By J. KELLY NESTRUCK
Saturday, April 14, 2018
There are still days where American composer Jeanine Tesori wakes up and is glad she's no longer working on Fun Home - her musical about to have its much-anticipated Toronto premiere courtesy of the Musical Stage Company and Mirvish Productions.
Adapted from the celebrated graphic memoir of the same name by cartoonist Alison Bechdel, Fun Home follows Alison, in middle age, as she recalls her life at the age of 10 and in her first year of college when she first came out of the closet - focusing on her difficult relationship with her father, Bruce, who held deep secrets of his own.
"It's a really personal story: Alison's alive, her family's alive and it's based on someone whose death caused years and years of heartache," Tesori says. "So, the stakes were really high."
If the stakes were high, however, the payoff for Tesori's five years of work on the show was, too: Fun Home picked up the Tony Award for Best Musical in 2015 - and, after four earlier nominations for shows as varied as Caroline, or Change and Shrek: The Musical, the composer landed her first Tony for Best Original Score.
While the music Tesori wrote to tell the Bechdel family's complicated history draws from many sources, listeners will particularly detect the influence of the seventies - the time period when much of the musical is set and where Tesori, now one of the most accomplished Broadway composers of her generation, grew up.
Like 10-year-old Alison and her siblings in Fun Home, Tesori - a Long Island native who started playing the piano at 3 - would put on shows at home with her three sisters as a child. She desperately wanted to be part of a family that performed like the Osmonds or the Jackson Five, the (real) King Family or the (fictional) Partridge Family.
"I wanted to be Susan Dey, so badly," she recalls with a laugh, referring to the actor who played Laurie Partridge.
Fun Home's score also takes inspiration from seventies singersongwriters such as Janis Ian, Melissa Manchester, Carole King and some well-known Canadians as well. "Joni Mitchell is a prophet to me," Tesori says. "And the McGarrigle Sisters were deeply, deeply important to me. ... I'm really a crazy Wainwright [family] fan."
While there was that explosion of female songwriters five decades ago, Broadway musical theatre remained a male-dominated entertainment industry much longer - one in which Tesori, even today, stands out.
By one count, only six female composers had ever had a show on Broadway before the 1990s - and New York's internationally influential commercial-theatre district still lags not-for-profit theatre in the United States when it comes to gender equity.
Somehow, Broadway is still a place where, for instance, last season you'd find a musical called War Paint about how the female entrepreneurs Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein shattered the glass ceiling - created by an all-male team of artists.
That wasn't a one-off irony, either: It'll be the same thing for coming Broadway musicals with female-centric storylines, such as Summer: The Donna Summer Musical and a screen-to-stage adaptation of Pretty Woman.
Broadway may be passing the gender-bias test named after Fun Home creator Alison Bechdel more on stage these days - but behind the scenes, it's a different story.
"I know right now in New York there are many young women who are on the track," Tesori says, name-checking upand-coming composers Shaina Taub and Erin McKeown - but she says she both understands (because of how hard it is to make a living) and doesn't understand why there aren't more female composers in musical theatre.
"I'm not sure what to do other than mentor and make sure that the work gets out there and to be seen in a way that I'm somewhat uncomfortable with - but I know I looked to certain women to see how they were leading and followed that path."
Tesori has carved out many new paths for women in musical theatre with her accomplishments. She was first female composer to have two musicals on Broadway at the same time (when Thoroughly Modern Millie and Caroline, or Change briefly overlapped in 2004). And when she and Fun Home writer Lisa Kron won their Tony for best original score, they were the first all-female team to ever do so.
If Tesori's name doesn't immediately ring a bell in the wider world the way other five-time Tony nominees such as Alan Menken or Stephen Schwartz do, however, it's perhaps in part because of an artistic philosophy that tailors each score for a show's storytelling.
Thoroughly Modern Millie went for a 1920s sound, while Caroline, or Change blended gospel and klezmer - and Shrek was unabashed pop. Tesori likes to "render the writers invisible" in a musical. "I come from a school where I try to make people completely forget that [actors] are singing, in a way," she says.
The big musical-theatre cults usually develop around the singular "genius" (of the Lin-Manuel Miranda or Stephen Sondheim variety) or a songwriting duo (from Rodgers and Hammerstein to Pasek and Paul) - and Tesori does not work in either of those ways.
Instead, she changes partners on almost every show - usually teaming up with a single writer who writes the lyrics and the dialogue, rather than following the old standard musical-theatre configuration of a lyricist and what is called a "book writer."
Tesori also tends to team up with an artist best known as a playwright - often with ones who have never written musical theatre before. (Her advice to composers: Remain "a beginner's mind" and not arrogantly think "I got this.") Currently, she's working with David Henry Hwang (M. Butterfly) on a show called Soft Power that has its premiere in Los Angeles in early May. On Fun Home, she partnered with Kron, best known for her own autobiographical play, Well. On the underrated Shrek, she wrote with David Lindsay-Abaire, at the time, incongruously, best known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning play about a couple coping with the death of a child, Rabbit Hole.
The one collaborator that Tesori has returned to work with multiple times is Tony Kushner of Angels in America fame. The two first partnered on his semiautobiographical 2004 musical Caroline, or Change - memorably produced in Toronto in 2012 by the Musical Stage Company and currently back on the West End in London.
Playwrights are Tesori's preferred partners because, she says, they are "masters of storytelling." "They don't subscribe to the forms or the rules - the negative way would be to say 'the formulas' - of musical theatre," she says. "They come from a place of language and behaviour and psychology as opposed to song structure."
Tesori was set to add Canadian playwright Hannah Moscovitch to her list of collaborators - but she had to drop out of their planned adaptation of Ann-Marie MacDonald's novel Fall on Your Knees last summer. The last time she was in Los Angeles - where she recently spoke to The Globe and Mail over the phone during a break from rehearsal for Soft Power - she had a cerebral hemorrhage, spent 10 days in the hospital and had to reluctantly leave a couple of projects. "I'm completely fine, but it was a really good lesson of looking at life," she says. (Over e-mail, Moscovitch says she's in talks with another composer about continuing the project.)
The world of theatre can often be all-encompassing, as Tesori's college-age daughter, Siena Rafter, is discovering right now, assistant-directing a revival of Children of a Lesser God on Broadway.
"My daughter's in previews right now, and she said, 'I don't know how you did it,' " says Tesori, who used to bring her daughter along when a show of hers was in all-day technical rehearsals. "It's been really great to not be the one in tech in our household." Fun Home runs from April 13 to May 6 at Toronto's CAA Theatre (mirvish.com).
Versatile composer Jeanine Tesori, the mind behind the music of Fun Home; Caroline, or Change; and Shrek: The Musical, is among the leading women behind the scenes on Broadway - a place still dominated by men.