Meet the Tony-Winning Composer Behind Awards Favorite ‘Kimberly Akimbo’
Jeanine Tesori's music powers the acclaimed Kimberly Akimbo — and many of the best modern Broadway shows.
When the 2023 Tony nominations were announced earlier this May, one little-musical-that-could made a strong showing alongside the expected hits of the season (the Josh Groban-led Sweeney Todd revival, the Max Martin-powered & Juliet, the big laugh-laden Shucked). Kimberly Akimbo, based on the play of the same name by David Lindsay-Abaire, scored eight nominations, including best musical and best original score for composer Jeanine Tesori and Lindsay-Abaire, who wrote the book and lyrics.
As plots go, Kimberly’s might not initially sound like natural fodder for a feel-good night of theater: the title character (played by Broadway veteran Victoria Clark) is a 16-year old girl with a rare illness that’s made her age at an unusually rapid pace (such that she looks like an elderly woman) and which guarantees she will die young. Yet the intimate production is an equally rare gem: As Kimberly figures out how to live the life she has in the way she wants, poignancy is balanced with an unexpected degree of humor. And a great deal of the show’s joy comes courtesy of Tesori’s eminently hummable score, performed by a diverse and vibrant cast including fellow Tony nominees Clark, Bonnie Milligan (as Kim’s hilarious aunt-on-the-lam) and newcomer Justin Cooley (as her anagram-obsessed friend and maybe-love-interest, Seth).
For Tesori, one of the great modern musical theater composers, Kimberly is the latest entry in a string of singular contemporary musicals ranging from Fun Home (for which she won a Tony for best original score and was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in drama) to Caroline, or Change to even Shrek the Musical. She spoke to Billboard shortly after the Tony nominations announcement.
You’re one of the few well-known musical theater composers for whom I truly can’t describe a signature sound – your sonic palette seems to change from show to show. Do you think of yourself as having specific influences and signatures?
Oh my God, “sonic palette” has to be the name of a girl band. [Laughs.] I grew up playing a lot of rock and pop, and a lot of gospel when I started in Nashville [as a recording producer], but I was also trained classically. I had the incredible fortune of studying with classical musicians and being in New York in the ‘80s, starting to produce in Nashville and work there for 15 years, and I think the palette comes from those experiences with music and mentorship that were equally eclectic.
There are many of us [in theater] who have this kind of palette that doesn’t come from the outside, it comes from within, and depending on what the story is, different parts are amplified and viable. And I only choose the things to write that I think I have an affinity for. I don’t think, “Ooh, I’d better write a reggae musical” – it wouldn’t be me, I have no idea how I’d do it.
The setting for Kimberly is written as “1999. Before kids had cell phones. Somewhere in Bergen County, NJ.” How did you figure out what the musical world of that story would be?
I can’t write a vocal until I know what the band for the show will be — it just sounds like piano stuff in a vacuum until then. [But] when [orchestrator] John Clancy and [music director] Chris Fenwick and I started talking, we talked a lot about how things are mixed and panned and the musicians who played back then — the kinds of guitars they used, the way they used keyboards. In the theater we have no money — it’s usually seven pieces, so it’s chamber and soloistic [playing]. We’re asking questions like, what are the reeds and why? How do we evoke this [time] period without aping it? Theater songs work in a different way [than pop songs], they just do.
We knew what [the characters would be] listening to, what the music scene would have been for them. But it was also the idea of what your musical taste would be before kids had cell phones and could share stuff so easily. You went to music, music didn’t come to you, unless you had vinyl… and if it came to you, I don’t ever remember playing vinyl to just play one song. In a narrative way, I was obsessed with the order of the songs, what song came after what.
The anthemic opening number, “Skater Planet,” has the lyric, “It’s Saturday night in Bergen County,” and quickly gives us a very specific sense of place in New Jersey, too. Were Jersey artists particularly influential as you were writing?
Oh yeah, for sure. I remember when Bruce first put out his stuff — especially for me, as a pianist, when you hear piano on a Bruce Springsteen album, it plays an unbelievable role. Billy Joel definitely [was an influence as well], but it was different — he was the pianist, where Bruce was this amazing, slamming guitarist.
I always do listen for sounds of instruments – I think drum kits in Broadway pits don’t always mike really well, so I’m always looking for ways to create a drum kit that doesn’t sound like a trap kit. There are things that don’t occur to you as a pianist, that you have to listen to other musicians to hear how they behave. But I don’t listen to music a ton while I’m writing; I find I need my receptors to be really open to my own ideas.
How do you know when a show is right for your music? And when did that realization happen for you with Kimberly?
When I’m thinking about a show, from experience, I immediately know… not that I will write it well, but if I can write it, whether I should. My taste in music is crazy all over the place, but I know immediately when I hear it if it will stay with me. And it’s that way with stories, too: If someone pitches something or I read something, I have an immediate reaction of, “Right, I can do that.” And it’s definitely always the father/daughter thing… no matter what I write about, it’s always there, because of my own relationship with my father, who’s not here anymore. Violet was like that, Fun Home was exactly that, Kimberly Akimbo, it’s baked into the pie of the story.
[With Kimberly], I loved the play. I loved that it’s an early work of David’s, from before he quite understood the power of his craft. He understands drama and it’s as good as they get, but there was room for music to do some heavy lifting — so we were able to expand it where it needed expanding. The idea that the world sees Kimberly in one way, and it’s her identity vs. her essence — so many theater songs are written from that place.
It’s always somehow surprising to me when I realize you’re not both a composer and lyricist, because your music and lyrics always seem such natural fits for one another. And this show — particularly in the song “Anagram” — is so much about words and how they’re used and how they can define a person. What was your process like with David, who wrote the book and lyrics?
David is a miraculous thinker. He grew up in working-class South Boston, and he has a keen intellect and real love of words from all walks of life. [For ‘Anagram’], I knew that part had to be a song — it screams “song moment.” There’s a transformation – by the end of the song she’s in love like, an eighth of a teaspoon, and we watch that happen through the text. The reason she falls in love is that she’s a kid whose letters didn’t line up in her body and therefore she’s going to die. When she watches [Seth], he rearranges letters to transform something [mundane] into something beautiful. Her belief system changes and her heart opens up. I was like, “David, Seth is you — do an anagram, let me record you.” So I recorded him doing the anagram you hear, and then we wrote the song around it.
We spend so much time together and I’m constantly asking him to read his lyrics, just read everything to me, let me just hear it. I feel like the job for me is to really take the text and just illuminate it to the point where he and I are exactly on the same page. It’s why I love working with playwrights — their love of the word.
You’ve done vocal coaching as well, recently for Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story movie. How did that inform your work on Kimberly, a show in which you have two very different kinds of actors and voices as your leads — a veteran, Victoria Clark, with a typically almost classical soprano voice, and an actual teenager making his Broadway debut in Justin Cooley?
[Before Kimberly], I had just come off being the vocal producer for West Side Story and working with [Tony] Kushner, [Stephen] Sondheim and Spielberg, you learn a thing or two. Working with someone like Vicky, she’s on that level. Of course she had a fear [of taking on the part], and I just told her, “I guarantee you this is the right part for you. I’m not saying we’re going to succeed; I never know if something will be a big flop-eroo, but I know you can do this and I will be there every step of the way.” I would [tell her], you’re gonna go slowly to be sure you stay healthy, that the story gets told, that it works in ensembles, that you can sing with Justin, to figure out how to make this work with so many variables. I’m 61 — I’m interested in creating a role for someone in their 60s or 70s that they can really do and be able to play and do things that are joyous and fun and not strip their cords.
Justin just turned 19, and that’s when I started in theater. I remembered that I really had all the things I needed at 19, and I just didn’t know what to do with all of it. If you are talented, it’s a gift, and he has that. Those people keep you awake to the beginner’s mind. The fact that he just got a Tony nomination – this young person is incredible. He’s just got a truth to him, there’s no artifice. Musicals can get artificial and full of s–t really quickly. It’s artifice but it should not be artificial – that’s the challenge.
That’s a perfect way of describing what’s so great about this show. It’s a hard plot to sell people on, but it really is heartbreaking and hilarious in equal measure.
This show is really hard to elevator pitch. When people ask what it’s about, I’m like, “Kill me.” [Laughs.] Just come see it! That kind of humor right next to pathos — so much of David’s work is watching people using humor as a coping mechanism. A way to get through the world and its tragedies and disappointments is that you laugh. There’s also a great love of silly humor.
So much of musicals is about tension and release — when the audience just needs to take a cigarette break. It’s sort of DJing the evening and knowing when you can’t do a ballad, you can’t slow stuff down, there’s so many plates in the air. But the humor is right next to the heart and the heartbreak. That’s why for me it’s a full experience – so much of life is funny and heartbreaking, and that’s often just a Tuesday.
It’s exciting to see a truly original musical like this – with no celebrity casting or blockbuster source material – being received so well and getting significant Tonys attention. Over the years, do you feel like you’ve learned anything about what it takes to keep audiences coming to a show?
The tricky thing about musicals is their development is long – they share a space with animated movies in that way. They average six to 10 years. For me it hovers around eight years; it just takes a long time to really build it in a solid way, in my experience. I start with a series of questions and one is, “Why this, why now?” Mike Nichols used to ask that question – “Why have I gathered you and why am I telling this story?”
One of the things I felt was really true [with Kimberly], and David speaks about this a lot, is: If you’re a teenager coming, they [immediately relate] to the teens, and the older people go right to the parents, and the grandparents to Kim, so it speaks to people in this generational way. For me, it’s seeing this older woman who is also an adolescent, and how both of those things always [coexist].
When I saw Michelle [Yeoh] accept her Oscar at age 60, that was really powerful. I wanted to write into the repertoire a role for women in their 60s. I do think we’re looking at age in a very different way than we did 20 years ago. The more we dispel the idea that things are over for female-identifying people, that our acquired wisdom is equated with losing something, the better.