Jeanine Tesori: Holding Center Stage
Every project that Jeanine Tesori has worked on—whether it’s a musical, an opera, incidental music for a play, or a soundtrack for a motion picture or an animated film—has a storyline. She claims she needs one to get started. But the storylines to which she’s been most attracted are about people who society has deemed not worthy of being protagonists which has been a hallmark of the five shows of hers thus far that have been produced on Broadway: Fun Home; Caroline, or Change; Violet; and even Thoroughly Modern Millie and Shrek The Musical.
Video presentations and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcription by Julia Lu
Having the opportunity to spend an hour talking with Jeanine Tesori is very hard to do these days. Having just finished working with Tazewell Thompson on Blue, an extremely timely opera about the aftermath of an African-American teenager being killed by the police which premieres next summer at Glimmerglass, she’s been on-call all week for Steven Spielberg’s new screen adaptation of Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story and, on the Saturday we did manage to catch up with her in her composing studio at New York City Center, she was about to fly to London where a new production of her 2004 musical Caroline, or Change is about to open that’s running in the West End through February 9. Following its run earlier this year in Los Angeles, a New York production is in the works for her latest musical Soft Power, a collaboration with David Henry Hwang that takes place 100 years in the future after China has become the dominant world power as a result of the 2016 American presidential election. Plus, she’s way behind starting work on her Metropolitan Opera commission.
“Everybody’s in the middle of a zillion things,” Tesori concedes as she recounts the extraordinary roller coaster ride that took her from being a disengaged piano student on Long Island to enrolling as a pre-med student at Columbia. But working for the Stagedoor Manor Performing Arts Training Center, a summer camp run by Cuban-born director Jack Romano, gave her the theater bug. And helping the late Buryl Red on over 100 recordings for music textbooks gave her grounding in practically every musical genre which subsequently informed the incidental music she created for the Lincoln Center Theatre production of Twelfth Night, several Hollywood film and animation scores, a series of operas, and the five musicals of hers that have been produced on Broadway thus far.
“Like everything else, it was the culmination of many, many years—having started playing the piano at three and knowing really early on that the piano was not for me,” she explains. “It turned out that the piano was a means to an end. But in those days, especially for a young girl, what was I going to do with the piano except play it? … My job felt like it was something else that I couldn’t figure out.”
It turns out, though, that all her detours inform her music and the projects she opts to work on. According to her, doing pre-med course work grounded her in design concepts that directly relate to creating a well-made musical. “You’re making a building, and you have to make sure that it’s sturdy. That’s what musicals are; they’re sturdy designs.”
But, it’s actually more than that. Her father, who was a physician who frequently opened the family home to patients who he felt were too sick to go to the hospital, gave her a sense of empathy that led her to be attracted to storylines about characters in need of healing in some way, whether it’s the protagonist of her first musical Violet, who hopes to have her face restored after a terrible injury; the deep psychological wounds of most of the principal characters in Caroline, or Change; or Alison in the 2015 Tony Award-winning Fun Home, who is trying to come to terms with the suicide of her closeted gay father. Even Millie in Thoroughly Modern Millie and Shrek in Shrek The Musical are outliers who are transformed over the course of the performance.
“The thing that always has interested me is the invisible person—the person who society has deemed not worthy of being the protagonist, someone not worthy of holding the center,” she explains.
But whatever it is she’s working on, she needs a storyline to get her started.
“It invades my brain!” she exclaims. “The beautiful thing about a narrative is you can find moments that are so surprising. … I did some choral work when I was just starting, and I will still do some things to learn, especially with orchestration, which I’m so slow at. I can hear it, but because I don’t do it all the time, particularly in an opera [situation], it’s very hard to go from what I hear to the page. It’s just painstaking. But I don’t hear music that’s not attached to a narrative or a picture or an image. I chased it for a little while, and then I thought, ‘You can’t do everything.’ That would be faking in some ways. It’s just not who I am. I think someone like Nico Muhly does it so beautifully and Missy Mazzoli and certainly Jennifer Higdon. But for me, that fell away pretty quickly.”
Frank J. Oteri: I know you’re in the middle of a zillion different projects, so thank you for taking the time to meet with us.
Jeanine Tesori: Oh, it’s my pleasure. Everybody’s in the middle of a zillion things. Even my mother, who’s 87. When I call her, she’s like, “I have so much to do.” The speed of life is pretty astonishing.
FJO: Well, as long as you mention speed, I’m hoping we can get through the last 20 years of your musical career, as well as your life before that, in about an hour!
JT: To the mat!
FJO: To attempt to do this, I’ve tried to find through lines to connect everything. At first, I tried to put things in two places: things you’ve done that have been really cutting edge and then other projects that are very much a part of the commercial marketplace. However, though a show like Shrek The Musical might seem like a very commercial vehicle, there are also things about it that are very experimental. Plus, there’s a clear message in it that subverts mainstream paradigms. Then, despite how innovative shows like Fun Home or Violet are, they both contain songs that could very well be Top 40 material. The closer I started examining all of your work, I found that almost all of it in some way pushes the envelope, but at the same time it also attempts to bring everybody along with it.
JT: That’s a very astute and succinct way of saying it. I think of it differently now. I think that’s true.
FJO: To some extent, the thing that got me thinking about all of this was a comment you made during an interview you did on cable TV almost 15 years ago with the theater critic Linda Winer.
FJO: You mentioned a music teacher that you had early on who introduced you to both Shostakovich and Carole King at around the same time. I thought that the juxtaposition of those two people was amazing and the more I reflected on that, I imagined that you’ve somehow found a way to kind of embrace the aesthetics of both of them in your own work.
JT: Well, I was learning in the ‘70s and that was such a great era for singer-songwriters; I still listen to them all the time. And I’ve learned from the people who’ve mentored me. I didn’t have many, but the through-line for me was to value music and to be curious about it. There was not an idea of “this music is better than that music.” There are just people who play and people who make music. You’re going back and forth with thinking artists who are questioning something. That’s the real fun of it. Not what they made. We might make this giant thing that just lands with a thud. And you have to pay the bills—no one ever discusses that. But when you chase the money, you don’t really end up having something that pays the bills. When you chase the art, that’s when you really find something that has legs. You can’t make a living, but you can make a killing, especially in theater. I’ve seen that happen a lot. But to really be a steady, serious artist who can make serious fun, or always be after something, that to me has been the great joy.
FJO: It’s a bit of a surprise that you wound up writing for the theater having had Shostakovich and Carole King as formative role models. Way later there was a jukebox musical made from Carole King’s songs, but that was decades after you were introduced to her music. And Shostakovich did in fact write a musical at some point in the ‘50s and also wrote two operas that are pretty incredible, as well as a bunch of film scores. But neither of them are thought of by most people as theater composers. So I’m curious about who your role models for musical theater were, and how musical theater came to be what you decided to focus on as a composer.
JT: I came to theater very, very late, because I came to music very, very early. When I look back and talk or teach (which is a way to learn), I think about the influence of Kabalevsky, Stravinsky, and Bartók, their joy in the national and their pride, and, for me, the beat. I think Bach is super groovy. I don’t think that we think of his pieces all the time as being groovy. But they are. And when you hear them beautifully played with a sense of deep time, you realize the beauty of that.
[Loud sounds of talking in the hallway.]
FJO: Are the sounds outside getting picked up on our microphone?
MS: It’s ambience.
JT: You know, the thing about City Center I love is that we all know each other. We share this space. This was a supply room. I completely re-did it. The bones and the ghosts here—Martha Graham and Paul Taylor, Bernstein, and The Show of Shows. There was the most amazing plaque outside. When they did the major renovation, I think it was 15 or 20 years ago, they removed it. There was a walled off room here and everything was intact. The pads were there; they just had sealed it. It was the writer’s room. It was for Sid Caesar’s The Show of Shows. So I love this building. I know all the doormen. I can go backstage and up to the ninth floor. One of the things that artists have such a hard time with is finding a home, especially theater artists, but I think of us as the broken toys from the Land of Discarded Objects. Joe Papp did it. George Wolfe did it. Oscar Eustis is doing it. That for me is really City Center. You get grounded, then you have the freedom of the ultimate plié; you can go higher, deeper when you feel like you’re on solid ground. When I’m feeling nomadic, and that I don’t have a basis, I can’t write. I certainly can’t re-write if I don’t have that. It’s sort of like tonality in a way for me. You have a sort of center. But it does come with noise.
What I was saying before was there is a beautiful way to not be so myopic about music. Everyone that I have really loved has had a very wide scope. Look at Bernstein and what he was after or Kurt Weill, who’s a beautiful, beautiful artist and influenced Shostakovich. Someone like Carole King, who crossed over from being this songwriter in the Brill Building to going out on her own—you can feel that on Tapestry in every song; you can feel the narrative of the life story inside the album. That’s what I love about those artists. Even if they’re not telling a story, they’re telling their story. And that’s why [Carole King’s songs] make a musical that has real legs.
FJO: You’re inspired by these artists who’ve done so many different things, and in your career you’ve done Broadway musicals, you’ve written operas, you’ve written film scores and incidental music for theater, as well as music for cartoon movies that are wonderful. Are there also hidden away somewhere some choral pieces or a string quartet? Is there anything you’ve composed that doesn’t have a narrative to get the impetus going forward?
JT: Well, I did some choral work when I was just starting, and I will still do some things to learn, especially with orchestration, which I’m so slow at. I can hear it, but because I don’t do it all the time, particularly in an opera [situation], it’s very hard to go from what I hear to the page. It’s just painstaking. But I don’t hear music that’s not attached to a narrative or a picture or an image. I chased it for a little while, and then I thought, “You can’t do everything.” That would be faking in some ways. It’s just not who I am. I think someone like Nico Muhly does it so beautifully and Missy Mazzoli and certainly Jennifer Higdon. But for me, that fell away pretty quickly.
FJO: But when you have a story, when there’s something that gets you going, then you can be inspired.
JT: It invades my brain! The beautiful thing about a narrative is you can find moments that are so surprising. When you work in opera and film and theater, even animation—the thing about animation is it makes you really think in an animatic way. They put things up on the board that go by in the blink of an eye, so you remember the labor. Animators are some of my favorite human beings. They’re just incredible people. I was at Disney when the Pen and Ink Building was still up and running, and I worked with those animators. It was before there was so much CG work, so they would do flip books. The attention to detail in the way an eyebrow went up is a great lesson in patience. It reminds me of when I saw the Nancarrow player piano pieces—how many hours he worked for just three seconds of music. It’s so glorious. And you can feel it. You can feel the investment and the labor as those crazy passages go by on the player piano. And I think that’s like what animators do.
It’s why I write in pencil. And people scoff at it. It’s so old school. Well, fuck it, it’s who I am! I will never change. Certainly the world is digital enough. It’s not like I’m in the Stone Age. When you have to write something down really carefully in pencil, even if it’s on a digital template, it makes you go slowly. It makes you go slower than thought, and that for me is really important.
FJO: I’d like to learn more about the chain of events that got you interested in writing theater music. Was it seeing a show for the first time or seeing several shows and wanting to write one yourself or thinking that there were stories that weren’t being told in what you saw that you wanted to tell?
JT: Often the penny drop moment for me feels like it was just that moment, but like everything else, it was the culmination of many, many years of having started playing the piano at three and knowing really early on that the piano was not for me, even though I played it all the time. I practiced, but I was a bad practicer. I got away with it. I sight read through all my lessons and fooled everybody.
For me, sitting with a piano for five or six hours was not about making sound. It turned out that the piano was a means to an end. But in those days, especially for a young girl, what was I going to do with the piano except play it? I was on Long Island. But I didn’t know, nor did my parents, even though my grandfather had been a composer who died really young, that you could do anything with the piano except play it. It didn’t stand for an orchestra. It was about the instrument. It was a well-tempered instrument that wasn’t there for anything else. You have this talent, so play the piano. And so I did, until I didn’t. After I stopped with this teacher that I loved, I went on with other teachers who were serious and I had a miserable time. They didn’t enjoy me, and I didn’t enjoy them because I was after something else that I couldn’t name, and it wasn’t on the piano. I played well, but I was never going to be great. Ever. So I let that go. It wasn’t whiplash, but I hated them. And they hated me right back, because their job was to make me a great pianist and my job felt like it was something else that I couldn’t figure out.
FJO: Now this is so interesting. I don’t know about your grandfather. Tell me more about him.
JT: He’s right there [points to photo on the wall]. His name was Dominic Venta. He was from Sinello in Sicily. He studied viola and piano. He came to this country in 1926, I think. Maybe a little bit earlier. He went right from Ellis Island to Wisconsin. Not a lot of people know that there was a Midwestern route; you got off Ellis Island, then you’d go to Wisconsin. I have his baton and his music stand—which is quite beautiful—and some of his arrangements. He eventually ended up going back to Italy to get a bride and came back to Wilkes-Barre and died there pumping gas. Got pneumonia.
FJO: So you never met him.
JT: No, he died when my mom was five. So she barely knew him.
FJO: But it was a story in the family, so somehow you had a connection to someone who was a composer in a different way than most people do.
JT: It would bubble up every now and then, but it didn’t come up for me until much later when I realized that pull. I was like, “Oh, there’s a pull.” You just feel it. I was a pre-med [student], which I got a lot out of because any kind of narrative for me is about design. You’re making a building, and you have to make sure that it’s sturdy. That’s what musicals are; they’re sturdy designs. You just don’t know where the doors and the windows are, but you better have them. When I left that, I happened to get a summer job at a theater camp. I studied and learned from and worked for Jack Romano, a hilarious, gigantic gay Cuban director whom I just adored. He was adored by so many of us. And that was it. I remember going to this little barn theater and thinking, “It’s here.” I didn’t understand why. I already had these skills—the combination of storytelling and music. I had to get better at them, but they came very naturally to me.
FJO: It’s interesting to hear you talk about the impact your pre-med studies had on you. I did know that you pursued that for a while, but I didn’t draw a connection between it and what you do now. I didn’t know that your grandfather was a composer, but I knew that your father was a doctor, so I had just assumed that you were following in your father’s footsteps. But now that I know about your grandfather, I imagine it wasn’t the weirdest thing for your family that this is what you wound up doing.
JT: My father was very, very strict. But he loved the pursuit of excellence. We butted heads, but he was relentless about finishing what you’ve started—being after something and seeing it through. That kind of discipline I definitely saw and got from him. He was very old school. His office was in our home. So some patients would stay in our rooms, if he felt that they were too sick to go to the hospital. He always said, “The hospital would kill them; I have to watch over them.” It was not a big deal. We would go downstairs and sleep on the couch. That’s what you do. It was a value system that we learned.
So when I left that pre-med mindset and went to music, my father was like, “Well, what are you going to do?” And I thought, “I have no idea.” “Well, you should definitely take some music education classes.” And I said, “Absolutely not.” And he looked at me. I remember I was 19. And I said, “If I get music education under my belt, I’m afraid that I’ll use it. I want no net.” And I think there was something about the way I said it that just shut him up. It was so bizarre. He was a very intrepid, scary person. But I think it was just something that occurred to me. Why would I be a music teacher? Now I value teaching very much, but then it seemed to me that I didn’t know anything. What would I have to teach? So that would be complete crap for me.
FJO: Interestingly though, from what you’re telling me and what I’m piecing together from it, the experience with the patients in your home, and the empathy and morality that led to that, has a definite connection with the shows you’ve chosen to work on. All of them are about outsiders who are trying to find their way in, who are bruised by the system in various ways. Whether it’s Millie wanting to come to New York and find a life here and the troubles she has doing so, or Shrek who is an ogre who is teased by just about everyone else he meets, or the much more complex relationships of Caroline with the young son in the family she works for as well as her own daughter in Caroline, or Change, or Violet trying to heal her facial scars in Violet, or Fun Home, where the father is secretly gay and his daughter is trying to process this as she’s discovering she is a lesbian. Every one of these shows features a protagonist who goes through a transformation, and there’s a kind of caregiving that you have given these characters and hopefully also to the people in the audience who experience this work.
JT: It’s inherent in the pursuit in musicals that it’s transformative. The thing that always has interested me is the invisible person—the person who society has deemed not worthy of being the protagonist, someone not worthy of holding the center. Caroline had a tough go in 2004. That was before Obama. It’s opening in the West End in a couple of weeks. When you see it now, when the daughter of a maid in 1963 topples a confederate statue, it plays very differently.
The musical I’m writing now is also about someone who you just don’t usually hear from, especially at the center of a musical. But no matter what, musicals are really hard to write. They’re very hard to get right because there are so many variables. When anyone poo-poos them, try writing one. They’re really hard. But the idea that someone holds center stage who you didn’t think about at the center of life—or even paid attention to—has always interested me.
FJO: Now what’s interesting about that is you’re not the writer of the drama or even the lyrics; you’re the composer. So people come to you with these ideas. For your recent show with David Henry Hwang, you’ve written some of the lyrics but, as far as I know, that’s the first time you’ve done that. So other people have these ideas, and you’re attracted to them, and then there’s this collaboration that happens. Each of the five shows of yours that have been on Broadway so far have been a collaboration with a different librettist and David Henry Hwang is a sixth collaborator. So you have not had an extensive ongoing collaborative relationship with anybody thus far, except to some extent with Tony Kushner since you worked on a few other projects with him besides Caroline.
JT: For sure. We’ve done three things together. And I’m working with him now on something. But David Lindsay-Abaire [who wrote the book and lyrics for Shrek The Musical] and I are also writing something right now. I love playwrights. I am very interested and curious about dramaturgy. One of the reasons why we have a partnership is the playwright and I will come in and we break the story together. I write dummy lyrics, then they change them, maybe a line lives on but I would never take credit for that. It’s about going back and forth. I’m just not one of the composers for whom someone sends lyrics and I set them. It’s never how I’ve worked.
FJO: So sometimes the music exists first with the dummy lyric, and then a new lyric comes.
JT: It’s more that we will sit and break the outline together. And then we’ll talk about song spotting. I really enjoy the way that songs can come at you in a way that you didn’t expect, what Bernstein calls the violation of the expectation. Doing that with the AABA form is challenging because there’s an expectation, the perfect rhyme. How are you going to rhyme? How is this song going to arrive? Why is this song here? It’s based on artifice. How can we make it feel inevitable? What’s the rhythm within the act, within the scene, between the acts? That’s the part of it I really love.
FJO: In terms of structures, certainly the songs you wrote for Thoroughly Modern Millie are based on tropes of ‘20s music.
FJO: And they’re very convincing. Shrek also has clearly delineated musical units that seem modeled after pop songs. But a show like Fun Home does something totally different, even though it too clearly has stand-apart songs like “Changing My Major” and “Ring of Keys.” But despite that, most of the time, the songs just suddenly emerge seamlessly out of the drama. Sometimes they’re just fragments. They’re definitely not AABA. And they’re so integral to the drama, the way that music is in opera, but it is also clearly not an opera. So now it makes sense that you were involved in breaking the story from the very beginning.
JT: I’m not interested in being not; that’s the reason that I do it. The marriage [of words and music] has to be seamless for me. That’s what I want. As Toni Morrison said—I think it was her—write the thing you want to see. I’ve always loved musicals where you forget they’re singing, yet you completely know they’re singing. There’s an abstraction in music, then there’s the concrete in language. There’s the other when you put them together and when you keep the metaphor constantly forward, guiding everything. It gets to a point where the show itself tells you what it should have. That’s the real fun part. The not so fun part of a show is starting, because I don’t know what it is. We’re all beginners. Eventually it becomes its own thing. It’s like, “Oh, you know what it needs there? It needs this.” And then you give it that. That’s when it gets really enjoyable; before that it’s complete drudgery for me.
FJO: So with each of these projects, did people come to you? How were each of them initiated?
JT: They’re all different. For Soft Power, David definitely came to me because he had asked me to come teach at Columbia, and out of that conversation he said, “I’m doing this really strange show that’s about looking at The King and I from an Eastern point of view.” I thought that was a really great idea and then we just started working on it. There’s another thing I’m working on with David which hasn’t been announced yet, so I can’t use the title. But it’s wonderful to go back into a play and because it’s a young play, there’s a porousness. It’s like a pumice stone for music. Things that are running on Broadway have legs, and they’ll go on, but you sit there and you think music has nothing to do with this story. Nothing. It doesn’t deepen it. It doesn’t make it go forward. For me, it’s simply like putting more mayo on the sandwich. Who doesn’t want more mayo? But it’s just not the kind of thing that I gravitate towards.
FJO: Shows like Violet or Caroline are both not typical story lines for musicals and both have so much music in them. I know that with Violet, you read the short story that it was based on and then immediately wanted to turn it into a musical and spent a year locked away writing it.
FJO: But how did Caroline happen?
JT: Tony Kushner came to me. We were working on another project. He had already sent [the idea for Caroline] to me before; it was beautifully concise and single spaced, but I didn’t know him and I didn’t want to do it because I felt there wasn’t any room. I didn’t get it. I got the story, but I thought it was a play. Then we started working on something else. When we got to know each other, he said, “You know, what I sent you was not finite. That was just the beginning of something.”
I said there was no ritornello, no sense of repetition. There’s nothing for the ear to settle on. I enjoy recitative a lot. I mean, I love Janacek; the way that he sets language to me is the ultimate. But I didn’t get it. So then he said, “Let’s revisit it.” And we did. That’s when I realized how Tony works: he never stops working! The fun of that was going in and saying this is just an A dangling like one earring on an ear lobe. There’s nothing else. So we have to start with some kind of idea of what we’re doing with the form. I don’t want to bust form to just bust form. I want to understand. So we just started going inside the piece, and writing here, and writing there, and then just strung the pearls all together. I’m very proud of what we came up with. It was not that the idea and the characters were absolutely on the page, but the way that we got there was that we got there together.
FJO: And with Fun Home?
JT: Lisa Kron brought that to me. I read the graphic novel and I thought, again, this is a great idea. But it’s going to be hell because the way that it is organized is as a labyrinth. When something’s non-linear, what’s the causality of it? If it’s not going to be in time, what makes something go forward? How does memory work? Where is it going to trigger and why would it not trigger? Why is “Ring of Keys” [song number] eight and not number four? Why is this here? Why is that there? It was really excruciating because you don’t have a guiding, organizing principal. You have to wait for it. So we were writing and writing into the mess, and then out of that, working with a director, we realized that it goes like this and that’s the car ride.
The past and the future that they’re going to together is the car ride where she gets pulled into the narrative. But we didn’t plan that. I always knew I wanted her pulled into the narrative that she popped back in. That she starts outside of it, and she draws the truth to such an extent with such precision, and she does it at 43, because her craft has caught up to her ambition. And she gets pulled into it so she’s there with him. So it’s that idea of how you re-live what you think happened, and when you really go back, you find out what truly went on, when they say more tears are shed over answered prayers. While that’s true, she also is not tethered any more to the weight of that. She lets herself go at the end; the idea of flying away is the first thing, because I noticed it right away. The first image in that graphic novel is her father lifting her up as an airplane. Lisa and I would go back and forth about what it means to be held up by your parent, which is the greatest metaphor, and then to be released which is also betrayal. In a way, you have to betray your parents. I betrayed mine by saying, “I’m not doing that; I’m doing this.”
FJO: Strangely as I hear you talk about it, I hear a connection with Violet because Violet also operates on multiple layers of time, dealing with the past and the present and the layers in between them.
JT: For sure. And I keep writing the father-daughter story. That’s just what it is. I just keep writing it in different ways.
FJO: Well that leads to another thing I’m curious about. You grew up in Long Island and you’re basically a New York City person. Shrek is an anomaly, because it takes place in a fantasy world. All these other shows, though, are all American shows, but they’re not really New York shows except for Thoroughly Modern Millie which takes place in New York City, even though it’s about a protagonist who comes here from somewhere else and then there’s all this intrigue with Chinese kidnappers. But two of the shows, Violet and Caroline, are set in the Deep South and Fun Home takes place in rural Pennsylvania. These are not your experiences at all. So how do these stories become your stories? How do you find the empathy to create music for these characters? The material you created for Violet and Caroline includes a lot of country music, blues, and gospel. I imagine that you didn’t grow up listening to that stuff, yet it’s completely convincing.
JT: Well, I did go to Nashville. A lot of people don’t know, because I don’t really talk about it. And my mentor, whom I met when I was 24, was from Arkansas, but also studied with Elliott Carter at Yale.
FJO: Buryl Red?
JT: Mhmm. He had an apartment in Nashville and produced so much work there with all those session guys, but also with the symphony and folk people. I did thousands of hours in the studio. I was in the booth behind the board producing when I was 25. And for at least 15 years, I would regularly go down there, so I had that in my ear and, I think, just growing up as a rhythm player, along with being a classical player, I got it right away. And I love gospel music. I think that just happened from listening. I also did so much world music. We did a hundred CDs of different kinds of music.
FJO: A hundred CDs. What was this?
JT: Back in the day, Silver Burdett and McMillan would produce material for education; we did all live sessions. So if we did gospel, we did it with a gospel choir. And if we did anything symphonic, we recorded with the Nashville Symphony. And if we did Broadway stuff, we did it all live. We also did a lot of MIDI work, because at that point, the mid-’80s into the ‘90s, it was all MIDI and emulators and Kurzweils and all those keyboards. Then, like everything else, it came back around to being more acoustic. I rarely use any keyboards. It started with Millie. No keyboards in the pit. Real instruments playing real stuff, unless its pads or organ or celeste. I just made that decision a long time ago.
FJO: But you don’t usually orchestrate your shows. Right?
JT: No, but I write piano parts that are looking forward to the orchestration. They don’t always sound great in the room, as you know on a well-tempered instrument, you play bong and it goes away, so you have to say to the pianist, “Okay, trem [demonstrates tremolo] because that’s going to be a cello, so just keep playing it. It’s fine.” A lot of theater composers are pianists, and it’s too much. Everything is arppegiated—tika-tika-tika-tika. I can still hear Buryl saying, “What’s going to play that?” It drove him crazy, because you have to think about the orchestra, even if it’s rhythm. If that’s guitar, what key is that going to be in? Are they going to capo? What’s eventually going to play all this stuff? Or it’s just going to all be piano.
FJO: So in terms of all the world music stuff you recorded, these were created for music classes?
JT: Music schools. Music textbooks. Everything was authentic. When we did Chinese music, we would hire pipa players. I hired people right out of the subway sometimes to just come and do a session.
FJO: And I guess where that’s played out really overtly in your own work is in the incidental music for the Lincoln Center Theater production Twelfth Night, which you wrote prior to having a musical on Broadway.
JT: For sure.
FJO: Once again, this score is filled with dualities. On the one hand, you’ve set some of Shakespeare’s words in a way that comes close to sounding like pop music, albeit indie pop music, but then you also included a daxophone in the ensemble. How on earth did you discover the daxophone?
JT: When I was doing Twelfth Night and trying to find my way in, I was really interested in people who were making their own instruments. Nick Hytner said, “I want you to think of this as a movie; it’s going to be an hour of music.” I had three weeks to do it. I had a new baby. My daughter was ten-months old. And I thought, “Well, how are we going to do this?” And he didn’t want it miked. There’s ambient miking at Lincoln Center. So I thought: Okay, everything’s not miked. Great. So how do we make it modern? What is the musical equivalent of Illyria?
Then I met Mark Stewart, the greatest musician, and I went to his studio. I don’t even remember how I met Mark—oh, I know, I was finding a lot of people who play at least eight instruments because everybody in that played about eight instruments, between percussion and temple bowls. They would all travel. They were all doing pit stuff. So I went to his studio and he had 150 instruments, some that he had just made, whirlygigs and so on. We spent the whole day there, just discovering all these things, and then he said, “I have one of three daxophones.” And then he played it for me, and I thought, “Okay, well that’s going to be the North Star, because it’s wood, but it’s electric. That’s Illyria to me. That’s the center.” Then everything else came out of that, like the temple bowls when you have eight people playing them. First of all, it calmed down the musicians, because you can’t make sound unless you’re calm. And it sounds like a synth. But when you watch it, it’s not a synth. So they entered playing the temple bowls. It ate up a lot of time, because there was 20 minutes of music before it even started. So that’s what hit your ear. Also the harmonium, which I love. Slowly these ideas started coming in. They also had to be light on their feet. Everybody traveled. I hired the musician who’d done The Garden of Earthly Delights for Martha Clarke, which was a definitive piece for me. Richard Peaslee. I loved his work!
FJO: So you’ve now written several operas, none of which I’ve heard yet, though I’d love to. But for me, a show like Caroline, or Change is an opera. And Violet is also an opera. For you, is there a difference between a musical and an opera?
JT: There are some obvious differences beyond writing for the classical voice, which is really different, and what’s required for the operatic aesthetic. When they have to sing over a 50 to 100-piece orchestra, what they need is really different. And the orchestra, of course, is different. We never have 48-piece orchestras in theater. So you don’t get to think about that. Soft Power has 24 pieces, and that was the producers, thank God. I just said, “I won’t do it unless it’s this.” Because that is the sound. It was fine to say no; I wasn’t whining about it. I was just saying that it won’t be what I think it should be. So if I can’t have that, that’s fine; then I don’t want to do it, because I can’t do it. But I got it! It wasn’t just about hiring more musicians, which of course is what I think, but that is a requirement if you want to evoke the Golden Age of musical theater. It was at least 30 pieces. So that’s what it is. You have to have a string section, or you don’t get the sound.
Also, in opera, I can really write dissonance as I hear it. That’s really freeing. I can tackle the tessitura very differently. That’s very freeing and scary because there are no excuses in that way. I just finished Blue, the one that’s going to be at Glimmerglass and then the WNO—the premiere is in July—and it’s about police criminality. Francesca Zambello said, “I want you to do another commission; I want it to be something political that you care about.” So it’s ten people and all are opera singers of color. And it’s original. Tazewell Thompson has become a really, really dear friend of mine. It was his first libretto. His experiences as a black gay man in America really broke my heart. I’ve gone all around the United States with something called Breaking Glass about looking at the European tradition of opera and the racial divide with a scholar, Naomi André who teaches at University of Michigan, and it just cracked the world open. I was the only person not of color on the panels. It was great to have to just shut up and listen and learn; it’s really changed me.
But I can’t say I have many [operas] left in me. They’re really hard. It feels like they are five musicals in one opera. They’re hard. You’re in control of everything. And every moment is musical. I’m going to do one more, and then I think that’s it.
FJO: But just about every moment of Violet is musical, too.
JT: But you have a partner in the spoken text. Even in Caroline, where it’s all told through song, I’m not in charge. In opera, the orchestra is so much a part of the storytelling, in the moments of omniscience. It’s not true in musicals; in the Golden Age musical more so, but there is not the sense of breathing where the theme takes over. It’s not powered by music in the way I find opera really is.
FJO: One thing that you said that I’d love to probe deeper is that you feel free to write as dissonantly as you want when you’re writing opera.
FJO: Of all the shows you’ve done that have been on Broadway thus far—there have now been five—only one of them actually originated on Broadway, which was Shrek, which was based on a major Disney motion picture and had Disney’s fortunes behind it. But the others all began off-Broadway or in workshops, because they’re all pretty experimental in some ways.
FJO: Some people claim that Broadway is risk-averse. You can’t do this. You can’t do that. But I think that Violet, Caroline, and Fun Home are all incredibly risky dramatically. And they’ve all been on Broadway. The first thing I thought when I saw Fun Home was that it’s blowing my mind that this is on Broadway and that it even won Tony Awards, even though it’s dealing with suicide and with LGBTQ issues, all this stuff that we’re starting to talk about a lot more as a society now, but not yet on Broadway.
FJO: But since you brought up being able to write dissonant music for opera and you’ve already taken lots of risks with the subjects of your shows that have been on Broadway, it begs the question of whether it would be possible to write really dissonant music for something on Broadway. How would you get away with it?
JT: It’s a great question. There’s cognitive dissonance, which is what I think Fun Home was, which you’re saying, “How is this on Broadway?” Then you look at Angels in America; how is this on Broadway? Well, it’s on Broadway because it’s magnificent. The pressure I felt for Fun Home is that it had to be great. There was no getting away with it not being great with that idea and that book. And you’re dealing with a family, putting them onstage when they’re most vulnerable, and having a really a butch woman at the center when there are not many protagonists like that.
It’s like what my friends of color will say, “As the only black person in the room, I always feel I represent my whole race because there’s not a lot of us. We’re black voices in white spaces.” So there’s going to be an LGBTQ voice in the hetero space. And because it’s non-fiction—well, we made up stuff by collapsing truth. Allison [Bechtel] at one point said, “Gosh, that didn’t happen, but it could have happened.” And I thought, “Okay, we’re good. We’re on fertile ground there.”
So the dissonance can be from pushing that way. As for the kind of dissonance for your ear, the expectation when I go into the Palace Theater is I’m not expecting to hear that challenge of atonality or pulling from the tonal center. I think it’s asking a lot. Would I love that? Yes. I would love, for instance, for this opera that we’re doing to be on Broadway. Kurt Weill wrote beautiful controlled dissonance. But the expectation when you go to see a Broadway show is that’s not what it’s going to be. Could it be? Maybe.
FJO: Another example of the cognitive dissonance of Fun Home is that now there are so many different versions online of people singing one of the songs from it, “Changing My Major.” You’ve essentially created a modern Broadway standard, but it’s about coming out as a lesbian and it’s very explicit.
FJO: But again it’s not a musical dissonance, although you worked some wonderful modulations into it. You create a musical metaphor for changing majors by actually suddenly changing keys.
FJO: It’s actually quite sophisticated harmonically. As far as pushing the envelope goes musically, Mary Rodgers and Frank Loesser both wrote songs in 5/4 for Broadway, but I can’t think of anything that’s actually completely atonal, even though Bernstein worked a 12-tone row into West Side Story.
JT: Well, you know, Stephen Sondheim is a master of tension. I can hear what he learned from Milton Babbitt. Yet I don’t think he’s ever aspired to write opera from what I understand. I think Michael John LaChiusa has done it and Kurt Weill. If Nico Muhly were to write a musical, that would be beautiful; I would want to see it. But I do wonder, when we talk about ear training, that thing about the overtone series, is that if it’s very far from those intervals that you have up front, it’s a question of willingness. In terms of going away from the major and minor triad, how far can we push people? It’s a really good question. I don’t know.
FJO: But why do you feel you can push them in that direction in an opera house where most of the people in the audience are used to hearing Puccini?
JT: Yes, but then if you look inside the repertoire and the idea of classical music in the early 20th century and where it came from in terms of the tradition, it just hasn’t happened in musical theater, not that I can really think of, past Stephen Sondheim, off the top of my head, even looking at what’s running on Broadway today. To do a major 7th, it better be part of a major 7th chord. I can’t think of it, except for Bernstein honestly.
FJO: You said you might have one more opera in you.
JT: One more. I have one more.
FJO: And that would be the Metropolitan Opera commission.
JT: That’s it. And then there’s no more.
FJO: Have you given that any thought yet?
JT: Oh, I’m starting in March. I have to start, because I’m late. I had a cerebral hemorrhage last July, a year and change ago—really spontaneous, out of the blue, playing an A-flat chord, teaching new music. I’ll never feel the same about A-flat. It turned out that I was fine, but I didn’t know that for quite a while and I got really behind on everything. Because I had to not only take time off, but I had to really slow down until I just got my energy back from being in the hospital, from being in the ICU. So I had to let go of certain projects and then I just got really behind. I finished Blue, and I’m starting Grounded in March.
It’s based on a play by George Brant. It’s a play I really love. Paul Cremo, whom I’ve known for quite a while, said, “Come down. I’m going to see this play called Grounded at Arena Stage.” It’s a beautiful little theater in D.C. I saw it and I immediately thought it would be a great opera—one female voice in a sea of men. How I feel all the time in music! So then I asked Peter Gelb if I could have the Met stage, if there was a time when the union would be okay with us bringing the actress who plays the pilot—or one of them, it’s been done everywhere—to just do 15 minutes of the play so I could hear it in the space. And she did and it was astonishing in the proscenium of that giant, giant space—one woman talking about the endless sky. So I just thought, this would be great. And now I have to do it, unfortunately.
FJO: Or fortunately for all of us.
JT: I hope.
FJO: I’d like to talk with you a bit more about Soft Power. At this point I’ve only seen trailers for it, but the whole idea really blew my mind. At some point, I remember someone telling me that after the 2016 election you were so worked up that you weren’t going to work on music for a while and instead become more politically active and help to mobilize people. But with this project, you’ve found a way to do it through art, through this collaboration with David Henry Hwang.
JT: Completely. 1000%. It’s also interesting, because that’s what I was working on when I went to the hospital. Again, there was a room filled with people of color, and then me and a couple other people. Writing for the Asian American community, I was really amazed at my ignorance, hearing one actress say that to play herself in musical theater—not color blind casting, but to play an Asian American—was to bow or spread her legs. There are now some really wonderful pieces, Allegiance being one of them, and there are going to be more to come. But she felt as an actor, what was available to her was to be a whore or someone without power. That really hit me. Well, it didn’t hit me because it didn’t have to hit me. That’s when I thought I really want to understand the idea of feeling like the perpetual foreigner. Then that hate crime happened when David was stabbed in the neck right after the election.
After the election, I’d been running around, doing all of this volunteering and all of this teaching up at Columbia Law School. And I took a course there. I was working with those students, and I think I just got so damaged and run down that I got sick. And I thought, “I’m going to let all of that stuff go. There are other people that do it better. I’m going to focus on writing things that I think will have hopefully some impact—addressing something and putting it into the repertoire.” I don’t know that, but for me the hope is always that it goes into the repertoire and can be done again. I thought that that’s got to be my job. That’s what I’m going to take really seriously.
FJO: Is Soft Power eventually coming to Broadway?
JT: I don’t know if it would ever come to Broadway, but we’re working on bringing it to New York.
FJO: Why wouldn’t it ever come to Broadway?
JT: You know, ever since Caroline lost the Tony Award for best score, and it lost to something by people I love, I thought, “I’m going to never take Broadway as the end game ever.” Of course, I want to be there because it gets attention on a national and international stage, unlike off-Broadway. But I know too much about what it takes to not only get there, but what it takes to stay there. It’s really hard when 63% of your audience are tourists. The fact that Fun Home made money and recouped was a big, big deal. We needed that Tony Award for Best Musical, because for some people that was their way in. That was their entry point: I just want to buy a ticket to the thing that won. So we got a different kind of audience after that, and that was really interesting. It’s such a push-pull, with the idea of how you sell your work, and how you keep those doors open. The idea is to have something not only open, but to run. Those are two really different things. Challenge them, but it has to be compelling.