DIVA TALK: Chatting With On a Clear Day Star Jessie Mueller

Diva Talk   DIVA TALK: Chatting With On a Clear Day Star Jessie Mueller
News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.

Jessie Mueller
Jessie Mueller Photo by Joan Marcus

Say what you will about the current Michael Mayer-directed revival of the 1965 On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, which will close Jan. 29 after 29 previews and 57 regular performances at the St. James Theatre, but the musical did introduce New York audiences to a new star-in-the-making, Chicago native Jessie Mueller. Mueller, who is making her Broadway debut, plays a 1940s jazz singer named Melinda, whose no-nonsense personality and striking vocals draw the attention of Dr. Mark Bruckner (played by Tony nominee Harry Connick Jr.). Mueller, who often reminds one of a young Judy Garland or Liza Minnelli, greatly impresses with her jazz-tinged vocals and her ability to shift from a whispery tone to a powerful, rangy Broadway belt within the same phrase. Her performance of "Ev'ry Night at Seven" is especially exciting and makes one hope a Jessie Mueller concert will be presented in the not-too-distant future. Just a few hours before it was announced that On a Clear Day, which also co-stars David Turner and Kerry O'Malley, will end its run at the end of the month, I had the pleasure of chatting with singer-actress Mueller, who spoke about her Broadway bow, her Chicago roots, her famous co-star and more; that interview follows.

Question: Since we haven't spoken before, where were you born and raised?
Jessie Mueller: I was born and raised in Evanston, IL.

Question: When did you start performing?
Mueller: I didn't really start performing until high school. My whole family is actually in the business, and started in the business in Chicago, so I was going to shows when I was a teeny-tiny kid, but I didn't really start performing until high school.

Question: When you say your whole family is in the business, what do they do?
Mueller: They're all actors.... Roger Mueller is my dad. My mom's name is Jill Shellabarger. Then I've got my brother Matt Mueller, my sister Abby Mueller, and my brother Andrew Mueller.

Question: Has anyone else played Broadway or are you the first?
Mueller: Not yet. I'm expecting and I hope they all get to, but just not yet. Question: When you were in high school, what shows did you get to do?
Mueller: I think my first show was The Wiz, and I was in the ensemble… [Laughs.] I did Working in high school — that was really fun. I feel like everybody does that in high school or college.

Mueller in On a Clear Day.
photo by Paul Kolnik

Question: When did performing change from being a hobby to when you knew or wanted it to be your career?
Mueller: I think as a little kid, that's what I wanted to do. When I started doing it in high school, I thought, "Oh, okay. Well, this is what it's actually like to do this." And then, when I started applying to college, I was kind of trepidatious about it, but that's what I ended up majoring in. So, it was kind of that transition from high school to college was the decision of, "Okay, I think I really want to do this."

Question: Where did you go to school?
Mueller: I went to Syracuse University.

Question: What was your first professional gig after college?
Mueller: My first professional gig was Once Upon a Mattress at the Drury Lane Oakbrook… I was in the ensemble. I was one of the ladies in waiting, and I covered Winnifred.

Question: Skipping a bit forward, how did On a Clear Day come about for you?
Mueller: I'd been acting in Chicago since I came back after University, and I got a call from my agent saying, "They're doing this revival of On a Clear Day," and I actually auditioned when the team came through Chicago for the American Idiot tour. They were auditioning people for that, and I came in that same day in the midst of all their rock 'n' roll auditions, and came in with my pieces from the show, and that's how it started. We were supposed to have a callback the next day, and I was involved in a reading of a play that I kind of couldn't back out of, so I ended up flying myself to New York the next week and auditioning again, and then they flew me back. They flew me back to the third audition, and that's when I got to meet Harry.

Mueller and Connick in On a Clear Day.
photo by Paul Kolnik

Question: How did you find out you had gotten the role?
Mueller: There was a workshop that was done at the Vineyard Theatre, and I was able to be a part of that. I found out that I was going to be doing the role at the Vineyard, and as that workshop presentation came to a close, the producers pulled me aside, and they were like, "Alright. I think we're going to do this." Question: Do you remember your first preview or your first night on Broadway? I'm always curious how the first Broadway performance lives up to what your idea of it was.
Mueller: I do. I do — parts of it very clearly and parts of it not so clearly. [Laughs.] It's so fun because my first entrance I come up through a trap — I come up through an elevator. I remember that moment — I'm underneath the stage kind of looking up — being like, "This is really going to happen." Once I hit the stage, I was better, but when I was waiting in that elevator, I was nervous just because I was trying to take it all in about what this was and what it meant. But, it was thrilling. The energy in the house that night — this is before opening, this is just first preview — we were just all so excited and eager to get to do our show.

Question: Tell me a little bit about working with Michael Mayer — what's he like as a director?
Mueller: He's so smart. I think right from the get-go of hearing the stories of how he decided to reinterpret the show, and why he wanted to and what it meant to him, I think we just always knew we were in good hands with him. And, because of the work that he's done prior — he's just had such amazing successes and has been so inventive with the things he's done, so it was a pleasure in tech to just sit out in the house and watch it all coming together… The elements of the set and the costumes are so vivid and informed us so much, I think, about what our play was going to be. He was wonderful, and I'm so grateful to him for trusting me and giving me the opportunity to do this.

Mueller in On a Clear Day.
photo by Paul Kolnik

Question: How would you describe Melinda Wells?
Mueller: She is absolutely fun-loving, and she always puts the best spin on everything. Even in the play, she has these moments where the audience gets to see her where she kind of comes up against a roadblock, but she always just acknowledges it and moves on.

Question: Just going back a little bit again, I wonder whether there were any actors or singers that you particularly admired when you started performing in high school or college… anyone who was an inspiration?
Mueller: Definitely my family… Well, I'm lucky that I love them and they're also extremely talented. [Laughs.] That makes it easy, but also, I got to grow up watching the great Chicago actors performing around town, so that was a huge inspiration. But, also, this role has been so fun because I love old movies. I mean, I wore out my tape of "Meet Me in St. Louis" — watching Judy Garland when I was little, and listening to Rosemary Clooney. "White Christmas" is one of my favorite movies, so I've always just had a love for that kind of golden era musical. Definitely, watching those people — I just love that stuff, so it's been really fun.

Question: Do you have a favorite moment in the show for your character? Is there something you look forward to doing?
Mueller: Oh, I love doing the dance every night with Harry and David. I love it. It's so fun, and we can feel the audience taking it in and being tickled by how we're all moving together and what's going on in the story. I think it's a really great way, and such a theatrical way, to express what's happening to these characters in the moment.

Question: Tell me a little about what it's like sharing the stage with Harry Connick.
Mueller: It's a total joy… Firstly, because of just how immensely talented he is, and people know that, but also, I just admire him so much because he always challenges himself. He's an amazing singer and piano player and he's an amazing actor, too, and he doesn't ever seem afraid to take on something new and challenging. He's kind of that way on stage. He's always right there with you, and I love being up there with him, too, because it makes me put on my A-game. You know what I mean? I'm singing with one of the great singers of our time, so I try to take that in every night and raise to his level. [Laughs.]

Mueller in On a Clear Day.
photo by Paul Kolnik

Question: I thought you were really terrific and your vocals were great. I wonder how much of the music style that your character sings in was fit around you or how much did you have to fit into what they wanted her to be?
Mueller: It was definitely a give-and-take. Larry Yurman, our music director — we had a lot of conversations about, "Okay, how authentic do we want to make this? How authentic can we make this? Will an audience accept something really of the period or are they going to want to hear something a little more modern or a little more bold in terms of what we accept as exciting music now?" And, I think they were amazing about letting me play with the music. We changed things a lot, and I actually have a lot of freedom every night, which I've never had before because I'm used to doing musicals where the music is really set. And, I have freedom in the show to really kind of improvise and change things up, which I've never had before, and it's really fun. But, it was both… They wrote within the style of the period, and they were really committed and interested in doing that to make it sound very different from the other songs in the show, and I was totally game for it because I love singing that kind of music. It was a great collaboration on that end. Question: Will there be a cast recording?
Mueller: I don't know! I don't know. I hope so! I'm the newbie, so I don't know how these things work. [Laughs.] But, I hope so.

Question: How is morale backstage because the reviews were sort of mixed?
Mueller: I have never worked with such a delightful group of people, and I mean that… Personally, I don't read reviews. It's just something, as a performer, that I learned is good for me…

Question: Well, you got great ones!
Mueller: Oh! [Laughs.] That's very nice to hear, but I'm concerned with the response of the audience there night-to-night. That's what matters to me — the people in the seats. But, the thing that's great is, we all are so fortunate to have Harry and to be working with David and Kerry and Sarah [Stiles] and everybody. Also, the crew, the dressers, the house staff is lovely, our orchestra is amazing, so, you know, we all just feel so blessed and lucky to come to work everyday and work on the show, so we're all having a great time.

Question: Has there been anyone who's come backstage after the show that you were especially excited to meet since you're new to all of this?
Mueller: Oh, I had a wonderful experience meeting Jerry Stiller and his wife. They were so lovely and so touched by the show and said beautiful things. That's one that I'll definitely always remember. One night I got to meet Sandra Bullock, and Ralph Lauren I got to meet. There's been wonderful introductions to all of these amazing people who I've admired for a long time, so it's been fun.

Question: Are you working on any other projects at the moment or are you just focusing on this?
Mueller: I'm pretty much focusing on this. I mean, I also do voiceovers and things like that like a lot of actors. There's always things going on and always irons in the fire, but right now it's been nice to just focus on this.

For tickets visit www.OnAClearDayBroadway.com.

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

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