Showing her showbiz roots: The Composer of “Caroline, or Change” has traveled a successful path since her first musical, which opens here next weekend.

February 28, 2010.By Graydon Royce, Star Tribune.

Lots of things are happening in Jeanine Tesori’s life.

“I’m working on something with Lisa Kron, Tony [Kushner] and I have a new piece cooking. David Lindsay-Abaire and I are in a rights discussion on something new.”

Then there’s the film score and “something I’m not a liberty to announce.”

That and a 12-year-old daughter will fill a day.

Tesori has become one of the hottest composers in show business – whether highbrow, lowbrow or post-brow. Her previous work with Kushner, of course, included “Caroline, or Change.” And her collaboration with Lindsay-Abaire was a little thing called “Shrek, the Musical.” She won a Drama Desk award for Nicholas Hytner’s “Twelfth Night” at Lincoln Center and penned scores for a stack of films that included “The Little Mermaid: Ariel’s Beginning,” Mulan II” and “The Emperor’s New Groove 2.”

So it might be interesting to look back at Tesori’s beginnings as a composer with “Violet,” her 1997 collaboration with librettist Brian Crawley. While Tesori is still waiting for her first Tony win (twice nominated) she did nab an Obie with “Violet” for its production at Playwright’s Horizon. The piece never achieved Broadway but it has made the regional circuit. Theater Latté Da opens a production Saturday at the Guthrie’s Studio.

Britta Ollmann, who grew up before our eyes at Children’s’ Theatre Company and then went to New York University, plays the young woman who seeks a miracle to heal her disfigured face and ends up with a deeper understanding of herself.

Interestingly, “Violet” takes place at roughly the same historical time as “Caroline, Or Change,” the early 1960s, and it too deals with racial themes in the South. Tesori agrees that themes of race, politics, religion and the unique nature of the Deep South make these very American plays.

However, subject matter does not link the shows in her consciousness. Rather, it was her discovery of her own creative process that marks “Violet” and “Caroline.”

“I started composing away from the keyboard,” she said. “You live inside the story and eventually it finds its way on paper – but that’s much later. You have to trust that it will get there. It might take a couple years, but it will be richer for it.”

Getting outside her skin

Tesori warmed up to this method – listening to characters rather than sitting at the piano with pad and pencil – when she ventured south for “Violet.” Just as a trip to New York can open the eyes of a Midwesterner, the South taught Tesori that American thrives beyond Manhattan. To write with any authenticity about characters spawned in the hothouse of Southern religion and culture, she would need to trade the spiritual influence of Cardinal Archbishop O’Connor for Flannery O’Connor.

“When I traveled to all these Pentecostal churches, I was amazed,” she said. “You have to acknowledge the power of a group of people with all their hands raised toward one person … the physical presence of that, and watching someone speak in tongues, or watching a snake handler. I was raised as a Roman Catholic, so I felt like had landed on another planet.

“We get stuck here, in New York, and we think this is American,” she continued. “And it’s just not so. American is so deep and so big and there are these unbelievable communities that we look at as the ‘other’ category.”

“Violet” has some of the swampy atmosphere of O/Connor – the writer, not the archbishop. It was adapted from “The Ugliest Pilgrim,” a story by Doris Betts. With a psyche informed by an American can-do attitude and religious belief in miracles, Violet travels to see a television faith healer. On her bus journey, she meets a young African-American soldier (Twin Cities newcomer Azudi Onyejekwe in Latte Da’s production). He becomes the source of her healing.

Tesori followed “Violet” by contributing to Hytner’s “Twelfth Night” and then writing songs for the stage adaptation of “Thoroughly Modern Millie.” Kushner and director George Wolfe courted her for “Caroline,” which the playwright envisioned as an opera. Tesori initially wasn’t convinced the piece needed to be sung through, but the creative evolution led her there. Her next year seems spoken for, but as Tesori looks ahead she likely will seek to again expand her ring of understanding – what she calls “the sense of the scholar in investigating world culture.”

“Tony has it, George Wolfe has, Lisa Kron,” She said. “They have this intense curiosity about the world that keeps going forward.”

Now all she has to do is finally win a Tony.

“I know, I’m the Susan Lucci of the Tonys,” she joked, referring to the often-nominated soap star. “I’m thinking in my gut that I’m just going to win when I’m 89. And that will be it for me.”

Something to look forward to.