By the time Jeanine Tesori wrote her first Broadway show, Thoroughly Modern Millie, in 2001, the old established way of making musicals had passed. It used to be that Broadway-bound shows stayed out on the road, touring to cities like New Haven, Boston and Philadelphia, until the problems were solved. "The director and his creative team would find the commonality among the audiences in each new city," Tesori explains during a telephone conversation from her home in New York City, "because audiences are much more the same than they are different. It's the paying audience that tells you what you have."
But nowadays, owing to excessive costs, a new musical is lucky to play one city out of town. Then the show will preview in New York prior to opening. "It's essentially the same process," Tesori says, "but now New York enters the picture earlier, which means that our failures are more public. Do I prefer it? Absolutely not, but this is how it is."
On the other hand, what's bad for New York is good for St. Louis, because now — rather than simply touring a clone of a Broadway hit — if there's still work to be done, that work eventually gets done on the road. "Every national tour gives you another chance," Tesori says. And in fact, the traveling version of her current show, Shrek the Musical, which opens at the Fox this weekend, received "an absolute rewrite."
Tesori is especially pleased with Shrek's new and revised dragon. "The dragon is a great example of how you just keep trying and trying until you get something right," she says. Anyone who's seen the original 2001 DreamWorks-animated Shrek — and who hasn't? — knows Princess Fiona must be rescued from a tower guarded by a fire-breathing dragon. "When we first conceived the dragon," Tesori explains, "I had an idea that it should be several women, kind of like the Furies. We tried it many ways, but my idea was a theatrical conceit that absolutely did not work, and I take responsibility for that. Now with the tour, we've been able to come at the dragon from a completely new and different perspective. It was a problem that we had fun solving."
When writing a new musical, it takes Tesori "four years to find the score, find the sound, dramatize it, and then it's a balancing act between Act One and Act Two, because they're never balanced. Act One is a challenge because of all the exposition. Musicals don't sing based on exposition, they sing on emotion. So Act Two is always easier because it's payoff, payoff, payoff."
When she came to prominence with her score for Thoroughly Modern Millie, Tesori told a reporter that "money doesn't solve problems. Creativity is always about ideas." Now, nearly a decade later, she says, "I feel that way more than ever. Ideas are priceless, though sometimes you need money to make the winch go. You need both, but with the understanding that money is there to service an idea. I've learned that spectacle is not what the theater does best. What the theater does best is to create an empathy with its audience. There is nothing more exciting in the theater than when members of the audience see themselves onstage."
Even in an obvious entertainment like Shrek the Musical? Absolutely, Tesori asserts. "As parents, I think we put our kids in towers all the time. I've always been fascinated by how, in wanting to protect them, we end up doing the most destruction."
So yes, Tesori hopes Shrek has something substantive on its mind. But don't expect to be bludgeoned with it. "I like a play where the audience has to bring something to the experience," she says, adding that a satisfying evening of theater even affects how we sit: "If the audience feels that too much is being done for them, they'll sit back in their seats. It's not that they don't enjoy the show, but it's a different kind of experience. But if a show is about characters rather than special effects, those same audiences will lean forward. They want to know more: 'Who are these people onstage? How did they get here?' That's why I think theater at its best is incomplete."