Celebrated theater and film composer Jeanine Tesori, who was born and raised in Port Washington, spoke at a recent Friends of the Library (FOL) event as part of their Cabin Fever series.
Tesori's rapid-fire, witty, charming presentation captivated the audience, many of whom had known her since childhood. She grew up in Beacon Hill, and her mother still lives here in Port. Tesori's late father was a medical doctor who served Port Washington and neighboring residents for many years. For a time she thought she would follow in her father's footsteps, but her musical talent and creativity won out.
Tesori, who was deemed by a biographer as "one of the leading voices in the American musical theater," began her presentation with words of gratitude to the family, friends, neighbors, teachers and others in Port Washington who contributed to her life and to her success. She said, "Everything that was taught me I basically got from our community." She acknowledged one Port resident in particular-Peggy Baer, owner of the Red Door, who Tesori said, "gave me my first inkling about music." Peggy, who was by coincidence sitting next to this reporter, remembered fondly, "Jeanine would come over, and we would always play piano duets." Tesori's talent was obvious at a very young age. One former teacher told the Port News a story about Tesori in fourth grade memorizing the entire score to The Sound of Music literally overnight. Somewhat improbably, Tesori was also very good at sports in her school years. One participant commented, "I can't stop thinking about her talk, especially the value of field hockey and batting other people with your stick. She can surely fend for herself!"
Tesori, who began her Broadway career as an associate conductor, at one point dropped out for a while. She described living in a remote, secluded area upstate, where, she said, "I even had a hunting knife from my dad." She added, "My dad was a great teacher on how to survive." Tesori said it is during that period that she started writing.
Although Tesori has composed many scores for film and television, she said that she loves the theater best "because of the empathy." She added, "It is no accident that a person up on stage can connect with the audience."
Tesori described the process of creating a show or film. She said, "Basically, every show and every film is very different." She described putting everything on storyboards and then asking, "Where is it going to happen?" Then, she said, "You start folding more and more people in." She described the scary moments when they presented what they've been working for a year and a half. She said, "It's a terrible day. It either goes or it dies there." When they get the green light, then the work starts. Tesori said that she does all her writing in her studio. "Each project has to be paced differently," she said, adding, "Technology has shifted things."
In answer to a question about Tony Kushner, with whom she wrote (among others) the Tony-award-nominated Caroline, or Change, Tesori said, "He is an extraordinary man." Tesori and Kushner are currently working on a new musical.
Tesori's work is so abundant and so varied that it is only possible to skim the surface in this article. Some of the better known productions include: Thoroughly Modern Millie (Tony award, 2002), a score for Twelfth Night at Lincoln Center (Tony award nomination, 1999), and the Off-Broadway musical Violet. She worked as arranger and conductor for many musicals, including Tommy, The Sound of Music, Gypsy, The Secret Garden, and How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying. She has produced countless cast album recordings, as well as an educational music series used nationwide in schools. Tesori's film work includes Shrek 3, Lilo and Stitch 2, Little Mermaid, and Unbraided. The awards she has won are far too numerous to cite. Despite her many accomplishments, Tesori said that she never stops looking for work. In one of her many references to her father, she said, "My dad was a fisherman, and I learned that if you don't send the boat out, you're never going to get any fish."
One of the highlights of the morning was Tesori's performance of a few of her songs. The event, which included a light breakfast, was held at Main 415 restaurant, which handled the larger-than-expected crowd with quiet efficiency and grace.
Tesori lives in New York City's Upper West Side with her husband, conductor Michael Rafter, and their 9-year-old daughter Siena. She clearly loves working and living in New York, and even specifies, when her contract permits, that the performers have to live in New York. Tesori described a piece that she wrote after 9/11. It was performed by eight female cellists who also sang a little bit. She said that she tried to capture the look of all the office paper that came down as the buildings tumbled. The piece, she said, was only about nine minutes long. She said, "I love that it was about that one moment. Like a drop of water on a city sidewalk, it was there and now it's gone."
As much as she enjoys the success and fame, Tesori said, "It's not about that." She ended with another aphorism from her father, "The ocean always wins."