Jessie Mueller, an Evanston-bred actress and veteran of Chicago-area theater productions, is about to open on Broadway as the lead in "Beautiful, The Carole King Musical." | Photo by Nathan Johnson
All about jessie
» Parents (Roger Mueller and Jill Shellabarger): “We had a lot of fun as a family. It wasn’t a quiet household, but it was definitely entertaining. We are exhilarated by the success of all our kids. And we know very well that just because you have Jessie’s special gifts is no assurance that you will be in the right place at the right moment, and get the perfect opportunity.”
» Matt Mueller (older brother):
“Are we competitive? No, just thrilled. I’m like a proud grandpa. And I think for all of us it just seems like the norm, even though it’s a blessing to all be working. My one memory of Jessie is that even as a very little girl she was always singing — even when she was eating.”
» Rachel Rockwell (director-choreographer): “Jessie is so not typically New York, and I wasn’t sure Broadway would ‘get her,’ despite all her unique and abundant gifts. She is so subtle and smart, and while often the choice there is the dynamo with the big voice, Jessie is a performer who makes you lean forward rather than flattening you back. At auditions she’s described as ‘a special girl.’ And the great thing is, she has remained the lovely, grounded, generous girl she was before she became a giant star.”
» Matt Raftery (director-choreographer): “There are many things that make Jessie special, but the biggest is her fearlessness. I directed her in ‘Guys and Dolls,’ and when I put her in a bustier in front of two experienced dancers, she just went for it. She trusts herself, as well as the people around her. And I loved watching Adelaide emerge in her. Vocally she is so malleable, with a folksy, emotional side to her that is perfect for Carole King.”
» Jim Corti (artistic director,
Paramount Theatre in Aurora):
“The thing about Jessie is that she is so natural. She is always Jessie, and always the character at the same time. And she never delivers a clumsy line or rhythm. She is an original, and a stunning technician, but always finds a way to connect on a very human level. And when someone is so genuine on stage, it takes your breath away.”
Updated: February 6, 2014 6:08AM
In the spring of 2011, not long after Jessie Mueller triumphed in a Marriott Theatre production of “Guys & Dolls” — playing Adelaide, the chorus girl eternally engaged to gambler Nathan Detroit — I stood in the lobby of another north suburban theater, once again bedazzled by her knockout performance. This time it was in the Stephen Sondheim musical “Merrily We Roll Along,” in which she played Mary Flynn, a Broadway writer suffering from unrequited love and too much alcohol.
I still vividly remember turning to a friend and saying: “By all rights that woman should be a Broadway star — she’s an amazing singer and an actress who can move you to tears and laughter. But those New York producers wouldn’t know what to do with her.”
Happily, I was altogether wrong. By November 2011, Mueller was making her Broadway debut opposite Harry Connick Jr. in a reworked version of “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever.” The show lasted only a few months, but Mueller earned superb reviews, plus a Tony Award nomination for best supporting actress in a musical. She would then go on to replace Kelli O’Hara in “Nice Work if You Can Get It” (opposite Matthew Broderick), and appear in a Broadway revival of “The Mystery of Edwin Drood.”
Now, Mueller is preparing to open in what might well be the role of a lifetime — starring as songwriter Carole King in the Broadway premiere of “Beautiful — The Carole King Musical.” I saw the show in previews (it opens Jan. 12), so I will not review it here. But it’s almost a sure bet Mueller, 30, will be vying for the Tony Award for best leading actress in a musical this year. She is remarkable and already earning standing ovations in a show that might be described as a female counterpart of “Jersey Boys.” With a book by Douglas McGrath, its score features songs by both Gerry Goffin and Carole King, and Barry Mann & Cynthia Weil (the couple’s friends and competitors).
Mueller was years from even being a spark in her parents’ eyes when King’s iconic album, “Tapestry,” was released in 1971. And before that album, the precocious Brooklyn-bred girl (born Carol Joan Klein), had collaborated with her first husband, Gerry Goffin (whom she married in 1959, when she was 17 and pregnant), on a slew of hit songs for The Drifters, The Shirelles, Little Eva and many others.
“I mostly knew Carole’s stuff through James Taylor because my dad was always playing cassettes of him performing her songs when we were in the car,” Mueller said when we met for brunch just down the street from where “Beautiful” is playing.
To date, the actress has met King (who is admittedly skittish about seeing the show), just once.
“It was a very cool, totally unexpected moment when she greeted the whole cast,” Mueller said. “But I think seeing a live play, even more than a movie or writing a book [she penned the memoir, “A Natural Woman”], must be very difficult. Gerry Goffin came by during our San Francisco tryout this past fall and said, ‘You were a great Carol,’ and that meant a lot. And I think Carole will see the show in her own time and her own way.”
“Beautiful” follows King from her teen years, when she was already hawking songs at Manhattan’s Brill Building, through her creatively rich but turbulent marriage to Goffin, and then on to her move to the West Coast and her huge success as a performer of her own material.
“Carole and Gerry both had to grow up really, really fast, and they fought to make things right, even if it all eventually fell apart,” Mueller said. “Even now Carole is so admiring of his talent, always saying ‘Gerry wrote that lyric’.”
Mueller admitted she didn’t “fully understand the situation of women of King’s generation and the challenges they faced in the 1960s and ’70s,” but she learned a great deal from Sheila Weller’s book, “Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon and the Journey of a Generation.”
“There are moments in the show when you know the women in the audience understand it so well, and there is laughter; but I also see tears in the eyes of the men,” Mueller said.
About her Broadway success, the actress seems remarkably relaxed.
“I DID walk into my dressing room and have a Mary Tyler Moore moment when I saw the couch,” she confessed. “But really, good work is good work, whether you’re playing in a tiny black box or in Times Square. The important thing is the storytelling, and having a script that makes you feel you’re living and breathing through the characters. And I was lucky to have spent all those years in Chicago where I was able to focus on the work first. The amazing thing here is the giant machine that makes it all happen. There’s so much at stake.”
It helps that the Evanston-bred Mueller is part of a Chicago theater dynasty. Her dad, Roger, who has worked at all the major musical theater houses here, is now in rehearsal for “42nd Street” at Aurora’s Paramount Theatre. Her mom, actress Jill Shellabarger, runs Still Acting Up, a Skokie-based troupe for performers age 60 and older. Her older sister, Abby, has just landed her first Broadway role as a replacement in the cast of “Kinky Boots.” Abby’s twin, Matt, is playing the American aviator in the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre production of “The Merry Wives of Windsor.” Jessie’s younger brother, Andrew, is in “Peter and The Starcatcher” in New York. And her boyfriend, Andy Truschinski, is in the national tour of “War Horse.”
One of Mueller’s biggest challenges with “Beautiful” was finding her way into King’s vocal style.
“She was a pop singer, and I knew I couldn’t mimic the unique sound of her voice, but only give the illusion of it. It also is quite different to do eight shows a week on Broadway, while pop singers might do two or three concerts a week, at most. But the great thing about this show is that the emotion of the story filters right into the songs. And while often Carole is pitching songs, in the second half she is at the piano [Mueller learned to finger the music on a silent piano], and the way she plays that instrument is so much a part of how she sings.”
“Carole’s philosophy — to look for the good in life and keep on moving forward — really appeals to me,” Mueller said. “And I admire how she navigated her career. She didn’t want to become famous; she just wanted to write music. But fame came to her. I think in this business you have to try and figure out who you are and what is important to you. You have to be strong in who you are, even though your job is to be brave enough to be vulnerable.”