I can’t say how many years ago it was, because that would be telling a lady’s age, but a very round number of years ago, I saw a show called Lost In Place by Alexa Junge (I talked about her a few weeks ago) and Jeanine Tesori. All these years later Jeanine has gone on to be the best theatre composer of the 21st Century and nobody could be less surprised than I. Yes, I said it way back then, when nobody knew her, and I’ll repeat it now: Jeanine is a musical creator of the highest magnitude.
All those raves for Fun Home sing her praises, and similar excitement greeted her Violet the year before. I’m betting you can read dozens of analyses of the pre-eminent stage composer of our time all over the Internet but here’s the only appraisal that will reference Lost In Place.
This was the second Columbia Varsity Show of the current consecutive string. The annual student-created musical, where Hammerstein and Rodgers and Hart cut their teeth had ceased being an annual in the 60s. The Herculean efforts of Adam Belanoff and Steve Gee had reignited the kindling the year before – text by Belanoff, Gee, Junge and me; musical direction by Jeanine – but would the flame stay lit? It did, in no small part due to the brilliant songwriting of Tesori and Junge. Notably, what could have been unrelenting wackiness was given a touch of heart:
Breeze blows cold from the river
There’s no one that you know in Tom’s
Hit the hay or hit the books
Give the bag men vacant looks
And wonder where their kids are
Who their kids are
The plaintive strains of Jeanine’s tune came out of nowhere, surprisingly slapping you like a burst of Hudson spray. The main character faced an existential crisis and, suddenly, the voices of campus statues come to life give the guy a lift. Moving and stunning and funny at the same time.
I was even more taken with a solo about a former rabble-rouser returning to the site of her finest hour. Jeanine did words and music, and employed a very energetic phrase starting with two quick triplets. Much of the song consists of long sustained notes as the character indulges in nostalgia, but during these the rhythm continues in the accompaniment. In this way, we hear the older character and her former self simultaneously, a woman at once both young and old.
That’s smart writing, and intelligent composition is the hallmark of Tesori’s better-known musicals. There’s an exactitude, a way of finding precisely the music that characterizes the time, place and emotion. Violet’s an odyssey through the American South in the 1960’s, and the score carefully delineates the differences between black people’s music and white folks’ music. Since two soldiers of different races are part of a triangle, the sound sometimes goes back and forth within the same song. Her Caroline, or Change also depicts African-Americans of that era. Working with acclaimed playwright Tony Kushner, Jeanine learned of his upbringing in Louisiana and how his parents were orchestral woodwind players. You hear a clarinet, and, thrillingly, the scene shifts from living room to laundry room and there’s this fantastic overlap between a Jewish sound and a bit of R & B.
Broadway success came with Thoroughly Modern Millie. More performers have songs from this score in their books than any other. Ubiquity, thy name is Gimme Gimme (for girls) or What Do I Need with Love? (for fellas). I far prefer Forget About the Boy, with its start-to-finish energy and drive. It surprised me, in the best possible way, when it runs in counterpoint to Jimmy, a number from the 1967 movie version. In fact, Millie is an amalgam from many sources: numbers from the movie, standards from the 1920s and a couple of “light classics” from the 19th century. Tesori’s songs manage to weave them all together in a way that makes sense, and performers never glom onto the tunes she didn’t write. When idiots (I’m sorry, I don’t know what else to call them) whine that “Nobody writes musicals the way they used to” Millie is the most obvious refutation. It’s a star vehicle, like they used to write, and yet was cast with an unknown, Sutton Foster. The vehicle made the star, and no year of the first decade of this century went by without Foster appearing in a Broadway show. No fool she, Foster went on to star in two other Jeanine Tesori musicals.
One of those is Shrek, which I feel is Jeanine’s weakest. It, like Millie, lives or dies by how funny its jokes are, and I find the David Lindsay-Abaire lyrics to be practically laugh-free, which is troublesome in a comedy song. But there’s a nice bit of music when we see a trio of Fionas – kid, teen and adult. Gee, the same heroine portrayed by three actresses at different ages: remind anyone else of Fun Home? If Shrek is too childish and simple for your tastes, you couldn’t find a more emotionally complex tuner than the current smash hit. It’s a musical for grown-ups, as was Caroline or Change, as was Violet.
And yet they all have children in key roles. Which is really hard to pull off. Young Violet, and Noah and Young Alison have to seem real to us; if they’re the least bit cutesy, we’d be taken out of the story. Somehow, the young people in Jeanine’s shows are natural, wholly free of shtick. And I believe this has something to do with how the vocal parts are written.
Something else all of her shows have in common: They represent the first professional efforts of their lyricists. Think about that one. Most first-time lyricists fall flat on their faces. Working with Jeanine, they win Klebans and Obies and Tonys. This can only have to do with their collaborator holding them up to the highest possible standards. Which really should happen with everyone, but doesn’t.