For the two shows she has scored for Broadway — Lincoln Center Theatre's Twelfth Night and the current musical comedy, Thoroughly Modern Millie — composer Jeanine Tesori has really scored. She was Tony Award nominated for Best Score for the former in 1999 (writing incidental music that filled-in the Nick Hytner-directed world of Shakespeare) and, with lyricist Dick Scanlan on the latter, is up for another Best Score Tony in 2002. The Millie score is a quirky patchwork of new material written by the pair ("Forget About the Boy," "Not for the Life of Me," "I Turned the Corner," and "Gimme, Gimme" and more), songs from the 1967 film that inspired the stage show, interpolated music drawn from "The Nutcracker" and Arthur Sullivan's Ruddigore and period songs by Victor Herbert, Sam Lewis, Joe Young and Walter Donaldson. All of this is presented with vocal arrangement by Tesori. Her Off-Broadway musical, Violet, is beloved by fans. Surprisingly, the composer admits she didn't grow up listening to musical theatre, but says she can't see herself writing music without it being attached to a story. Don't expect Tesori's "Fifth Symphony." She talked to Playbill On-Line's Kenneth Jones about piecing together Thoroughly Modern Millie, an eclectic show that nevertheless allows her muscular musical voice to be heard.
Playbill On-Line: There was a song I liked in Millie previews called "Ain't No Prohibition on Romance," for Sheryl Lee Ralph, and it got cut and replaced during previews. I thought it had the craft and energy of Gershwin songs from the 1920s.
Jeanine Tesori: Out of context it was really successful and in context it was really not successful. It wasn't successful for her, it wasn't successful for the moment, for the placement in the act. It was wholly unsuccessful in 9 out of 10 ways. So we couldn't get rid of it fast enough. It's not that I didn't like it, but it just wasn't serving its purpose. It was so far away from what was happening in narrative.
PBOL: This won't be recorded as appendix material on the cast album will it? It will go where all such songs do, into a trunk somewhere?
JT: Yeah, unless you want it. I'll give it to you.
PBOL: Yeah, send it over.
JT: I'll send it out to you.
PBOL: I'll put it in my act, Jeanine.
JT: We'll do a duet. [Laughs.] We've written probably 40 songs that haven't made it in and I don't know where they are — they're scattered about somewhere. PBOL: Save 'em for the sequel.
JT: Right. [Laughs.] Millie II — she has to, like, fight a Russian or something.
PBOL: Millie was a very different show when you first came to it. You were invited in as the musical director to work on existing songs injected into the plot?
JT: After I had done Violet, and I had met [director] Michael [Mayer] doing something else, I was starting to only write. I would conduct something every now and then, but clearly it was not what I was meant to do. He said, "Why don't you make this your last one [as musical director] and you can arrange it. It really needs to be put together by a composer, even though it's all material from the time. If we need a verse or something written you can do that." I thought, why not? We started and slowly but surely Dick and I would search for a song and we'd have it in, but it didn't work in the moment. And then we'd get another song and it didn't work. We finally started writing them. The search for good material — there are so many beautiful songs! But [finding what's] exactly right for a moment takes a lot of searching. It was almost easier to write something.When they first brought it to me, I didn't want to use very well known material. I wanted to keep "Mammy," which they had already. I thought it was perfect because people knew it, but they didn't know it the way we were using it. There was certain material, like "Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue," I didn't want to use. That's where the audience's knowledge of it wouldn't work, I felt, in our favor. It would make it seem more revue-like. I re-wrote all the accompaniments and all the vocals and tried to get a singular point of view on the music so it could feel like it was written by my alter ego from that time.
PBOL: Ultimately, many of songs of the 1920s are not character-rich, they're simply charming pop songs of their day.
JT: Exactly. If you can use them in a specific way I think they work very well. If there's a string of them all evening, I think it might appear that they got shoe-horned in. It's been five years of putting a lot in, taking a lot out.
PBOL: Obviously you needed to keep the two songs from the film — "Thoroughly Modern Millie" and "Jimmy" — because they serve their purpose.
JT: Yes, they do.
PBOL: But I was still surprised that other interpolations — the Gilbert & Sullivan piece and Victor Herbert's "I'm Falling in Love With Someone" — are in the show, because I think of Jeanine Tesori as someone who can write pastiche of Gilbert & Sullivan or operetta, for example.
JT: ["The Speed Test," with music by Arthur Sullivan and lyric by Scanlan] and "Mammy" were already there. I thought, who could do that better? I can't do better than that! When Ralph Burns was orchestrating the piece in La Jolla [where the show had a 2000 tryout] he said, "Man, Jeanine, you wrote such a great song!" I said, "That wasn't me, Ralph." He could not believe it. This is Ralph Burns, one of the greatest musicians of the century. I knew that this was always gonna be a piece that was my point of view but not necessarily all my work. I wouldn't want to do it again, but it's great to do one project like this and make believe all these things — do the piano arrangements and the vocals and treat them as if I've written them all. That's actually been a weird kind of fun. Again, I wouldn't want the same assignment again. I've learned so much and learned so many songs of the time. Making the score whole was my goal. Some people now say, "I loved 'I Turned the Corner' from the movie."
PBOL: And you actually wrote it for the stage. I don't mean to harp on Gershwin, but "I Turned the Corner" is such a great Gershwin kind of moment. It's right for the scene, but it's charming and comfortable and period.
JT: I intended it to sound like it had one foot in "now" and one foot in "then." It uses a lot of the harmonic knowledge, I think, of what was happening at that moment in time. In "Forget About the Boy," I wanted to use "Jimmy" in counterpoint to it because that's not something that would be happening then. Gershwin would do it in the opera, but not use that kind of counterpoint in the theatre.
PBOL: You're attracted a lot of different stories and styles: Twelfth Night, Violet and you are exploring new works with George C. Wolfe, Suzan-Lori Parks and Tony Kushner. Do you like traditional shows like the kind Millie represents?
JT: I never was a theatre person when I was younger. I don't have any cast albums. I have the ones that I've done, archivally. I don't listen to them. It's not that I don't like them; I really love classical music and world music. That's really where my heart is, in those two things. Theatre for me is an experience of seeing and hearing something one time. But I've always felt pretty open to anything because there's nothing musically that doesn't interest me. I'm just a student. The person who mentored me really taught me when I was very young to allow your ears to be open to any invitation to sound. I've tried to follow that. I like new worlds. Every show that I like to do is a completely different world. For me, it's a lot of fun. It's like traveling, in a sense. I feel like I can't write music without an image or a narrative or something to write to.