‘Fun Home’ composer Jeanine Tesori hears the music in everyday life – Los Angeles Times
The sounds of a rambunctious household are turned into music as âFun Homeâ sifts through one womanâs 1970s childhood, seeking clues to her fatherâs abrupt death.
Jeanine Tesori, the showâs composer, thought back to her own youth as the creative team envisioned the household of Alison Bechdel, author of the popular graphic-novel-style memoir on which the stage musical is based.
Tesori and her three sisters studied piano, flute or dance. âWe were practicing all the time,â she says. âWith four girls in the house, there was a fair amount of noise.â
She replicates that cacophony in âFun Home,â which won the 2015 Tony Award for best musical and just opened at the Ahmanson Theatre in a touring production.
Typically, the noise is a happy sound. Thereâs even a song in which young Bechdel and her brothers devise a chirpy commercial for the family funeral business. But the soundscape darkens as the adult Bechdel wrestles with the cloudy circumstances of her fatherâs death, as well as the timing: Sheâd recently come out to her family as lesbian, then learned that he too was gay, though deeply closeted.
âIâm very interested in the counterpoint of the household,â Tesori says, neatly repurposing a musical term to describe the familyâs separate yet simultaneous activities.
Family life is a repeated reference point as Tesori, 55 and mother of a 19-year-old daughter, reflects on the career that has made her one of the most-nominated composers in Tony Award history.
She grew up in a home where science met the arts. Her father was a doctor, her mother a nurse, but âboth parents really believed that every kid had to have some kind of artistic expression,â she says.
That duality imbues the way that Tesori talks about music. âItâs where the mystery and the science meet,â she says by phone from her apartment on New Yorkâs Upper West Side. âMusic, for me, is like the architecture of a beautiful thing youâre envisioning, and the way to get there is intervallic, itâs mathematic. And then there is the soul and the heart.â
Her first musical, 1997âs âViolet,â is about a disfigured young woman from rural North Carolina who yearns to be healed. In 2003âs âCaroline, or Change,â two more lonely souls seek wholeness. One is a Jewish boy whoâs lost his mother, the other is his familyâs single-mom black housekeeper, who worries about her childrenâs future in early-â60s America.
Life for these characters is messy, contradictory and unresolved â a straightforward realism that exists even in Tesoriâs more mainstream projects.
She contributed to the musical pastiche of 2000âs âThoroughly Modern Millie,â a daffy rom-com that plumbs unexpected depths as a wannabe flapper finds wholeness that far surpasses her original notions of thoroughly modern womanhood. And the outwardly conventional âShrek: The Musicalâ from 2008 gives the lovelorn ogreâs tale a proudly nonconformist spin as it champions its bookshelf-full of shunned and demeaned storybook characters.
âMillieâ bounces to the beat of the early 1920s; âVioletâ twangs with bluegrass; âCarolineâ throbs with klezmer and soul; and âShrekâ bounds through the Top 40 and animated-musical catalogs. The shows sound entirely different, but they share the Tesori hallmarks of close-to-the-surface emotion, structural rigor and rhythmic drive. Her music is brainy yet immediately accessible.
âAngels in Americaâ playwright Tony Kushner, who asked Tesori to collaborate with him on âCaroline,â says she has âthat gift of liberating very deep feeling in an audience. Thereâs an openhearted emotionality, a way of using music to make your heart explode.â
Sutton Foster, who has played more Tesori heroines than anyone else â in âMillie,â âShrekâ and a 2014 revival of âVioletâ â enjoys the variety in Tesoriâs scores. âEverything she has done has been so different; sheâs always curious about making the left turn and stretching and doing the unexpected â different sounds, different feels.â
Outsiders figure prominently in all of Tesoriâs shows, whether she initiated the project, as with âViolet,â or was asked aboard. She describes the characters as âthe people who are deemed invisible, are outside the power structure in some way.â
âI have felt like that,â she says. âI went outside myself a lot as a kid. I had a very complicated relationship with my dad, who was a very brilliant and dissatisfied person. So I became an observer, and when you pull out of yourself and you are watching the world, you really begin to see in a 360 the people who are not getting the attention. I feel like thatâs where my heart goes.â
Tesori was nominated for Tony Awards for âMillie,â âCarolineâ and âShrek,â as well as for her incidental music for a 1998 Lincoln Center Theater production of Shakespeareâs âTwelfth Night.â She finally got to take home a trophy when she and âFun Homeâ librettist Lisa Kron won the 2015 original-score Tony, contributing to the showâs total of five.
âFun Homeâ zigzags and circles through three stages in Bechdelâs life: as a girl, as a young woman of college age and as an omnipresent adult watching the other two.
The key events unfold across the â70s and dawn of the â80s. âI grew up then,â Tesori says, which meant she didnât need to do much research into the era â too bad, in a way, because she loves to dive into different periods. âIâm a real musicologist at heart,â she says.
Tesori had in mind the women singer-songwriters of the era, especially Joni Mitchell. Also playing in her head were Billy Preston; Talking Heads; Cat Stevens; Blood, Sweat & Tears and Stevie Wonder.
She also dipped into classical music as she and Kron sought to depict a crucial dichotomy in the Bechdel household. âCome to the Fun Home,â the romping, â70s-style commercial that the Bechdel children concoct, gives way to the infinitely more complex sounds of âHelenâs Étude,â in which Helen, the mother, practices a Chopin-like melody at the piano while in another room the father, Bruce, makes small talk, subtly sprinkled with come-ons, with a young man heâs hired to do yardwork.
âEveryone is siloed in their own world,â Kron explains. âBy having everybody singing a different thing, thereâs a sense of them together as this family, and yet thereâs a cacophonous separateness.â