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Prolific and Lauded Composer Shines During Abelson Artist Talk

The creative process isn’t always easy for Jeanine Tesori, but it’s fair to say it has worked.

The Tony Award-winning composer and our 2015 Abelson Artist in Residence sat down with School of Communication theatre professor David Bell to talk musical success, the power of rest, and their room with a view at the Segal Visitors Center auditorium on October 22.

“Welcome to a meeting of the sailing club,” quips Tesori to the laughter of the capacity crowd, briefly directing attention to the bobbing boats on Lake Michigan behind her.

Bell swiftly steered the focus back to the energetic and engaging Tesori and her recent “Best Original Score” Tony for Fun Home.

“She is a unique, influential voice in musical theatre,” Bell says.

Unique and influential indeed. Tesori, a New York native, has garnered Tony nominations for Twelfth Night; Thoroughly Modern Millie; Violet; Caroline, or Change; and Shrek: The Musical, which co-starred Brian d’Arcy James (‘90). She has won a Drama Desk Award, an Obie, a Lortel, and a New York Drama Circle Critics Award. In 2004, the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) honored Tesori for being the first female composer with two concurrent hit musicals on Broadway (for Millie and Caroline). Her work has been seen extensively on Broadway, at New York’s Lincoln Center, and beyond.

But it was Tesori’s honesty that struck a chord with the students, faculty, and alumni in attendance. When asked about her creative process for Fun Home, Tesori jokes it was “absolute misery from day one.”

She fell in love with the graphic memoir upon which the musical was based, which recounts the travails of a young girl, her dysfunctional family, and their dealings with sexual orientation, gender roles, suicide, and emotional abuse. It was a tough one to tackle, and Tesori and co-creator Lisa Kron spent years hammering out the music and lyrics.

“It was maddening and I cried a lot,” Tesori says.

It wasn’t until Fun Home’s director, Sam Gold, coached Tesori and Kron to take a more layered approach that the breakthroughs began.

“Sam asked, ‘Wouldn’t it be better to fail at the more complex story than succeed at the story we would expect?’” Tesori recalls.

It worked. In addition to Tesori’s Tony (shared with Kron), Fun Home earned five wins, including “Best Musical” at the 69th annual awards.

At Bell’s urging, Tesori told the story of the time she rented a lighthouse near the Adirondack Mountains for an extended rest from the fast pace of her New York City life.

“I took a piano, a laser disc, and a Cher workout tape along with me,” Tesori says, “and I climbed the Adirondacks a lot.” During her time there, she wrote a number of songs that would ultimately appear in the musical Violet.

“I think about that place every day,” she says. “My time there is an example of how when the big questions get answered, the little ones follow.”

Asked by a student which musical and dramatic plays she should read before graduating, Tesori ticked off a long list that included works by Stephen Sondheim, Tennessee Williams, and the Greeks, urging that they be read out loud.

Tesori is currently at work on a musical about Liberia for which she has been studying African drumming, “to understand the downbeat.” She also serves as artistic director for the Encores! Off Center musical theatre summer series and is a member of the Dramatists Guild.

The Hope Abelson Artist in Residence Program was established at the School of Communication and inaugurated in 1990 through a generous gift from Hope Altman Abelson, a former Northwestern theatre student who went on to become a Broadway producer and co-founder, with her husband Lester Abelson, of the League of Chicago Theatres.