Having been nominated for three Tony awards and having worked with some of the world’s most distinguished playwrights, including her frequent collaborator, Tony Kushner, Jeanine Tesori is one of the busiest and gutsiest composers in the theater. But as an undergraduate at Barnard, when she was still premed and thinking she would end up a doctor like her father, she didn’t know her South Pacific from her Oklahoma!
“I thought Gypsy was a musical about Eastern Europe,” Tesori, 47, recalls good-humoredly. “I was so naive about the world.” A stint on the staff at Stagedoor Manor—a storied theater camp in the Catskills in upstate New York—brought her up to speed and changed her direction. She was always musical (she had taken up the piano at age three), and after two summers teaching show kids, including directing Jon Cryer in The Pajama Game, she switched her college major to music and never looked back.
“At the time my father asked me, ‘Will anyone ever pay you?’” Tesori says, adding that it was a question he posed to her regularly after she entered the business. Then he suggested she get a degree in education as a backup. (Her mother also worked in the medical profession, as a nurse.) “I wouldn’t do it,” says Tesori, who grew up on Long Island. “If you have a net, you’ll probably use it.”
These days, with still no net in place, she’s heading to Broadway with her biggest project yet: a multimillion-dollar stage adaptation of the animated movie (and 1990 William Steig picture book) Shrek. The film is known for its big rock ’n’ roll songs, supplied by bands such as Smash Mouth, but Tesori contributed all new music to the production; the book and lyrics are by Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright David Lindsay-Abaire (Rabbit Hole).
A big green ogre running amok in a make-believe kingdom, with a donkey as his sidekick, may seem like something of a departure for Tesori, who is perhaps best known for her intimate character pieces. She was last represented on Broadway by Caroline, or Change, a dissonant, almost experimental musical about a young Jewish boy and his African-American maid, based loosely on Kushner’s experiences growing up in Louisiana. “I needed to do something with a broader appeal,” she explains of her decision to audition for Shrek The Musical, for which she wrote a score that blends a number of styles, including pop and R&B. “It’s a quest story, a hero’s journey.” Where the songs sung by Shrek rely on folk rock to create a more private, heartfelt sound, the big numbers sung by the smorgasbord of fairy-tale characters who inhabit the land of Far, Far Away are a bit more “over-the-top musical theater,” Tesori explains.