Jeanine Tesori, the composer of Broadway's Thoroughly Modern Millie, is working on at least two new musicals — the previously reported Caroline or Change and Disney's Hoopz — and a third work is dawning in her imagination.
Italian-American Tesori, 40, told Playbill On-Line two days before the April 18 opening of Millie that she's going to draw on her Sicilian roots for a project she plans to initiate in the next few years. It would be her first self-created work since she started creating Violet back in 1994. Her projects since that Off-Broadway cult fave (written with Brian Crawley) have all been brought to her by others — Twelfth Night at Lincoln Center, lyricist-librettist Dick Scanlan's Thoroughly Modern Millie, the Tony Kushner-penned Caroline or Change and the Suzan Lori Parks-Disney musical, Hoopz, about the Harlem Globetrotters.
"I'm going to do an Italian piece in the next five years, I have to!" Tesori told Playbill On-Line. "For me, it's been brewing for a long time. It's going to be set somewhat in Sicily and in America. I haven't said that to anyone publicly, but I know that it's brewing. It keeps coming up year after year. That usually means it needs to get written. I would love it to be both [comic and serious]. I think it's about immigration — the genealogy and tracing of family, not, per se, my own. I don't know. It's still in that dream-state phase."
Her most immediate projects are Hoopz, which has a libretto by Pulitzer Prize-winner Suzan Lori Parks (Topdog/Underdog), and The Public Theater's Caroline or Change, with libretto by Tony Kushner (Angels in America) and direction by George C. Wolfe (Noise/Funk, The Wild Party). A reading for the latter is planned for summer.
"Violet was very much mine, I initiated it," Tesori said. "It's different, I think, when you have the genesis and ownership of the piece — because it's kind of like your baby. People are helping you deliver it and clothing it but it's basically your kid. I'm almost ready to go back and [initiate a project] again." What's the status of her Hoopz collaboration?
"They're in the process of dealmaking," she explained. "I want to do it and they seem to want me to do it, and that's where we are right now. I really think this team is fierce. I'm assuming it's all gonna work out completely and I'm really excited about it."
What attracts her to the world of the Harlem Globetrotters?
"First of all, I really want to work with Suzan Lori Parks," Tesori told Playbill On-Line. "After one reading — I've met her a couple of times — I'm interested in the way she sees and hears the world. I think she and Tony Kushner, for me, in terms of working on musicals at this moment, are two people who I can't believe I have the opportunity to work with. It is about [the Harlem Globetrotters] and yet it's really about a story she's bringing to life in a very surprising way. I find her to be a surprising and fierce writer. I really like the collaboration. My work changes because of people. Working with Tony and George Wolfe, the process of writing is different for me because of them. I think that would be the same thing with Suzan Lori — that we would do something together that I wouldn't be able to do at all by myself. That's what really excites me about that — and that whole world I would never have thought to enter in. I would like to visit there and find out what that world has to offer, musically and historically."
What is working with Parks like?
"We started with riffing sessions," Tesori said. "They've been at work, and she's been at work, for a while on it. We had one session where we were all just getting to know each other."
A Hoopz workshop at Trinity Rep in Rhode Island was announced recently, and Caroline or Change is expected sometime in The Public's 2002-03 season. The latter work was originally aimed at the San Francisco Opera, and was later picked up by The Public.
What's the Louisiana-set Caroline or Change about?
"It's a very personal story by Tony, the libretto is by him, about a young Jewish boy and his relationship to the black maid in the household — a household that's in the process of great change. It's set in 1963 and it's a fantastic libretto. It has gone through its shifts as we've worked through the first act and into the second act, and I'm gonna finish it this summer with him. I think his work is absolutely extraordinary on it. It's the first collaboration I've had with George. It's kind of like a dream. It's not an easy time, only because I think all of us are very challenging in the room. We're all strong and we all have a lot to say. All of that energy in one room, there's a lot of bouncing that goes around: ideas and thoughts and comments. But it's a joyous place to be."
Is it autobiographical for Southern-Jewish Kushner?
"It's semi-," she said. "This is really for him to say, but there are certainly parts that he's taken from his life and his knowledge of Lake Charles [Louisiana]. We are approaching it as a complete narrative that's somewhat divorced from his experience. It helps that I don't know him — I know him well now, but I didn't at the start, so I've brought a kind of new eye to it and a new way of storytelling that I have not done at all, or come close to. [The sounds] are so rich: It's Southern and it's '63 in the pop world and the world of black women and the Jewish household and the world of the boy. It's an embarrassment of riches [musically]."
Caroline is the name of the maid who has an impact on the boy's life, as his parental forces shift. Tesori said Tonya Pinkins was heard in a previous reading of it, and the composer hopes the actress plays it. "I hear her voice," Tesori said.
— By Kenneth Jones