For Jeanine Tesori, looking back on her Broadway career so far is a spectral affair.
“Every time I go into the St. James Theatre, I see ghosts of me having a great time, weeping, playing the piano,” Tesori reflects, thinking back on the stretch of time in the early ’90s where she worked on three shows back-to-back at the legendary theatre. “I was the sub assistant conductor for Gypsy with Tyne Daly, and I did The Secret Garden, and then I did Tommy right after that. It’s just such an unbelievable memory for me.”
Born and raised on Long Island, Tesori began playing piano at the age of 3, one of four artistically inclined sisters. While the Broadway music industry had been something of a boys’ club throughout the 20th century (only four women had ever been Tony nominated for composition prior to The Secret Garden), Tesori’s parents had raised her to stand tall in the face of anyone who doubted her talent and work ethic. Her career on Broadway didn't actually start as a composer; Tesori began on the margins in her early days, working as a sub pianist and occasional arranger—often going uncredited as she learned on the job.
The Secret Garden, which featured a largely female creative team, changed Tesori’s life, offering her the opportunity to arrange much of the dance and transitional music, which became a launching pad for her work as a composer and music director. Marvels Tesori of that time: “To watch all these women make the show in the room: Susan Schulman, Marsha Norman, Lucy Simon…it was amazing to watch them all work like that.”
Below, watch Tesori share her stories (including how the 1997 company of The King and I threw her an on-themed baby shower and why Violet took 17 years to come to Broadway). You’re sure to learn more about a musical that is close to your heart.
While Tesori had been composing her own shows for many years prior, she received her first Tony nomination in 1999 for the incidental music she composed for Nicholas Hytner’s production of William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. Three years later, it was her musical Thoroughly Modern Millie that was the talk of the town. The adaptation had come into her life in a somewhat circuitous way.
“We used to do something called ‘doctoring,’ when someone will bring you in so you can help them out. I did that for one of Michael Mayer’s shows called Triumph of Love. I think I ended up writing four measures or eight measures, it was obviously not credited. Dick Scanlan said, ‘You know, I really love that little section,’ so Dick asked me to do Thoroughly Modern Millie with him.”
What started out as a jukebox musical pulling from the American Songbook soon turned into Tesori composing her own original material.
While Thoroughly Modern Millie became one of the most popular musicals of the early 2000s, it had a difficult critical start. “We got one of the worst reviews I have ever ‘not read,’” Tesori remembers. “It was so terrible… the next morning, the whole team, we all met at Sardis to toast our show, because we figured we would close. And then we didn't. We ran, and we won the Tony for Best Musical.”
After Millie, Tesori’s musical magic became undeniable. Caroline, or Change, her next effort, saw her and regular writing partner Tony Kushner again Tony nominated, as did Shrek the Musical with David Lindsay-Abaire.
She’s continued to make history throughout her career. In 2015, Tesori became half of the first all-female writing team to ever win the Tony for Best Original Score, alongside Lisa Kron for their deeply impactful musical Fun Home. “The moment I got it, I thought, ‘Oh, this is going to be an incredible musical. And it's going to be hell,’” Tesori says of the early development days of Fun Home. “And it was, because the Fun Home source material is this epic, nonlinear graphic novel. Lisa and I went through it with [director] Sam Gold. There's actually a picture of us at a certain point quite literally climbing the walls, because we used to put up index cards to try to figure out, ‘Well, where does “Ring of Keys” go? Is it number nine? Is it number four? Is it a ringtone when people leave? Like, where does it go?’”
But what started as hell turned into heaven. Fun Home opened on Broadway in 2015, where it won five Tony awards, including Best Musical and Best Direction of a Musical. It earned Tesori her first Tony Award.
Now, Tesori is back on Broadway with Lindsay-Abaire. Their musical Kimberly Akimbo brought home Tesori’s second Tony win for Best Score, making her the most-awarded female composer in Broadway history. To top it off, the show also won Best Musical, Best Book, and performance prizes for stars Victoria Clark and Bonnie Milligan.
Kimberly Akimbo follows a teenage girl named Kimberly who struggles with a condition that causes her to prematurely age. While internally being 16 years old, Kimberly is played by the 63-year-old Clark, who skillfully portrays the character's struggles to exist in a world that misunderstands her at a glance.
Adapted from Lindsay-Abaire’s 2000 play of the same name, Tesori was drawn to the material because it “is about how I feel so often in this business. Starting at 19, I felt so old in a sense, because my sisters and I were raised to be super tough. This is a musical that's about someone who looks at the world a certain way, and the world treats her in a certain way. But she realizes in a very short amount of time that you should live until you die, as opposed to start dying while you live.”
My Life in the Theatre is filmed at New York’s Alchemical Studios.