, you have to be invited in, and Lisa made an observation once that she felt that men were rewarded for promise and women were rewarded for product and I thought that was really true – you see these men advancing, they’ve made one indie and then suddenly they’re directing a $100 million movie and you just don’t see that with women, so it means that people need to look at their decision making process and say “Well, it’s a risk either way but I’ve seen that woman lead a crew when there was no money.” It is really hard to lead a crew when there is no money and I think it’s easier, in a way, it’s like having a giant group of strings. It sounds so good, no matter what, to have 60 first violins – you write one line and it’s going to sound good. It’s harder when you have a little chamber group and one violin is responsible for that line, it’s just harder to play. So I think it’s really backing up, backing up to make sure that we do what you did – we look at what we’ve done and we look at it with different eyes and see “Is it fair what I’ve done? Do I need to bring different voices and different experiences into the office so that it can go out into the world?” Yes, and then you take action. So that’s the key to all of it.

Ken: When you got your start you said you studied musicals intensely – do you have a favorite musical Broadway period/decade? Is there a golden age for you, like the ’60s, the ’70s, the ’80s?

Jeanine: No, I don’t think that way, but Sunday in the Park is everything for me. I love it, I love what he writes, I love the things he writes about, I love him equally as a composer and a lyricist, he’s a great designer, he understands the architecture. You can feel Milton Babbit’s teaching in the way that he looks at music and I just feel like he understands, more than anyone, tension and release. He can really build up something. Harmonically, you can see in specific overtures in Sweeney and he’s just a fantastic, fantastic composer and the pain of the choice of making something and the people you have to leave out of your life when you’re always writing in your head is apparent. So many times you’re with your kid and your mind is absolutely on making something and it’s a sacrifice for you, for them, and I’d never gotten it until he wrote about it; I’d never heard it so beautifully and authentically stated.

Ken: I’ll ask you one of the questions that he was famously asked – favorite song of yours that you have not written?

Jeanine: I guess it would have to be “Finishing the Hat.” I think so, I think that would be it.

Ken: Do you think it’s easier for writers today to get started in this business, or harder?

Jeanine: I think it’s both. It’s both because there are so many ways to be seen, which makes it harder and easier. One of my great sadness’s about what’s happened is the lack of giant recording spaces. I was the pianist – for the trivia – I was one of the two pianists on the Beauty and the Beast movie, that’s me playing with Angela Lansbury, beads of sweat coming down, “Tale as Old as Time,” sweat plop. They were big, giant, wonderful places to record and they are gone, almost all of them are gone, gone, gone, and what’s difficult about that is that’s how you play music – you don’t do it in sections and then overdub, you play all together and it shows up in the music that you create. So now you can do things separately, a la carte, all over. I can do a session right now and e-mail it to you, so the communication possibilities are so great but the communication is not as good. I feel like it’s not as effective, it’s the great irony, and there’s so much product out there – my daughter has posted beautiful recordings of herself, so I think it’s easier to be seen but I think it’s also harder because so many people are seen at the same time. Also the beauty of that is you really get to understand what other people in the world are writing – you don’t wait for it, you don’t have to be present for it, which I really believe in and it’s one of the reasons I feel like I’m a theatrical animal, I really like being present, I think it makes a huge difference.

Ken: Tips for a new writer looking to start today – what would you tell them? The one thing to do.

Jeanine: Don’t wait. That’s the key – do not wait. You have to. There is a great John Cassavetes quote, I won’t get it right but you can look it up, about making work all the time, don’t wait. Don’t wait for the phone call or for the right singer or for the room to be open or to get the right studio or this or that. Make the work, study other people’s work, be kind – time is the only thing we run out of. I think because we all lost so many friends in the late ’80s and ’90s so many men were not allowed to have the careers that they deserved and should have had so I think we all learned, painfully so, that you run out of time so you have to use it, not in a crazy way but in a way that’s filled with intention.

Ken: Okay, last question – this is the other Lipton-like question – I call it my Genie Question. I want you to imagine that the genie from Aladdin shows up at your door and wants to thank you for all of your incredible contributions to the theatre, from pushing the boundaries with musicals like Caroline, or Change and Fun Home and says “I’m going to grant you one wish – one wish.” What’s the one thing that drives you so crazy about Broadway, that makes you mad, you can’t sleep at night, that gets the Sicilian in you out again and gets you so angry?

Jeanine: It’s too expensive. It should be available for all people. It should be absolutely available. I know that the pie chart would explain that to me but it is a conundrum. I liked the template that Joe Papp set down at the Public – he brought theatre out to people and it made generations of theatre-goers, the way that Bernstein brought classical music. He brought it to children and explained it to them in a way, from what I understand, it was really affordable, it was really affable, it was incredibly scholarly, it was really witty, he dramatized that event. I think Joe Papp and these pathfinders did the same thing and that’s accessibility. It’s not just about the programs themselves, it’s about saying we, as a culture, really have to subsidize art. We have to treat it that way because I define a culture by it so it makes me upset that it’s not available based on a lot of what you make. I think there have been great inroads, a lot of people are working really hard to create a tier system, which I appreciate, but it still is expensive for a family to come in.

Ken: A great answer and thank you so much for joining us today. I’m not a genie but thank you for your incredible contributions to the work. It so excites me to think about what’s next when you look at what’s already happened so I can’t wait and I know everybody can’t wait to see what you’re working on next.

Jeanine: Well after City Center – one more summer at City Center and then back to full time writing.

Ken: Awesome, awesome. Thank you so much for joining us, everybody. Next up, a first for us, an orchestrator – Michael Starobin is going to join us. Speaking of Sunday in the Park with George!

Jeanine: I love Michael Starobin.

Ken: He’s fantastic and he’s going to explain that whole process to us and tell us some juicy Sunday stories as well. Thanks so much – we’ll see you next time!

Ken: Don’t forget to check out the blog – February 23rd, 7pm, “How to Succeed in the Arts or in Anything,” a teleseminar with yours truly. We’ll see you then!

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