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A Tony-Nominated Composer Opens Up

Fun Home’s Jeanine Tesori on creating the music for a Broadway hit

The just-opened Broadway musical Fun Home might be based on a graphic novel, but there’s no discounting the role sound plays in the production. The show grew out of illustrator Alison Bechdel’s titular comic, which delves into her life growing up as the lesbian daughter of a closeted gay man who also happens to be a funeral director. The show’s title is the shorthand the family uses to refer to its funeral home.

As heavy as the subject matter may be, there’s something triumphant about the show. And a lot of that has to do with the music, which ranges from upbeat, ‘70s-inspired numbers to soaring ballads. The mastermind behind these pieces is Jeanine Tesori, who was just honored with a Tony nomination for her work on the score and has also composed the music for VioletCaroline, or Change and Shrek: The Musical. Here, she explains what went into creating the sounds of Fun Home, how she knew the material would work and the star-studded projects she’s taking on next. 

So, Fun Home just opened on Broadway. Is it a relief?

You know, doing the show you work like everybody else. You work for years and then it comes down to one or two nights. It’s like the Olympics in that way. It’s just this moment in time that defines it, and that’s nerve wracking. 

The show originally ran Off-Broadway at The Public Theater. Does it make it any easier to be working on it for a second time? 

It certainly was harder at the Public because we had no idea what we were doing. We had never been reviewed, we hadn’t tried it out of town, but we worked down there with audiences that were paying and that was extremely helpful. But it doesn’t get easier ever, just because the stakes are really high. It’s completely worth it, but man, it takes it out of you.

The show is based on Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel. Were you familiar with it before taking the job?

It was all new to me. I didn’t know it at all. 

Did it seem doable to you to transform a comic into a musical?

I knew it would work and I knew it was a great idea. I didn’t know how it would work, but I knew that it would work. There are too many great things happening and there are too many dissonant things happening on the interior of Alison’s life and the interiority of her father’s life. All of that stuff’s going to be rich ground. 

When you start working on a project like this, does the music jump out at you or do you have to find it?

I always begin with one section, because I get overwhelmed really easily. I see the enormity of the show. I used to do a lot of rock climbing and a lot of hiking, and there’s that moment when you look up and you’re like, how the fuck am I going to get to the top of that? And then you slowly work your way up and then you’re above the timberline. I [compose] the same way: I think, let’s start with one thing—you don’t have to keep it—and we’ll find our way. I like getting to that point because you have enough work behind you that there’s a pattern and there’s sound, but the beginning is always really hard. 

When you start, do you have a process you follow? 

No, I’m a complete hot mess. I work wherever I can, whenever I can.. I’ll write something down or something will occur to me, but I have very little discipline. I work really hard and I’m extremely organized when I need to be, but otherwise I’m a lazy girl and the last thing I want to do is sit down and write.

The show focuses on three phases in the main character’s life. Did you write for three different versions of her? 

I was writing for what the character wanted and what she was looking for versus what she was getting. The songs are based on events, conflict, desire—all of those things. Because for me the 1970s were a very acoustic time, I decided she lived in a more acoustic world just like I did. We’re sort of similar in that way.

Your other job is being artistic director of Encores! Off Center, the summer theater season at City Center. This year you’ll have Jake Gyllenhaal doing Little Shop of Horrors and Jonathan Groff in A New Brain. Do you get much of a break before then?

No. We started it the next day after Fun Home opened. I find it’s just better to get back to work.