PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Jeanine Tesori, Bringing Tony-Nominated Violet to Broadway

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30 Apr 2014

Jeanine Tesori
Jeanine Tesori

Four-time Tony nominee Jeanine Tesori talks with about the Broadway debut of her first musical, Violet.


Jeanine Tesori's baby is all grown up. Seventeen years after her first musical opened Off-Broadway at Playwrights HorizonsViolet, which features music by Tesori and a book and lyrics by Brian Crawley, is now making its Broadway debut.

"The baby is going to college," said Tesori, whose stage composing credits include A Free Man of Color, Shrek the Musical, Caroline or Change, Thoroughly Modern Millie and Fun Home.

Based on Dorris Betts' short story "The Ugliest Pilgrim," which Tesori first discovered as a movie on Showtime in the 80s, Violet follows a young Southern woman who embarks on a bus trip seeking the help of a TV evangelist whom she hopes can heal a large facial scar that is the result of a tragic childhood accident. The original Off-Broadway cast featured Lauren Ward, Michael Park and Michael McElroy; the Broadway production, directed by Leigh Silverman, features two-time Tony winner Sutton Foster, Colin Donnell and Joshua Henry

Violet recently received four Tony Award nominations: Best Musical Revival, Best Director (Silverman), Best Actress in a Musical (Foster) and Best Featured Actor in a Musical (Henry). 

Tesori chatted with about Violet's long journey to Broadway. 

You wrote Violet while living in a lighthouse. Please tell me that story.
Jeanine Tesori: I was a conductor, and I was trying to figure out what the next plan was going to be. I saw my life sort of in the next phase. Being a sideman is really grueling work. I think a lot of people don't realize what it's like to play eight shows a week in the dark, wearing black, not being seen, only being heard. It's really hard on your body, that kind of repetition. It's a great gig, but it's grueling. It's mentally hard to do the same thing, time after time after time. I wanted to know what was going to be next. Then with the help of my mentor, who encouraged me to go for a Plan B... He said, "If you're not going to go for it now, what are you waiting for?" I thought, "What am I waiting for? What am I so scared of?"

I knew the town of Westport, NY, very well because I had done theatre up there, and I'd made a couple of very dear friends. I gave three months notice at the show I was with, called up there and they said, "The only house we know of that's available right now is the lighthouse that's privately owned." I said, "I don't care. I'll take it." It was $300 a month. It's absolutely isolated. That was the year there were 15 snowstorms, so I was snowed in much of the time. I brought up a piano and laser discs to study, scores and books and paints. I wanted to know what I was going to do when I didn't have time, how I was going to combat loneliness — all that stuff that you need to know, I think, when you're a writer.

I'd never taken a shot at writing full time. I thought, "If I'm going to eat Nestle Crunch bars the whole time, I'd better find out now." I remember thinking that I was built for it when I'd been up there for a few months and someone said, "What channels do you get on the TV?" and I said, "I don't know. I haven't turned it on." That was a clue for me.


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