The Fabulous Jeanine Tesori

There is always talk of the icons of musical theatre, particularly dealing with the writers. These are the ones we constantly refer to, the ones we worship as the gods of creating what American musical theatre is now, generally those who came to prominence during what is regarded as Broadway’s “Golden Age,” from “Show Boat” in 1927 (Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein III) up through, like, “Gypsy” in 1957 (Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim), hyper-arguably…ish.

I’ve tried thinking of the people around now that may become the next of the musical theatre writing legends. There are definitely great candidates out there that have certainly paid their dues. I’m always gushing over the work of Michael John LaChiusa. He is, in my own humble biased opinion, one of the greatest musical theatre writers writing today, and on top of that, an incredibly honest, wonderful and generous teacher of mine and many others before me. There is also Adam Guettel, who, though having written very few staged works, has written some of the most beautiful musical material I’ve ever heard, and has musical theatre brilliance in his blood, being a grandson of Richard Rodgers. There’s also Andrew Lippa, who has about ten extremely well regarded and popular works under his belt (including this season’s “Big Fish”). There’s Jason Robert Brown, whose “Bridges of Madison County” adaptation recently began previews on Broadway.

Photo by Susan Johann.

Photo by Susan Johann.

But then there’s Ms. Tesori. Jeanine Tesori. One writer who has kind of existed in the background for awhile, who I’m ashamed I’ve really only now gotten to know as an artist recently, and one who is finally emerging into the public eye. First and foremost, I have to express my excitement when I discovered that she had written (as a Broadway Debut!) the brilliant dance arrangements for the 1995-1996 revival of “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” which, if you know my previous posts, you understand that I believe this to be the best production of this show, if not one of the best cast recordings of any show, ever. Allow me to gush now, for a moment, on the work of this incredible woman…

Her first big show was the musical “Violet.” It’s not quite well known, yet. But it’s coming to Broadway this year, starring the beautiful Sutton Foster. This is going to be a knockout. There is an off-broadway cast recording, and it’s gorgeous. Every person who appreciates showtunes should own this album. Ms. Tesori’s work in this is perfection.

In 2000 she wrote the music for the adaptation “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” which came to Broadway in 2002, also starring Sutton Foster, and got her first Tony nom.

Sutton Foster and Josh Henry in the Encores! production of Violet, 2013. (Photo: Joan Marcus.)

Sutton Foster and Josh Henry in the Encores! production of Violet, 2013. (Photo: Joan Marcus.)

She then went on to supply music to the nearly flawless “Caroline, or Change” with playwright (and part-time lyricist) Tony Kushner (who’s one of the best playwrights of the 20th Century, with works like “Angel’s in America” and “The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism With a Key to the Scriptures”). It’s almost completely sung-through, and deeply moving. One of the most under-appreciated musicals of the last 15 years. She also worked with him on a piece for Shakespeare in the park, an adaptation of Brecht’s “Mother Courage and her Children.”

She then wrote the music to 2008’s “Shrek: The Musical” (What?!), and music for the films “Nights in Rodanthe” and “Shrek the Third,” among others.

And then came “Fun Home,” a beautiful groundbreaking new work I’ve referenced many times in previous posts. It could be one of the most important new musical works to come around in a long time.

Watch this video on YouTube.

She is a chameleon. She can write in any style and you can always hear Jeanine Tesori. It’s that thing we writers always strive for. A definitive voice, but a flexible sound. Things that exist in the world of Sondheim, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Cole Porter, and the other great writers of the Golden Age.

She’s had such an effect on the musical theatre world, but remained mostly hidden to me until her popularity by way of  “Fun Home.” “Shrek” was really just sold by the well known character, rather than the writers. “Violet” never became incredibly popular as an off-Broadway piece, and “Caroline, or Change” closed prematurely after garnering very few Tony awards (and I was too young at that point to know who anyone but Stephen Schwartz was on that 2004 Tony Telecast, my only contact with Broadway at that point).

As a woman in musical theatre, there are and likely have been about a gazillion obstacles in her way, but she could be the “Sondheim” character the next generation of writers is looking for.

Jeanine Tesori, I argue, is the next great legend of musical theatre. She is prolific and profound, clever while entertaining, and one hell of a woman in a creative world dominated by men.

Take a look at the things she has written, go see “Violet” and listen to the “Fun Home” cast recording, and hear what she has to say. She really is one of the best and hardest workers in this business, and we really need to, as writers, open up our eyes to writers who are not just well-to-do men. Open your eyes. People like Ms. Tesori exist. Look beyond the big name on the poster. Check out the “Music by” section. See and hear those who aren’t brands. They are generally the most talented and over-looked people in the business. I’d likely have missed her completely had “Fun Home” not come along.

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