American musical theatre composer, arranger, pianist, and conductor Jeanine Tesori (b. 1961, known earlier in her career as Jeanine Levenson) has been thrice nominated for Tony Awards® for her Broadway scores: Twelfth Night (1998) at Lincoln Center, Thoroughly Modern Millie (2002) at the Marquis, and Caroline, or Change (2004) at the Eugene O’Neill. Her first musical, Violet, produced off-Broadway in 1997, was nominated for seven Drama Desk Awards including Outstanding New Musical and won the Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best Musical, the Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Musical, and a Special Obie Citation for Tesori’s music. In the field of film, she has composed new songs for The Emperor’s New Groove 2: Kronk’s New Groove (2005), Wrestling With Angels (the 2006 documentary about Tony Kushner), Shrek the Third (2007), and three animated Disney DVDs (Mulan II, Lilo and Stitch II, The Little Mermaid: Ariel’s Beginning). She also wrote the scores for Show Business: The Road to Broadway (2007) and Nights in Rodanthe (2008).
Tesori grew up in Port Washington, Long Island, her father a doctor, her mother a nurse. Although she played the piano from the age of three, she went to Barnard College in the full expectation of training for the medical profession, and had little interest in the theatre. “I thought Gypsy was a musical about Eastern Europe,” Tesori recalls, but after two summers coaching at a kids’ theatre camp in the Catskills, she changed her major to music.
After graduation, Tesori spent the better part of a decade working in New York as a pianist, arranger, and conductor in musical theatre on- and off-Broadway. Substituting in the orchestra pit for the 1989 revival of Gypsy with Tyne Daly, she met her husband, musical director Michael Rafter. She was associate conductor for The Secret Garden (1991) and The Who’s Tommy (1993), also playing keyboards, and made dance arrangements for the former show and several others, including the 1995 revival of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.
Finally she took the bit in her teeth, holed up for a year, and wrote her own musical, Violet, with book and lyrics by Brian Crawley. At Playwrights Horizons in the spring of 1997, this challenging fable about a disfigured girl from North Carolina on a bus to Oklahoma in search of healing opened many doors for Tesori. She was given the commission for incidental music to the historic 1998 Lincoln Center production of Twelfth Night with Paul Rudd and Helen Hunt (unrecorded, and televised but once), which won her the 1999 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Music in a Play and a Tony® nomination.
A much more formidable task, and the one for which Tesori is now best known – adapting Thoroughly Modern Millie for the stage from the film original – involved supplementing the score with eleven new songs and four old ones from the 1920s. This number is only a small fraction of the quantity of songs that Tesori and librettist Dick Scanlan created and considered during the show’s agonizing development; nonetheless, Millie ran for 903 performances on Broadway and earned Tesori a second Tony® nomination in 2002.
Before Millie closed in 2004, the innovative Caroline, or Change, with book and lyrics by Tony Kushner and music by Jeanine Tesori, opened, making Tesori the first woman composer in history to have two original musicals running concurrently on Broadway. Though Caroline was rather more of an opera than a musical “comedy,” it won, besides a Tony® nomination for the score, the 2004 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Music. The National Theatre production in London’s West End received the Olivier Award for Best New Musical.
Tesori and Kushner, now close friends, collaborated again in 2006 on a new translation and adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children, with Meryl Streep, produced as a part of the Public Theatre’s Shakespeare in the Park series. Tesori’s biggest project yet is the multimillion-dollar stage adaptation of the animated film Shrek (2001), Shrek the Musical, which opened in December 2008. Although the film was itself a musical, the Broadway show has all new music, with lyrics by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Lindsay-Abaire.
Tesori, a member of the Dramatists Guild, lives in Manhattan with Rafter and their daughter Siena. She has a multiplicity of projects in the offing: songs for Rapunzel, a new animated film from Disney, a small musical with playwright Lisa Kron, and with Tony Kushner an original opera commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera under the management of Peter Gelb.
Photo courtesy of The Everett Collection