This is the mystery of Jeanine Tesori — of any composer for the theater, really. Where does the music come from, and how does it work its magic? A nonverbal language with the power to move us, sometimes literally, music can be wed to words and characters in ways that feel definitive, clarifying. As Lindsay-Abaire put it: “I don’t know if pure is the right word, but something less diluted. You hear the characters’ emotions and know what’s going on inside those heads and hearts,” dramatic content that in nonmusical plays “you rely on the actors to communicate.”
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George Brant, with whom Tesori is adapting his play about a female drone pilot, “Grounded,” for the Metropolitan Opera, said that Tesori is “able to get at the guts of the piece and transform it into something that still feels like itself, but more.”
The question of music’s storytelling potency is sharpened in Tesori’s case because, unlike Sondheim or many of her generational peers (Jason Robert Brown, Michael John LaChiusa, Adam Guettel), she doesn’t write lyrics. Instead, she has worked with playwrights to shape not only her show’s scripts but bracingly original songs as well, in idioms and character voices as wide-ranging as the musical genres she references.
Looking at her list of collaborators, Lin-Manuel Miranda said: “It’s as if she’s made it a mission to bring every serious dramatist to swim in the musical theater pool. But the other side of that is she’s bending their skills to our art form, and innovating our art form with every at bat.
“It’s how you know she’s the best,” he added “because she works with the best and makes them sing.”
It’s not as if she has a cookie-cutter style, though. As Lindsay-Abaire said, “The fact that the lyrics are all so different — that Tony’s are Tony’s, Lisa’s are Lisa’s, mine are mine, is a testament to Jeanine embracing her collaborators and our voices. It’s not like: This is how Jeanine teaches all these playwrights to write lyrics.”
For her part, Tesori — who recently turned 60 but retains a youthful bonhomie, with “Fun Home” wallpaper patterns tattooed on her forearm — has a firm grip on what her strengths are.
“I’m not a lyricist at all, but I’ll say what my gift is: recognizing lyrics in the sea of words,” Tesori explained during a recent interview in her office at City Center, where she serves as a creative adviser. She immerses herself in her collaborators’ verbiage in various ways. She asks for what she calls “noodles,” which Kron described as “bits of lyric that didn’t make it into the lyric I built for her.” Tesori also has them read their lyrics aloud to her, sometimes “two or three times,” as Kron recalled, to glean intention from inflection.