Jeanine Tesori surprises with Encores! revivals

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Artistic director Jeanine Tesori, composer of

Artistic director Jeanine Tesori, composer of "Violet" and "Fun Home." Photo Credit: Matthew Karas

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Linda Winer Newsday theater critic and arts columnist Linda Winer.

Winer is chief theater critic and arts columnist for Newsday, which she joined in 1987.

Anticipation can be so dangerous in the arts. We hear about an upcoming seduction -- a play, a series, a whole season -- and, suddenly, the future seems bright and dewy and giddy with excitement. Then comes the real thing and, often, we wonder how we ever could have been so innocent.

I had one of those spasms of unrealistic expectations at the news that Encores!, New York City Center's 20-year-old series of Broadway semi-staged revivals, was spawning an offspring to do the same for musicals from Off-Broadway and experimental spaces. And though I knew better than to abandon my well-earned skepticism, I wrote a preposterously optimistic column last summer in advance of the first season of something called Encores! Off-Center.

The project finished its second season last weekend. It is a pleasure and a delight -- OK, and something of a relief -- to report that anticipation has been altogether justified.

Encores! Off-Center, under the dazzling artistic direction of Jeanine Tesori, has become my favorite new arts institution. In two summers -- three shows each for, total, six short weeks of performances -- the series has brought the American musical's off-center history into the middle with passionately chosen, wonderfully cast and nurtured productions.

In a recent phone interview, Tesori said she couldn't tell me about next year's series, which she is planning. But I've begun to see a shape in the series, at least so far. She began both summers with major revelations. Last year's was a revival of Marc Blitzstein's legendarily inflammatory -- and historically marginalized -- 1937 labor musical, "The Cradle Will Rock," establishing the show as a missing link between the distancing grip of Bertolt Brecht-Kurt Weill and the sentimentality of Leonard Bernstein.

This season's discovery was "tick, tick . . . BOOM!," the autobiographical rock musical that Jonathan Larson, a struggling artist bursting with Broadway ambitions, wrote in 1990. This was six years before Larson died of an aortic aneurysm at 35, the morning before the first Off-Broadway preview of a little show called "Rent." We learned many things about Larson from the tremendously entertaining and touching "tick, tick . . . BOOM!," which cannily starred Lin-Manuel Miranda as the smart, anxious, tightly wound composer. Most of all, we learned how much the music theater lost with his passing.

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Then came the one-night-only centerpiece of each series. Last year, it was Sutton Foster in "Violet," Tesori's 1997 Off-Broadway treasure that's currently one of the very best things on Broadway. The second offering this year was, at last, the New York premiere of rambling, riveting "Randy Newman's Faust," with Newman his droll and beguiling self as the devil on the piano. As Tesori puts it, "He is singular and it was a singular experience," which appears to be her delicate way of dashing hopes of a Broadway transfer.

Both summers ended lighter with revivals of pop-culture markers: first, "I'm Getting My Act Together and Taking It on the Road," Gretchen Cryer- Nancy Ford's hear-me-roar musical of 1978, then "Pump Boys and Dinettes," the country-rock, open-road revue created by its six musician-singers in the early '80s.

Asked about a Broadway or Off-Broadway afterlife for any of these shows, Tesori is insistent. "My job is to really, really look at these shows," she says. "This is not an out-of-town tryout in-town. The rest is for someone else."

Before we elaborate on the ways she is really looking at these shows, we need to take a look at Tesori, 53, who was raised in Port Washington and graduated from Paul D. Schreiber High School. Last fall, "Fun Home," the multi-award-winning adaptation of Alison Bechdel's graphic memoir with a book by Lisa Kron and Tesori's extraordinary score, was considered by many of us to be the best new musical of the season. A Broadway transfer is supposed to happen this fall. But Tesori, also the composer of "Shrek the Musical" and "Caroline, or Change," makes me nervous when she says nothing's definite.

As if writing "Fun Home," seeing "Violet" blossom on Broadway and overseeing the new Encores! project were not impressive enough, Tesori's attention at City Center goes far beyond what we see on the main stage. As Arlene Shuler, president and CEO of City Center, tells me, "Success is happening on so many different levels."

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The summer project, like the winter Encores!, has what often is described as a "boot camp" schedule. After a week of rehearsals, there is one dress rehearsal followed by five performances. Shuler says, "It's the same mission, but everything about it is smaller. Smaller casts, smaller bands. 'tick, tick . . . BOOM' had three musicians. 'Most Happy Fella' last season had 38 people onstage and an orchestra of 38." Also, half of the tickets are only $25, an attempt, surprisingly successful, to attract younger audiences. Artistically, however, nothing is done on the cheap.

Tesori is at least as proud of something called the Lobby Project. This is an ambitious series of performances, conversations and readings -- different ones offered free nightly to ticket holders 45 minutes before each performance. One evening was a talk with Jonathan Larson's family. Another was "Sondheim Remix," a program of remixed pieces for "Sunday in the Park With George" by an assortment of artists. Sondheim, Larson's hero, was there to hear them.

Before "Pump Boys," there was a jam by the original creators of the show -- including New York theater favorite Debra Monk. Another was a concert of 10-minute pieces by young writers, interns in a new mentorship program "on a quest to find their own voices," according to the program. There was even a concert by young singer-songwriters who, for the past five years, have brought their work to share in a Brooklyn living room.

"What's really thrilling for me is what's happening throughout the building," says Tesori. "We're bringing people into the building to work who have rarely, if ever, been inside the building."

And the composer, who used to conduct Broadway shows, says the job is "using everything I have. I can be at orchestra rehearsals and keep my ear on what's happening." As a divorced mother of a 16-year-old daughter, Tesori says she is also using her "parenting -- making sure everybody is having as good a time as they can."

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She doesn't know how much longer she can continue running the program. "I'll definitely be here next year," she vows, "But I have to write."

Shuler, who says Tesori is "not just a composer but a visionary," hopes to keep her "as long as we can entice her to be with us."

For the audience, Tesori wants the "history to be in context." For the young artists, she wants to teach "rigor. You have to have it," she insists. "You can't just float around." Just watch her.

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