Since her Tony-nominated Broadway debut as the highlight of the 2011 revival of On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, Illinois native Jessie Mueller 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, the gifted, young singing actress is taking center stage as famed, Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Carole King in the new musical Beautiful at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre. Mueller, in fact, is offering one of the most accomplished performances of the season, capturing the sound and style of the woman who penned such classics as "Natural Woman," "You've Got a Friend" and "Will You Love Me Tomorrow." It's not only Mueller's uncanny vocals, but her deeply felt performance that makes Beautiful: The Carole King Musical one of the most enjoyable musical-theatre outings of the year. It should be mentioned that the production, which is staged by Marc Bruni with choreography by Josh Prince and musical direction by Jason Howland, also features a top-notch supporting company, with especially notable performances by Jake Epstein as Gerry Goffin, Anika Larsen as Cynthia Weil and Jarrod Spector as Barry Mann. I recently posed a set of questions to rising Broadway star Mueller; her answers, via email, follow.
Question: How did this role come about? What was the audition process like?
Jessie Mueller: My agent called me with the audition. My first round was more of a meeting, and then I had, I think, two more auditions. One just for the creatives, and then the last callback seemed like it was in front of 20 people! There were a couple of scenes, and then we were asked to sing "Rain Until September" and "Natural Woman." I was really nervous and wasn't sure quite what to do. I remember hanging as close to the piano as I could. It felt really strange not to sing the songs connected with it somehow.
Question: How familiar were you with Carole King's music before this project?
Mueller: I knew some of the stuff from "Tapestry" and Really Rosie, and was familiar with her earlier songs, but I didn't know she wrote them! I love that about the show. You get to rediscover some of the biggest hits of the 50s and 60s within the context of the people that wrote them.
Question: How did you go about trying to fit King's voice into yours? How difficult is it to sing more in her style than your own?
Mueller: It was a process! There were things I was doing earlier on that I learned I couldn't maintain eight shows a week. I did a lot of listening. I looked for technical things to pick up on, and I listened for phrasing. It was really important to me to have some freedom, too, in the way she does. So I had to learn what my "Carole choices" were. There are things I change up from night to night, but I always try and make sure they're appropriate to a lick or a riff I feel she'd do.
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