Three of this season's biggest shows are composed by women. Jeanine Tesori, whose past credits include Caroline, or Change; Shrek The Musical; and Violet, is back with Fun Home, based on cartoonist Alison Bechdel's memoir about coming out. Lucy Simon, who earned a Tony nomination for 1991's The Secret Garden, has written the music for Doctor Zhivago, Boris Pasternak's sweeping novel about the Russian Revolution. And Broadway newcomer Barbara Anselmi both conceived and wrote the score for It Shoulda Been You, an original musical comedy about a wedding. All three talked with Playbill about the challenges of creating a show and of being a female composer.
Lucy and Barbara, you both started your projects, right?
Lucy Simon: We have to. I don't think people come to us and ask. So I think you have to be passionate about what you want to do and then go for it.
Barbara Anselmi: I 100 percent agree. I also found that when you believe in something so much, it starts to gain its own momentum.
Jeanine Tesori: Someone brought Fun Home to the attention of [book writer and lyricist] Lisa Kron and Lisa called me. But I think I call as much as I'm called. I am not someone who was ever trained to wait.
How do you work? Do you prefer starting with the music or the lyrics?
Tesori: I work very, very much in tandem and in conversation. I really like going back and forth with a writer. My hope is that no one knows that those things were ever from two different people. That it seems to be from one sensibility.
Anselmi: I actually do prefer music first but I need a hook or I need some way to get into the song besides the scene.
Simon: I prefer to have the lyrics first. Actually with Doctor Zhivago, my lyricists really like my melodies and they want me to write the melody first and I generally do that. But for the men's songs, I really like to have a lyric because it sort of gets me into the mindset, the rhythm and it keeps me from being overly romantic.
Do you find it more difficult to write for male characters?
Anselmi: I find it enjoyable to write for men. Because I write the things I want men to say. Is that horrible?
Simon: With Doctor Zhivago, there was a lot of "Can she write for a man?" There were people — major producers — who said, "I love the idea of doing Dr. Zhivago but I don't think you are the right casting for it." But if you look at all the classic musicals, men were writing for women all the time and the energy goes both ways. Look, I write for character and I know men.
Tesori: I think it's even. I think writing for any character is hard. You know, asking the real questions is the real hard thing. What do they really think? What do they really want?
Simon: There is brutality in Doctor Zhivago, which is something you have to find in yourself. You have to find that side of you.
Anselmi: It's tough to go to that mean place but if you don't go to the mean place, the pay off at the end isn't as good. Is there a difference between working with female and male lyricists?
Tesori: No. I mean talent is talent. I love working with playwrights — Tony Kushner, David Lindsay-Abaire, Lisa. I'm always learning from what they're bringing, their need to tell the story.
Simon: I have two lyricists. I first started working with Michael Korie and then I brought in Amy Powers and it's sort of interesting because although they write lyrics together, the ones that Michael starts have more to do with the political side and the marches and Amy is more of a romantic. So it's a very interesting combination.
Anselmi: I actually asked a whole bunch of different lyricists to write with me cause I started it as a concept piece. And there is a different approach that men have than women have. But I don't actually have a preference about writing with men or women. I do have a preference about writing with people who write from character. Brian [Hargrove, her book writer and primary lyricist] is great. He definitely writes what those characters would say.
All of your shows have women as lead producers. Does having more women in charge make it easier for female composers?
Simon: I think that is true. They're more amenable to women writing.
Tesori: Almost all of the people I work with as producers are women. There's always a woman on the team.
Anselmi: I know a couple of younger women producers who are very interested in getting women's work and who are interested in women's teams.
Simon: I tell you what I don't like though. I don't like being categorized as a woman's team or a female writer. I mean we are writers. Our work, our art should speak for itself.