The show opens at the Broadway Theatre in mid-December and marks the first endeavor by DreamWorks Theatricals, a division created by the studio to compete with Disney, which has taken over Broadway with such blockbusters as The Lion King and Mary Poppins. Yet the demands Tesori feels have nothing to do with huge budgets—“I’m used to doing musicals for $1.95,” she quips—let alone corporate conglomerates. “I don’t need anybody else pressuring me,” she explains over breakfast near Pike Place Market in downtown Seattle, where Shrek had a six-week out-of-town tryout earlier this fall. “I do that quite well.”
Despite Shrek’s large-scale sets, costumes and effects, “Jeanine’s music always comes out of character and story,” says Lindsay-Abaire. “That makes it very easy for a dramatist. She’s just such an amazing and generous collaborator.”
Though she seems to have chosen right brain over left, Tesori suggests that she’s never quite abandoned her interest in science. She jokes that constructing a musical is not much different from what happens on the television medical drama House, except “they have better dry-erase boards.
“But it’s a giant puzzle,” she continues. “That’s the part I love. The variables are endless.”
Work didn’t always come so easily. She spent much of her 20s as an arranger and conductor in musical theater. It was only after she holed up in a lighthouse in Westport, New York, in 1993 at, in her estimation, the relatively late age of 31 that she started writing her first musical. “I was beginning to be one of those coulda-shoulda people, and I was just so uncomfortable with it,” Tesori says now. “I took a year and gave myself my own Walden. It was a great lesson in self-reliance, and it changed my life.”
The result was Violet, with book and lyrics by Brian Crawley, a chamber musical about a disfigured young woman who travels by bus from North Carolina to Oklahoma to find a cure. When it premiered at Playwrights Horizons in the spring of 1997—the gestation period for a musical is between three and five years—it was awarded several major Off Broadway prizes. Perhaps more significant, it landed her such gigs as the stage musical version of the movie Thoroughly Modern Millie, for which she wrote 11 new songs and which garnered her a second Tony nomination, in 2002. (The first was for a score for Lincoln Center’s 1998 production of Twelfth Night, starring Paul Rudd and Helen Hunt.)
“The one thing I regret is I wasted a lot of time talking about writing and not writing,” admits Tesori, who has long dark hair, porcelain skin, an aquiline nose and an appealingly forthright personality she attributes to “the Sicilian in me.” “You can talk yourself out of anything. I probably wasted seven or eight years of my 20s too afraid to be made a fool of. Now I just think that process of being so tortured when you’re not even writing is kind of pathetic.”