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Q&A: Jeanine Tesori, composer nominated for a Tony Award for 'Shrek The Musical'

Jeanine Tesori is the composer of Shrek The Musical.

Special to the Times

Jeanine Tesori is the composer of Shrek The Musical.

Jeanine Tesori is a rare commodity: a female composer with a sustained career on Broadway. Tesori's score for Shrek The Musical is her fourth to be nominated for a Tony Award, following Twelfth Night, Thoroughly Modern Millie and Caroline, or Change. Tesori, 47, graduated from Barnard College and started out in the theater as a rehearsal pianist and then a conductor, before making the switch to composing. Here are excerpts from a phone interview.

I was shocked to discover only a few other female composers with major Broadway credits. About the only ones I found were Kay Swift for Fine and Dandy, Mary Rodgers for Once Upon a Mattress and Lucy Simon for The Secret Garden.

It is shocking. And the strange thing is that even with Mary and Lucy, it seemed to be one show and then not a return.

Who else is there?

In terms of contemporaries, I don't have any right now. By that I mean women who have done three or four shows. I'm hoping there will be many in the generations coming up. I'm not quite sure why there are so few of us. Do the women who write music tend to go into pop? There's talent everywhere in pop and soul and R&B.

I was surprised by how traditional the Shrek score was for such cartoony material.

That's exactly what we were trying to do with this score. Certainly it has some pop influences and some Celtic stuff thrown in there, but I really wanted it to have a classic Broadway sound.

Except, of course, for all the farts and belches in the duet by Shrek and Princess Fiona, I Think I Got You Beat. How did you deal with that?

David (Lindsay-Abaire, the lyricist) and I wrote all of those, unfortunately. We decided it would be a really twisted version of Tony and Maria in The Dance at the Gym, or Shrek and Fiona's version of Anything You Can Do from Annie Get Your Gun. The farts are sampled, but the belches are by (director) Jason Moore, and I think Sutton (Foster) has some in there too.

I think Shrek is unusual in that the second act is stronger than the first.

I do tend to write things in which the second act is better than the first. I think it is very true with Millie. Setup is just really hard; I'm still learning how to do it well. We had a lot of characters to introduce and a lot of exposition in the first act of Shrek. For me second acts are more fun because they're all payoff. And I tend to write that easier.

What was it like to write music for Tony Kushner's lyrics in Caroline, or Change?

It was just heaven on earth. Conversing with Tony is on such a high level, but he really can tell a great joke. So there's this wonderful lowbrow-highbrow quality. I think of myself as that way, too. I love to go to an all-Stravinsky concert, but then I would love to go to a White Castle afterward.

John Fleming can be reached at or (727) 893-8716. He writes for Critics Circle at

Q&A: Jeanine Tesori, composer nominated for a Tony Award for 'Shrek The Musical' 06/05/09 [Last modified: Friday, June 5, 2009 11:45am]
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