Tony-Award®-winning composer Jeanine Tesori is known for translating America’s most iconic musical styles to the stage with shows like Caroline, or Change and Fun Home. But even if you appreciate the blend of eras and references that fill her music, don’t call her work “pastiche.”
For her collaboration with playwright David Henry Hwang on the World premiere of Soft Power—onstage at the Ahmanson Theatre May 3 – June 10, 2018—Tesori has carefully bound together musical threads of past, present, and future.
I sort of don’t enjoy the word pastiche, Tesori said in an interview during rehearsals.
Pastiche to me sort of feels like it’s easier, that you grab something. I like working with pieces that are more collage—the way there is the Cubist collage of working with found material. She added,
I used to feel like what I was working with was pastiche, and now I don’t worry about it. I’m now writing how I hear it and trying to reflect what’s happening in the moment of the work itself.
For the 2004 Broadway production of Caroline, or Change—about a black woman working for a Jewish family in 1963 Louisiana—Tesori mixed spiritual sounds with blues and folk music, among other styles that were ubiquitous during the show’s setting. Similarly, for Fun Home—which played at the Ahmanson last year—Tesori refers to the styles of famous musical families from the 1970s, such as The Jackson 5 in the pop and funky song “Come to the Fun Home” and The Partridge Family in the happy-go-lucky tune “Raincoat of Love.”
Soft Power is just as full of recognizable references, but they came with their own challenges for a work that shifts from a present-day play to a musical production a century into the future—with the events of the play re-told from the Chinese perspective. That outsider’s perspective gives several nods to classic Americana.
This is my version of what romantic musicals sound like and without getting into my head too much, Tesori said of the inspiration she drew from Broadway’s Golden Age of the 1940s and 1950s. The show also includes hip hop and other elements that sound a lot like the popular music we hear on the radio today.
Soft Power is also marked by the 2016 election, which took place in the midst of the show’s development—and changed a great deal for the creative team. Tesori said in a New York Times interview that she felt
really out of control in a deep way about the election but knew the team needed
to stay in the conversation, that times like this call for a strong response.
dug in to find a new perspective on the narrative—a collaborative effort that Tesori had always prepared to jump into for the long haul.
I tend to enter collaborations that are long-term, she said.
Tony Kushner and George C. Wolf had worked together many years when I entered that collaboration [for Caroline, or Change]. [Director] Leigh [Silverman] and David have worked together for many, many years, and sometimes teams need a new person to come in and reveal something that’s already in the partnership they don’t know. I think that’s also what happened.
In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Tesori called the collaborative process of writing music for theatre
an odyssey, where you go away from home, you develop, and then you return different because of all the changes that have happened on the way. Although Soft Power is Hwang and Tesori’s first piece of work together, the two Columbia University colleagues trusted each other from the very beginning to create nostalgic yet original music. Hwang’s generosity of
not having an ego in the room, and Tesori’s background in medicine, allowed for a rigorous editing process between the two creatives.
You have to be a surgeon and not get emotionally attached to things, Tesori said.
If something’s not working at the right time, you have to cut it out. Musicals are a house of cards. You take one card out and the whole thing falls, but if you take the right cards out, it has a beautiful design. It’s endlessly frustrating and wonderful.