Jeanine Tesori: Busy Composer Enjoys Working a Bit Off-Center

Tesori works up a trio of decidedly different projects even as she serves as an Encores a.d.

Jeanine Tesori
Fernando Leon/Getty Images

Jeanine Tesori has a lot to celebrate this holiday season.

The composer of musicals including “Thoroughly Modern Millie” and “Caroline, or Change” will follow up the popular and critical success of her latest tuner, Off Broadway’s “Fun Home,” with a spring Broadway production of her first musical, “Violet.” And her new all-ages opera “The Lion, the Unicorn and Me” just started its world premiere run at D.C.’s Washington National Opera.

It’s all part of what’s turned into a whirlwind period for the composer, who penned the music for DreamWorks Theatrical’s 2008 musical “Shrek the Musical” as well as tunes for a handful of animated pics.

“Violet,” first produced at Off Broadway’s Playwrights Horizons in 1997, lands on the Main Stem in the wake of a successful one-night-only concert presentation in July that starred Sutton Foster, the actress who won a 2002 Tony for her star turn in Tesori’s “Thoroughly Modern Millie.” Foster will reprise her role for the Broadway version of “Violet,” which will be produced by Roundabout Theater Company along with a team of commercial backers that includes Amy Sherman-Palladino, creator of the Foster-toplined ABC Family skein “Bunheads.”

“Violet,” based on Doris Betts’ story about a disfigured woman’s journey to visit a faith healer she hopes will make her beautiful, was retooled and trimmed to make it a one-act for the City Center production. Those changes will be retained and honed for the Broadway staging.

The musical was presented over the summer as part of the Encores! Off-Center series dedicated to revisiting smaller Off Broadway tuners — a program of which Tesori is the newly minted artistic director. It was producer Stacey Mindich, a sponsor of Off-Center, who suggested “Violet” for the series, and pushed Tesori to get over her hesitation about programming her own work; in turn, the composer says she’s enjoyed revisiting and streamlining a show that has fresh resonance today. “Back in the ’90s, there weren’t things like Botox, not in the way there is today,” Tesori says. “Now there’s this concept that you can ‘fix’ beauty, and it really resonates with the piece.”

Tesori wrote “Violet” in the early 1990s on a 10-month sabbatical from her career as a “sideman” and a Broadway conductor and arranger, holing up in a Westport, N.Y., lighthouse — “I set up a Walden for myself” — to see if she could find the discipline and inspiration to write a musical. She did.

Now, as “Violet” gears up for its new production, the creators of “Fun Home” — playing to packed houses at Off Broadway’s Public Theater — and a team of producers are huddling to figure out a next step for the tuner co-written by book writer-lyricist Lisa Kron and based on the Alison Bechdel graphic memoir about a lesbian cartoonist re-examining her life. The musical won stellar notices from critics in the fall, and recently extended at the Public for the fourth time (to Jan. 12).

Tesori and Kron have been working on the musical for five years, a process that started with the composer reading the graphic novel and recognizing musical potential in the story of a family’s imperfections suppressed against the “Brady Bunch AstroTurf” of the 1970s setting. But figuring it all out for the stage was still a struggle: “The first thing I thought was, ‘I know that it sings, but I don’t know how it sings,’” she recalls.

The success of the piece comes as a gratifying reward for a tough creative endeavor that saw Tesori and Kron wrestling with the adaptation while keeping in mind the graphic novel’s living author and, in many cases, its living subjects.

“It was a real hornet’s nest,” she says. “I’m the better for it. But I’m also the grayer for it.”