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Jeanine Tesori Makes Music Without a Musical

Date: Dec 03, 2010


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There is a scene in John Guare’s epic play A Free Man of Color, now playing on Broadway at Lincoln Center Theater's Vivian Beaumont Theatre, where the character Margery speaks about the beauty of what makes New Orleans New Orleans. Jeanine Tesori wrote what she considered a very smart music cue for that scene, but when she tried to use it, it was too complicated. She ended up rewriting the moment for the piano, with just a touch of bagpipes and mandolin. Director George C. Wolfe told her that the new cue worked beautifully because Margery is the melody and Tesori is accompanying her.

“That’s a perfect representation of writing for a play,” Tesori says. “You basically write an evening of accompaniment as opposed to setting text and being both the star and the orchestra.”

Perhaps the most prominent female composer working in theatre today, Tesori is known for scoring musicals like Caroline, or Change (also directed by Wolfe),Thoroughly Modern Millie, and Shrekbut she has spent the time in between composing for films and plays. (In fact, her first of four Tony nominations was for Twelfth Night in 1999.)

Plays provide an ego check that Tesori appreciates. “In a musical, the music is so much the muscle of it and in a play the text is the muscle,” she says. “It’s about getting out of the way to service the work and not to call too much attention because it’s not a musical, and yet it’s a musical evening."

Another advantage of writing for a play is that it takes two or three months, as opposed to the four or five years usually required by a musical. “If you only write musicals, I think the danger is that you just can’t do that many,” Tesori says. “[On a play,] you get an experience, and it just doesn’t take that much time, but you get to be part of a process.”

She was drawn to A Free Man of Color partly because it let her work with Wolfe again, and partly because it's set in New Orleans in 1801, a historical period she didn't know.

To prepare for the project, Tesori did research this summer at the Library of Congress. She incorporated styles of music from all the cultures influencing New Orleans at the time—hand drumming from Africa as well as the more classical sounds of Europe and Saint-Domingue (now Haiti). “I was just trying to lay some of that groundwork so that people could just say with their ear that there are a lot of cultures who are meeting here. What’s going to happen when they combine and just lay on top of each other?”

At the same time, Tesori didn’t want her work to sound like a research project. Some of the music in A Free Man of Color  is anachronistic, but she wanted to “try and find an emotion, a way in, not be a slave to the history.”

There was a lot of trial and error during the four weeks of rehearsal, and she ended up with a lot of what she calls “extra pie crust," but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. She jokes, “I have enough material for a couple of more plays.”


Linda Buchwald blogs for StageGrade and her own blog, Pataphysical Science. Follow her on Twitter: @PataphysicalSci