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.
|Photo by Joan Marcus|
Question: How involved was King in the rehearsal process?
Mueller: She was involved behind the scenes, and mostly to us, through her daughter and manager, Sherry Kondor. The content of the book, by Doug McGrath, was constructed around interviews that he did with Carole King, Gerry Goffin, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil. So they all had input and approval of what the show has now become. I didn't get to meet Carole until we came back from our San Francisco run. She surprised us! It was awesome. Until that point, she let us do our work, and find our way.
Question: The night I attended most of the audience sang along in two sections. Is that at all distracting as an actor?
Mueller: Ha! You can't really hear that from onstage. Why I can hear candy wrappers and cell phones and not that, I'm not sure. I think people just want to be enveloped and involved in the music! Hopefully, it isn't too distracting to other patrons!
Question: Do you have a favorite moment in the show for Carole?
Mueller: It can really change from night to night. Some nights I feel like I "fit" moments better than others, depending on where I'm at that day. But that's part of the fun of it. I certainly love doing "You've Got a Friend." It's a pleasure to sit and sing that song to and with Jarrod Spector, Anika Larsen and Jeb Brown every night.
Question: I really enjoyed the central quartet of actors and the friendship and rivalry of the two couples. Tell me about working with those three actors, Jake, Jarrod and Anika.
Mueller: We've really become friends! No joke. Creating a new musical…it's amazing it ever happens! It can be an intense process. So it really bonded us. We got to know each other and fight for the material and its integrity. We know we have each others' backs onstage and off. That's an amazing thing.
Question: April 3 was a special night for the production. What was your reaction to seeing King come out on the stage? Did she say anything to you after that you can share?
Mueller: It's crystal clear and blurry all at the same time! I kind of got the wind knocked out of me. I was shaking and just trying to keep it together. But I was thrilled she was there! And as many have seen, via youtube, she thought it was “f-ing awesome”! So, what more could you wish for?
|Photo by Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images|
Question: What has been the biggest challenge of the role? The biggest reward?
Mueller: Biggest challenge…I guess the emotional roller coaster every night. I think I'm learning that your mind knows the difference between real pain/joy/whatever and "acted," but your body doesn't. And, I certainly now have more respect for people like Jason Howland [the show's musical director] who sit at a piano most of the time! It's tough on your body! So I'm still learning how to keep myself in shape. The biggest reward is the audience's reaction. When we come out and sing "Earth Move" and can tell that we've moved people, it's all worth it.
Question: Your siblings are also actors. Can you tell me their names and their current projects? Have you ever worked together? Any plans to work together in the future?
Mueller: Sure! Matt Mueller — currently working on a wonderful new musical called Hero (by Aaron Thielen and Michael Mahler) at the Asolo Rep; Abby Mueller — currently in Kinky Boots on Broadway; and Andrew Mueller — just came off of the NY run of Peter and the Starcatcher and a critically acclaimed revival of RENT in Chicago.
I have gotten to work with all of them and would do so again in a heartbeat! Matt's the only one I haven't gotten to work with professionally. But we did do some shows together in high school and some riveting productions in our childhood living room.
Question: Do you have any other projects in the works?
Mueller: My hands are pretty full with Beautiful at the moment! But I'm always keeping track of great music for when I'm ready to do an album. I hope in the next year or so. But, God laughs when you make plans, right?
[For tickets, visit telecharge.com or phone (212) 239-6200. The Stephen Sondheim Theatre is located at 124 West 43rd Street. Visit beautifulonbroadway.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.