Get Me Rewrite!

Jeanine Tesori reveals what made her modernize Millie

Dec 3, 2003 at 4:00 am
Thoroughly Modern Millie flaps into St. Louis this week with the credentials of a bona fide Broadway hit: six Tony awards, including Best Musical, five Drama Desk awards, including Best Musical. But according to the show's composer, Jeanine Tesori, it is unlikely that any of those honors would have been bestowed had the show's creators listened to the out-of-town critics.

So what was wrong with the early reviews? Only this: They were too positive.

Back in 2000, when Millie debuted in La Jolla, California, "the reviews were pretty great," Tesori confirms. "But I came to believe that the critics were reviewing Act Two. The first act literally didn't have one laugh.

"A review, however positive or negative, is one single opinion. An audience, on the other hand, is an extraordinary thing. When you get a group of strangers together, and they don't even realize that they are agreeing to laugh at the same time, I find that amazing. So you listen. Time and again our audiences told us that that, while Act Two was 90 percent there, Act One was so far off from being correct that we had to start all over again."

Which is what they did. One week after Thoroughly Modern Millie opened in La Jolla, even as patrons were clamoring to purchase tickets to this acclaimed new hit, Tesori and writing partner Dick Scanlan began to dissect the show scene by scene, song by song. In so doing, they weaned it off its source material, the 1967 movie musical of the same title, and began to draw more from their own life experiences.

Millie tells the tale of a young innocent who comes to New York for the first time; Tesori could certainly relate to that. Although she was born and raised on Long Island, just 40 minutes from Manhattan, she never set foot in the Big Apple until she began classes at Barnard College. She was a pre-med student with no interest whatsoever in Broadway until that fateful day when she noticed a listing in the Barnard catalog for music directors who could double as camp counselors at a summer theater. Tesori, who had studied classical piano from age five to fourteen, thought the gig might be a welcome lark. It proved to be much more.

"The instant I stepped into this dusty, disgusting old theater, I was literally hooked," she says. "I knew nothing about the theater, yet this was one of those defining moments when I realized I was going to have to change my entire life."

After "an intensive summer of seeing classic plays and musicals with seven-year-olds in them," Tesori returned to Barnard and immersed herself in musical theater. "Because I had no skill, I had to start from scratch," she recounts. "I had to learn about orchestration and arrangement and theory. I started playing piano at dance classes, auditions -- anything I could get."

In 1986 she got her first professional job, as associate conductor for the national tour of Big River. "What a revelation that was," she says. "Even though I never went into Manhattan, I grew up assuming that America revolved around New York City. Now I was seeing the rest of this astonishing country. I remember the first time I saw Washington, D.C. It was such a fantastic place, I felt like Dorothy in Oz. I had the same experience when we played Iowa City. It was so different from the America I knew, I had to ask myself, 'Where am I?'"

Tesori sought to include that sense of naive wonder in Thoroughly Modern Millie. But first came Violet.

"By 1990 I began to consider composing full-time," explains Tesori. "But it's too easy to talk about writing music and not do it. You need a project, and you need a deadline." So she acquired the rights to Doris Betts' short story, "The Ugliest Pilgrim," then rented a house in remote Vermont for a year "and just sat and wrote. I didn't even know if I could write a musical. But I had to find out if this was a process in which I was meant to partake."

It was. Violet was produced at Playwrights Horizons in 1997, where it won the Richard Rodgers Award. Since then there's been no looking back. Tesori has written for animated Disney films, for Shakespeare at Lincoln Center. Her current offering, the new musical Caroline, or Change, with book and lyrics by Tony Kushner, opened this week at New York's Public Theater. It's as if a lifetime of stored music is suddenly gushing out.

The jazz-age songs for Thoroughly Modern Millie might not be Tesori's most ambitious score, but Millie was the turning point to her career and the event that brought solidity to her life. "Working on Millie taught me to follow through on what your instincts tell you," Tesori says. "When I was conducting Titanic on Broadway, I heard Maury Yeston [the show's composer] use a term that I really love. He referred to 'the exclusivity of failure.' It's that ability to say, 'This is the way I hear it.' Do I believe in collaboration? Absolutely. But Millie strengthened my resolve to hold fast to my convictions. It's important to remember that money doesn't solve problems. Creativity is always about ideas."

And, she might have added, knowing when not to listen to the critics.