DIVA TALK: Catching Up With 2014 Beautiful Tony Nominees Anika Larsen and Jessie Mueller

News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.

Anika Larsen
Anika Larsen

Anika Larsen
Those who have enjoyed the numerous talents of Anika Larsen, who has been seen on Broadway in Avenue Q, Xanadu, All Shook Up and Rent, were thrilled this past week when the singing actress, who boasts a rangy and rich belt, earned her first Tony nomination for Best Featured Actress In a Musical for her work in Beautiful. Larsen plays songwriter Cynthia Weil in The Carole King Musical, which nabbed a total of seven Tony nominations, including one for Best Musical.

"I'm fantastic! It's surreal," the gifted artist told me April 29, the morning of the Tony nominations. "I'm in Penn Station right now, and I was crying in Penn Station, but it being New York City, nobody noticed or cared!"

It was Larsen's long-time agent who informed her of the good news as she was stepping off a NJ Transit train coming back from her "fellow's" home. "It was perfect that he called—he was the only agent I've ever had," Larsen said. "I've been with him 15 years, and he stuck by me through thick and thin, so for him to be the one to call me was really special. And then my phone started blowing up, and I don't even know if you can hear me [with] the amount of texts that I've gotten in ten minutes—it's better than my birthdays of all my life combined!"

Larsen, who was also seen Off-Broadway in the autobiographical Shafrika, The White Girl, which she co-wrote with Tim Acito, fellow 2014 Tony nominee Joshua Henry and Janice Lowe, said she burst into tears when she heard the news of her first Tony nomination. "It's sort of perfect that I was in Penn Station—that's such a New York place. I'm from Boston, and I would watch the Tonys obsessively when I was little and sort of dream about this big city and this world, but never really believed that I could somehow be a part of it, so … it's unbelievable that I am in some way involved in the Tonys. It's really hard to wrap my brain around."

The actress said her current Broadway experience has been Beautiful. "I have to say that of any job of my life, this is the most charmed and has had the least amount of anxiety because we were so well led by [director] Marc Bruni that he made it such a loving and comfortable place to work. And, Doug McGrath, our book writer, they were both so generous with being collaborative with us." Larsen also has nothing but praise for the woman she inhabits eight times a week, songwriter Weil, who with husband Barry Mann (2014 Tony nominee Jarrod Spector), penned such hits as "On Broadway," "He's Sure The Boy I Love" and "Don't Know Much," among others. "Cynthia Weil herself has been so loving of me," Larsen said. "I mean, we have such an incredible friendship now; we call each other 'BFF,' although she often calls me 'me.' When she emails me, she says, 'Dear Me.' I feel like I can do no wrong in her eyes.

Larsen at the Tony Nominee reception
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

"And that has been so wonderful because that really is a stressful thing. When they first come, you want them so badly to approve of what you're doing. But she and Barry Mann have just embraced Jarrod and I. It has been such a pleasure to get to know them and to get to play them every night."

On April 3 the entire cast of the Tony-nominated musical was treated to a surprise visit from songwriter King, who enjoyed the new musical at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre for the first time that evening.

"I woke up the next day and thought, 'What did I drink last night?!'" Larsen said with a laugh. "I felt like my face was swollen … and then I realized it's just that I had an emotional hangover – I was weeping for 20 minutes. It was extraordinary. I mean, my first thought when I saw [King onstage at the curtain call] was, 'Oh no, how's Jessie [Mueller] doing?' And I immediately clocked in on Jessie, and her face crumpled, and she burst into tears, and then I started to sympathy cry and kept crying for 20 minutes. But then both of us had this realization, 'Oh wait, she's not just here, she just watched the show!' And both of us were trying to remember if it was a good show, if we were happy with our performances that night, if the audience was good that night. And both of us were pleased to remember that it had been a good show, and it was just amazing — she's just amazing.

"[ Carole King] is like a warm light to be around. To have her lead us in 'You've Got a Friend' was an unbelievable moment. It was unforgettable and then for the audience to sing along, and then she stopped everyone onstage from singing and just had the audience sing. If you've got 1,000 people singing 'You've Got a Friend' at you, it's like nothing you've ever experienced."

PHOTO EXCLUSIVE: A Two-Show Day at Beautiful: The Carole King Musical With Anika Larsen

Jessie Mueller

Jessie Mueller
I also had the pleasure of chatting with Jessie Mueller, who stars in the title role of Beautiful, the morning of the Tony nominations. The multi-talented artist, a 2014 Tony nominee in the category of Best Leading Actress in a Musical, was previously Tony-nominated for her work in the 2011 revival of On a Clear Day You Can See Forever. Since that time, the Illinois native has moved from one high-profile project to the next: Cinderella in the Public Theater's outdoor production of Into the Woods; Kelli O'Hara's successor as Billie Bendix opposite Matthew Broderick in Nice Work If You Can Get It; and Helena Landless in Roundabout Theatre Company's critically acclaimed revival of The Mystery of Edwin Drood. And, now, Mueller is taking center stage as famed, Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Carole King. My brief Tony Nominations Day chat with the actress follows.

Question: How did you find out about the nomination?
Jessie Mueller: I was actually watching with one of my best friends. He called me the other day and said, "Hey, want to get together Tuesday morning? I'll bring bagels. Maybe we should watch." I said, "Sure, let's do it!"

Question: What was your reaction to hearing that you had been nominated?
Mueller: I was very happy, and I jumped off my couch when I heard Jarrod Spector's name announced, and then I jumped up and down again when they called Anika's name. I'm just really happy that the whole show is being recognized in the way it is because it's such a labor of love for us… It's just so great, and I love [that] orchestration and sound design [were also nominated] because it all happens together, and we all do it collectively, so it's even sweeter when the whole group gets recognized like that.

Question: There were so many new musicals this season — it must be very gratifying that Beautiful received a nomination in the Best New Musical category as well.
Mueller: Absolutely. I haven't gotten to see everything yet, but I saw After Midnight, and it's just fantastic. I've only heard wonderful things about the other two shows… It's cool, too, that these are new shows, and they're all very, very different, and I think that's such a great thing.

Mueller in Beautiful.
photo by Joan Marcus

Question: What was the biggest challenge of the project, especially when you're playing someone who is so well known and someone who is still alive?
Mueller: I think at the core of it was just upholding the integrity of it. Every decision that we all made and that the creative team made [was] always very driven by that sort of core value. That we have the integrity at stake of these four writers that are living and working and still doing their art, and so it's important to represent them in an honest way, and we wanted the show to be entertaining, but we had a lot at stake. Question: You had an especially exciting night about two weeks ago. What was your reaction to seeing Carole King come onstage, and how have you sort of filtered that experience since then?
Mueller: It took me a second for it to kind of sink it. I saw her and I was like, "She's here." And the second thought was, "Oh my God, she's here because she just saw it." [Laughs.] So then my mind was going, "How was my singing? How did it sound?" But she looked so happy. And there was the recognition that she wouldn't come out [onstage] if she wasn't happy and she wasn't pleased and she didn't feel like she was represented in the way that she wanted. I was also just gratified that she was able to come see it in the way that she wanted to and that she felt comfortable. That she feels proud of it now is such a wonderful thing to live with every day.

Question: What's been the most gratifying aspect of playing this role in the show?
Mueller: I think it's the collective thing with everybody of the feeling that we create with the show. You see people at the stage door after, and they're so happy. It brings back so many memories for some people. For some people they're newly exposed to this music and this era. So many things were happening socially and in the country, but the music was such a representation of that and there was such an authenticity to the music. And, it was the birth of rock-and-roll as rock-and-roll was taking over. It was a huge moment in time, and it's so fun to see people's reactions to that.

[For tickets, visit telecharge.com or phone (212) 239-6200. The Stephen Sondheim Theatre is located at 124 West 43rd Street. Visit beautifulonbroadway.com.]

Gilligan as a puppy

ON A PERSONAL NOTE:
I wanted to dedicate this week's column to my beloved dachshund, Gilligan, who I lost last Friday, two weeks short of his 14th birthday. My little buddy, whose jovial spirit was contagious, died in my arms after a month-long illness. He spent many hours on my lap as I wrote this column and never seemed to mind listening to the countless renditions of "With One Look," "Rainbow High," "Unexpected Song," "Rose's Turn" and "Meadowlark" that played in my various apartments over the years. And, whether he was running in crazy circles around the room, lovingly looking back at me during a walk to make sure I was still on the other end of the leash, staking the six inches under the bed as his own personal space or surreptitiously drinking from my glass of water during the night, Gill made me laugh most every day of his life. In fact, I have dozens of anecdotes about this colorful canine that I won't bore you with, as I realize he was probably neither greater nor lesser than other dogs; he was simply mine. The only thing Gilligan ever truly wanted was love (and chicken and bacon and, yes, the occasional cheeseburger), and he gave it back exponentially. Rest in peace my friend, you deserve it. I will see you again someday on the other side.

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Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to agans@playbill.com.

Diva Talk runs every other week on Playbill.com. Senior editor Andrew Gans also pens the weekly columns Their Favorite Things and Stage Views.

My favorite picture of Gilligan.
My favorite picture of Gilligan.