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Composer Jeanine Tesori on the new Broadway musical 'Kimberly Akimbo'

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

High school can be tough, especially if you look like you're 72. That's Kimberly Levaco's problem. She's at the center of the new Broadway musical "Kimberly Akimbo," played by Victoria Clark.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VICTORIA CLARK: (As Kimberly Levaco, singing) First wish - I want to be a model for a day, a famous fashion muse in a black Dior cocktail dress and a pair of Jimmy Choos.

JEANINE TESORI: She has a rare aging disorder so that she appears to the world to be in her 70s. But she's actually - when she starts the show, she's 15.

RASCOE: That's composer Jeanine Tesori giving us the details on Kimberly.

TESORI: She lives with her mother, Pattie, who is a hypochondriac. And we find out that she's - there's nothing on Pattie that isn't bandaged or taped up. Her father, Buddy, her Aunt Deborah, who sort of reappears - you have what we call the teen quartet. So there are four teens in high school that, you know, they're a part of Kimberly's world.

RASCOE: A 1990s world of New Jersey - it includes ice skating, a love interest who makes anagrams, plus check fraud, a stolen tuba and a dark family secret. Jeanine Tesori is the Tony-winning composer behind "Shrek The Musical," "Thoroughly Modern Millie" and "Fun Home." "Kimberly Akimbo" is her second collaboration with the playwright David Lindsay-Abaire, and it opened on Broadway just a few days ago. She says the story of a teenager dealing with a rapidly aging body has a certain appeal.

TESORI: Yeah, I think bodies are complicated.

RASCOE: Very complicated.

TESORI: Look, and I think, you know, we're socialized as girls to not trust our bodies, not protect our bodies. And so this show, for me, encapsulates so many things I'm interested in as aging. You know, I'm 61 on opening night, and I still feel in so many ways 12 years old. And at the same time, your body and the idea of - that you get one body. It's interesting how we pretend that we don't. We try to modify it and amplify or do all of these things to it. But it's true. You have this one. And I think for Kimberly as a teenager growing up and her parents - they're very theatrical in life, especially when they're trying to push reality away. And they're not - they're trying not to deal. They're doing the best they can. But the situation is their child is not going to be alive for a long time. And instead of dealing with that, they create other things to upstage that pain.

RASCOE: When you write for a musical, you are dealing with emotion, right? And this takes place in a high school which is full of emotion. So I would think that's very fertile ground for a musical composer.

TESORI: Absolutely. In teenage years, everything feels like it's do or die. Everything is huge. And I remember in eighth grade, someone passed a note about me. And I went home to my mother, and I said, I'm never going back there again. And I was not kidding. I just thought, my life is over.

RASCOE: What was the note? It was just really mean and nasty.

TESORI: You know, this was the '70s. It was like some - you - some boy or something, something. So, like, looking back now - but I remember at that moment, I just thought, oh, my life is completely over. I'll have to retire. I'll become an accountant, if I'm lucky.

RASCOE: (Laughter).

TESORI: What you're saying - it's absolutely true. There are teenagers who are dealing with a lot of things. And Kim is inside this teenage world because she is 15 and she is 16, but she isn't. It's both.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CLARK: (As Kimberly Levaco, singing) Oh, with the turn of a letter, oh, everything's better. I wonder how you see the things you see with a change of perspective.

RASCOE: Like, were you able to, like, tap into some of that childhood, writing these songs? And were you into show choir, anything like that? Because...

TESORI: Oh, hell no. I played - look, I started playing when I was 3, and I played all rhythm stuff. Like, I played everything that I could get my hands on from Carole King to Stevie Wonder to Billy Preston. But I also listened to Shostakovich and Kabalevsky, and I had this amazing teacher who said, like, you can get to know people through music. That is the portal. That is the key. Do not judge it, because if you judge it, you stop listening. And if you stop listening as a musician, you're sunk. I'm, like, 7, so I'm like, what the hell is he talking about? The piano was the way in for storytelling to me and through theater. I didn't even really see a musical until I was 18.

RASCOE: Oh, wow. And so how did you get into this? When did you realize this was a lane for you?

TESORI: Well, I saw Lena Horne and "The Lady And Her Music." And I saw this woman named Miss Linda Twine, who became a mentor of mine. I had never seen anything like it in my life. And I just thought, what is this? It felt like theater was waiting for me. And then I caught up to it. So, I mean, I would see shows 13 times. I would rush, I would second act, I would sneak in. I just wanted to understand what had happened to me that day in that theater that I had watched these people tell this story, and it felt like the world had stopped, and I wanted to be part of that.

RASCOE: Going back to "Kimberly Akimbo," the main character, Kimberly - she's dealing with a fatal disease. You have the kids dealing with alcoholism in their family, abandonment, loss of loved ones. And how do you approach that and balance all of that with the music?

TESORI: Well, we wanted to balance it with humor because it all comes from David Lindsay-Abaire's tone of humor, which is the humor of coping. You know, what Kimberly has is what we have, which is we age and then we age out. There's a song in the show called "No One Gets A Second Time Around." And that is true. You know, even if you - whatever you believe, your time here has a little Pepperidge Farm expiration date. And it's really about - you know, it's what the ancient Greeks called kronos. Kronos is a measured time, and kairos is the quality of the time that you are here. And what we're hoping is that people sort of laugh, and their heart aches a little bit. And at the end they realize, like, right, this is it.

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JUSTIN COOLEY: (As Seth Weetis, singing) My brother played with nunchucks. I liked playing chess. My brother broke the knickknacks.

RASCOE: One of the characters who I really loved was Seth. He becomes the kind of love interest for Kimberly. And he has the song "Good Kid" where he's going through all of these heavy things he's dealing with. But also, does he want to stay on the straight and narrow? Does he want to do some things that could get him in some big trouble? Like, and he's grappling with all that. So when you're sitting down to put that together, what is the process for that?

TESORI: That was a song where we watch a young man grapple with doing the wrong thing for the right reason. And so much of being young - I mean, I think that part is your brain isn't quite formed, you know, isn't formed really till...

RASCOE: No, no, no. It is not completely formed at all (laughter).

TESORI: Right. Mine is still forming.

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COOLEY: (As Seth Weetis, singing) The good kid, the good boy, the good one.

TESORI: So you have these young people making big decisions. Should I do this thing? I know it's wrong. I've been good my whole life. And, you know, his brother's not so good, and he is good. So we all have been there on one of those sides. You know, there's always one person in your family who is the misbehaving one. And so we were just interested in that for Seth.

RASCOE: So much of this show - it is, as you said, about embracing the life that we have. Is that a message that you think the world needs more of?

TESORI: I do think so. I think it's been a long time since the world has experienced something at the same time, in the same way with different tools in which to - you know, you could see pictures of people who seemed to be having a very fine time during the pandemic. And those of us who were in our apartments with dogs and children and the the thousand - you know, everybody had a certain kind of time, but everybody was stopped by it at the same time. But also the fragility, you know, there was so much loss. The generation I grew up in - we lost so many friends in the '80s and '90s. And I think that understanding that, you know, grab the joy where you can, and also care for each other because there are people behind you. So I think it's just about this moment in time, about looking at life with a little bit more joy, more empathy, more fun, but also to treasure it.

RASCOE: That's Jeanine Tesori, musical composer of the new Broadway musical "Kimberly Akimbo." Thank you so much for joining us.

TESORI: It was so great to be here.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) We're sailing - we are sailing to a new world - to a new world. Don't know how the waves flow or which way the wind blows, so just enjoy the view because no one gets a second time around. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.