Courtesy of the Yale Department of Music
In the mid 1990s, Jeanine Tesori decided to live temporarily in an empty lighthouse on Lake Champlain, completely alone. The lighthouse was fully functioning, but its lamp had been moved to the edge of a nearby jetty. When she finally emerged from the lighthouse after 10 months, she left with a near-complete score of her first musical, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.”
Since then, Tesori, a lecturer of musical theater composition at Yale’s Department of Music, has written four Tony-nominated Broadway scores — “Twelfth Night at Lincoln Center,” “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” “Caroline” and “Shrek the Musical” — in addition to two Tony-winning scores — “Fun Home” and, most recently, “Kimberly Akimbo,” a musical about a lonely teenage girl who suffers from a condition that gives her the appearance of an elderly woman.
Tesori’s initial encounter with music began with her family piano. The piano was a world that “just made sense” to her.
“It occurs to me when I work with young people in music, that there is an innate wisdom that every young person has. They just do. I don’t think it can always be expressed in language, but it can be expressed in intention or directionality,” Tesori said. “There’s just this natural impulse and natural matching. Sometimes when we teach people, we almost take the saran wrapping of their natural abilities away and put something on top of them.”
Instead, Tesori encourages her students to embrace their inherited musical gifts, a lesson inspired by the oral music traditions of folk music. On the first day of classes, Tesori always poses a question to her students: “Who are you bringing into the room with you?”
Tesori’s teaching philosophy is then to give direction to these parts of the students’ musical identities. The key is to help students’ ambition meet their skill level, said Tesori.
“What’s your ancestral pull? What is the culture that you’re from, that you want to explore, if you want to explore that? Who is here with you? Because you are not here alone, you are many, many things that create your point of view — you’re writing from a specific place,” Tesori said.
For Tesori herself, she brings her own specific combination of inspirations into the room: her Italian heritage and storytelling, musical styles of neo-traditionalism and directors with whom she’s worked — namely, American playwright and director, George C Wolfe.
According to Tesori, Wolfe has warned her not to be deceived or trapped in musical beauty, teaching her that beauty is a product of music and not a source.
Instead, Wolfe encouraged her to be aware of the intentionality and politics of her musical choices.
“When we were first working together, he would say, ‘What are you doing with your left hand?’ And because I had been trained as a pianist, you can easily smoke people by just sort of being fancy with your hands,” Tesori said. “And I thought, ‘No director ever asked me what I’m doing with my left hand.’ But what he was saying was, nothing is neutral. Nothing is neutral: every prop, every measure, every left hand, bass note. Of course, you’re free to choose anything. But if you start listening to the piece, it starts telling you what it wants.”
When Tesori writes dramatic music, there are two things that interest her: a compelling storyline and characters who have yet to take center stage in the canon of musical theater. “Fun Home” centers around the voice of a queer female protagonist — the first of its kind on Broadway. In the opera “Blue,” an African American family faces tension as the son confronts his police officer father for upholding an oppressive police system.
Fellow Musical Theater lecturer Joshua Rosenblum ’83 MUS ’85 applauded Tesori’s ability to create “three-dimensional, fully-fleshed” characters on stage. As a fellow lecturer who teaches part-time and works professionally in the musical theater industry, Rosenblum has emphasized how lecturers’ professional work outside of the classroom can influence their teaching inside the classroom.
“When you’re at Yale, you assume that your teachers have a certain amount of experience and a certain amount of expertise. And I think you’re all sort of programmed to accept what they say, almost by habit,” Rosenblum said. “But if you see that they are out in the field and actually practicing the art and being successful enough to get shows produced, then you’re even more inclined to say, ‘Oh, this person actually is a so-called ‘expert,’ and so maybe I better pay attention to what they have to say.’”
To Natalie Brown ’25 and many other students, Tesori is a “fairy godmother” of sorts. Brown, who is a singer-songwriter in addition to being a full-time student, first encountered Tesori while taking “Advanced Composition for Musical Theater.”
When Brown wrote an adaptation of Ntozake Shange’s “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide,” Tesori helped Brown contact the estate of Shange and put her in touch with WME, Brown’s current agency.
Brown particularly emphasized Tesori’s generosity and excitement to help young students as something rare and rather unexpected in the world of commercial musical theater. Furthermore, she stated that Tesori’s confidence in her students’ artistic abilities manifests in the way that she teaches them.
“She really tailored the class to meet us where we were at, instead of having a prescribed curriculum and kind of forcing us to focus on specific things that might not have fit as well with what the class needed at the time,” Brown said.
Over the course of Tesori’s career, some things have changed and others have not. She told the News that her thought process and the way she dresses hasn’t changed since age nine.
What has changed over the years is her approach to taking criticism: she’s learned to generally give “less of a fuck,” while taking constructive blows when she needs to.
“Sometimes I read something, and I think, ‘Wow, I did do that. That is a party trick. I have to stop doing that.’ [I learned] the humility to just say, ‘I don’t do that well.’ That’s why I like doing dumb stuff that I’m not good at, because it’s good to not be good at something,” Tesori said. “Especially at higher institutions of learning, it’s good to feel not in the know all the time. It’s good to play, it’s good to do something that you’re a complete beginner at, including what you’ve mastered.”
Tesori’s future may find direction in her own history.
She has always been interested in telling an “Italian story” — particularly one that embodies the lived and diverse experiences of Italian American communities.
“I haven’t found the story yet. I have ideas that are running — my roots are in Sicily, the small towns around Palermo and Stromboli. [But] I just haven’t found it yet,” Tesori said. “I hope that I get to do that.”
In her early career, Jeanine Tesori was known as Jeanine Levenson.