Composer Jeanine Tesori Talks ‘West Side Story’ Music

Tony Award-winning composer Jeanine Tesori./Molly Sheridan

By John Schilling


   Prior to the release of Steven Spielberg’s film adaptation of “West Side Story” on Friday, Dec. 10, the Puerto Rican and Latino Studies Department (PRLS) welcomed Tony Award-winning musical composer Jeanine Tesori as a guest lecturer for “West Side Story: The Brooklyn Connection,” an educational lecture series that has been hosted throughout this semester by PRLS Associate Professor María Pérez y González and Dr. Virginia Sánchez Korrol.

   Tesori, who won her Tony Award in 2015 for Best Original Score for the musical “Fun Home,” worked on “West Side Story” as a development music consultant and supervising vocal producer, contributing over 25 years of knowledge and experience in musical theater composition. In addition to “Fun Home,” Tesori’s other notable works include “Thoroughly Modern Millie” (2002), “Shrek The Musical” (2008), and “Caroline, or Change” (2004), which returned to Broadway this past October.

   Throughout her career, Tesori has worked with Tony Kushner, the playwright, and screenwriter who wrote the screenplay for Spielberg’s “West Side Story.” Naturally, when it came time to work on the film, Kushner reached out to Tesori.

   “This job…was to come in with the POV of a composer, since we didn’t have the composer any more, and to really not look at it as a story that has been done but [as] a story that is sung into being,” said Tesori. “A story that is really inhabited by characters that want something, and there is something in the way of them wanting it. And they work lyrically to work through these songs.”

   “West Side Story,” which first opened on Broadway in 1957, focuses on the turf war between the Jets, a white gang, and the Sharks, a Puerto Rican gang, in New York City during the 1950s. At the time and still, to this day, the story has been a source of controversy for the ways in which it depicts and describes Puerto Rico and the Nuyorican experience. This was something Tesori wanted to be conscious of when she joined the film.

   “It’s all about partnership,” said Tesori. “ […] You bring your imagination to something that you can’t possibly have experience [in] because we cannot walk in the shoes…of other people all the time. It’s simply not possible…but you must partner with someone who has been there [and] has this lived experience.”

   When it came to “West Side Story,” one of Tesori’s tasks included partnering with Puerto Rican dialect coaches to ensure that Latinx actors would have a seamless transition from speaking to singing. This included working with dialectal coach Victor Cruz, who helped Tesori understand that dialects can change and there can be more than one. 

   This resonated with Tesori, who is of Sicilian ancestry and grew up noticing how the Sicilian dialect compares with that of Northern Italy through her grandmother.

   “I see that dialect is part of the storytelling, and I needed to understand these characters because it also would tell me the length of time,” said Tesori in reference to how long the Puerto Rican characters have been in America when the film takes place.

   In regards to the actual music in the film, Tesori mentioned how daunting it was to take on something that is already acclaimed and widely known, but she appreciated how complicated it was to stay true to the material yet make it feel new again.

   Despite her contributions, Tesori credits Tony Kushner and Stephen Spielberg for the decision to stay true to the show’s 1957 soundtrack in some aspects while modernizing it in other areas for the film, but she takes ownership over the approach she took with each singer, which involved asking themselves why they were singing in the first place and emphasizing the importance of “rhythm and inevitability,” as playwright George C. Wolfe has said.

   “[A song] starts with a rhythm way before so they can understand where a song starts, but the audience doesn’t hear it,” said Tesori. “They can understand the shoulders they’re standing on inside the narrative. This is the thing that we talk about, and the order that we work with has to be inevitable.”

   In terms of “West Side Story,” Tesori mentioned how certain songs in the story are used to release the tension of a previous scene, such as “I Feel Pretty” and “Gee, Officer Krupke.” As Tesori explained, “I Feel Pretty,” the song in the story in which a character describes how she has fallen in love, comes after a serious turning point in the story that only the audience knows about while other characters still have yet to find out. This is deliberately placed to keep the audience drawn in and keep the tension alive. Similarly, “Gee, Officer Krupke” is seemingly comedic, but it explores the system in which young men become societal outcasts and the target of law enforcement all while using rhythm.

   “Your ear is delighted by that,” said Tesori. “So we have to make sure people still listen to the story being said…We had to make sure that people got both.”

   Similarly, a noticeable difference in this new adaptation, according to Tesori, are some lyrical changes that were implemented to fix some of the controversial aspects of previous versions of the story, some of which involved tarnishing Puerto Rico. 

There are also some lyrics that are the same but now heard differently based on some tweaks made by Kushner, as well as composer Stephen Sondheim, who passed away on Nov. 26. 

   “[Sondheim] was listening as if the words were an oil [painting] and could be moved around. He did that for all of ‘West Side Story,’” said Tesori. “Questioning everything to the point where I thought ‘Oh my God, it’s really good. Don’t change it.”

   In addition, Tesori mentioned how the music now bears some more responsibility than it did previously as the film features Spanish dialogue without any subtitles, acknowledging that America is not a monolingual country while also allowing audiences to rely on the rhythm of the music, body language, and the overall performance to help them comprehend what is going on in the film if they do not speak Spanish. This allows the Puerto Ricans in the film to be the “insiders” instead of the “outsiders,” as they are normally portrayed.

   For Tesori, it is all about elevating these voices that are representative of an entire culture or a specific group of people, which this adaptation of “West Side Story” aims to do for Puerto Ricans.

   “Everyone has a song to sing. It is our job to locate it, to amplify it, to push the faders up, and to make sure those who have not claimed this space get listened to,” said Tesori. “Will it be perfect? Never…but we must strive to do more to reveal that inner working.”