NEW YORK — "Things like that freak me out," says Jessie Mueller, coming to life in a booth at Bond 45, a Midtown eatery where Broadway stars like to be seen. Except that Mueller, who opens Sunday in the role of Carole King in the new jukebox musical "Beautiful," doesn't have much truck with, and certainly little comfort with, the see-and-being-seen side of the business.
The freak-out occurred, she said, when she was cast as a replacement for Broadway star Kelli O'Hara in the musical "Nice Work If You Can Get It," opposite Matthew Broderick. That meant the name Jessie Mueller appeared above the title. Not really done in Chicago theater, whence she came.
"I just didn't think my name belonged on a marquee," Mueller said, with intensity far beyond the usual boilerplate modesty that early career Broadway stars are supposed to espouse. "I wasn't ready. I thought it was ridiculous."
Well, she'll have to be ready now. When you're playing King in a new Broadway musical about the songwriter-performer (the book to "Beautiful" is by Douglas McGrath), you're not just above the marquee, you're the show. Not that Mueller will accept any such characterization.
"It's an ensemble piece," she says earnestly, talking of her comfort around King's own "very un-Broadway" persona, sans pop, flash and pizazz. "I am just happy to be working," Mueller says, staring down at her interviewer's notes, as if worrying what he might be writing, as if he may cut through her caution.
Well, Chicago has ensembles. Broadway needs stars. Recent evidence would suggest the 30-year-old Mueller, as much as any actress of her intensely crowded generation and demographic, has been so anointed. The fascinating question is why.
In 2007, Mueller walked into an audition for a production of "Meet Me in St. Louis" at the Drury Lane Theatre in Oakbrook Terrace. Her family name was an entree: The much-admired Muellers of Evanston (parents Roger and Jill, children Abby, Andrew, Jessie and Matt) all act in the Chicago theater. Sister Abby was already a busy performer on the Chicago musical-theater circuit. But Jessie's career was nascent. She was auditioning for the supporting character of Rose. And then she opened her mouth.
"I thought, 'Oh my God, there is this Judy Garland quality about her,'" recalled the director, Jim Corti, who immediately cast her as Esther, the Garland role in the movie, which explains why, later that fall, Mueller was melting hearts with her version of "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas," a moving and vulnerable take on a song that often drips with cliches of the season. That indelible performance single-handedly got the show moved to downtown Chicago. And Mueller moved on.
A little more than three years later, Mueller auditioned for "Guys and Dolls" at the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire. By now, after shots at the Goodman Theatre and Court Theatre, among many others, she didn't need the family name. She was up for Sarah, the ingenue, the kind of role you would expect someone to get who had played Esther. But people at the Marriott decided to give her a shot at the ditsy Miss Adelaide. Mueller, it was revealed, could also do comedy. "Almost like a young (Barbra) Streisand," said executive producer Terry James, who was sitting in the audition.
Mueller's Miss Adelaide turned out to be blisteringly funny
By now, Mueller had been noticed in New York. She'd auditioned (in Chicago) for "On a Clear Day You Can See Forever," an ill-fated Broadway vehicle for Harry Connick Jr., and she'd landed the role of the Connick character's love interest, a singer from the 1940s. But before all that was announced, Mueller was in a summer 2011 production of "Shout" at the Marriott Theatre, a second-tier revue show of music made famous by the British singers of the 1960s, such as Dusty Springfield and Petula Clark. On opening night, the show was limping along. And then Mueller stepped out to sing "How Can I Be Sure?"
"Maybe you're trying to use me," the lyric went. "Flying too high can confuse me. Touch me but don't take me down."
It was an electrifying rendition, enough to force even a semi-somnolent audience member to sit bolt upright. Instead of there being little or nothing going on, suddenly everything seemed to be going on. An "it" girl had appeared, a girl on the cusp.
This felt like Mueller's kind of material, her kind of lyrics, not so different really from some of those aspirational but famously questioning King lyrics ("Will You Love Me Tomorrow," "It's Going To Take Some Time," "Can't You be Real?"). And yet prior to "Shout," Mueller had seemed the most at ease with a far older catalog: the guileless songs of the 1940s, whose emotion she seemed to be able to convey without layers of irony or artifice. It was clear she could do both, with comedy thrown in like cream cheese inside the bagel.
So it has gone for Mueller in New York. She turned heads (even as the show tanked) with the retro song stylings of "On a Clear Day," did comedy in the Broadway revival of "The Mystery of Edwin Drood" (which really was an ensemble show) and now she stars in "Beautiful," directed by Marc Bruni, whose work can be seen in Chicago in "Old Jews Telling Jokes" and who is on tap to direct "The Sound of Music" at Lyric Opera in April.
Those who've been watching her work for years in Chicago attribute Mueller's success to a number of factors. One is a truly distinctive voice ("She sounds like no one else," Corti said, "and no one sounds like her"). Another is her range and versatility. A third is the support of her close family. But the most significant, surely, is her uncommon ability to both disappear inside a character (she has little palpable ego and is far more comfortable talking about a role than herself) and yet transmit its essence with an honesty that's all her own. Her process, say those who have watched it, is like feeling a slow, intense burn.
"A lot of people can imitate singers like Carole King," James said. "It's far rarer to be able to make such a performance your own."
Although he saw the San Francisco tryout of "Beautiful," Mueller's father, Roger, won't be there at her Sunday Broadway opening (he's appearing in "42nd Street" at the Paramount Theatre in Aurora). Abby is a new swing in "Kinky Boots." Andrew is closing "Peter and the Starcatcher" off-Broadway, and then returning to Chicago. Matt is in "The Merry Wives of Windsor" at Chicago Shakespeare Theater.
"Jessie is such a hard worker," her mother, Jill Shellabarger, said this week. "The thing that makes us happiest as parents is when people tell us our kids have a really great work ethic. We've always liked the process and the community. That is what has mattered to us.."
No doubt. But now one daughter is a star. No?
"Jessie is," Shellabarger said, finally but firmly, "really, really good."
Abby Mueller says her sister's work in "Beautiful" was "the best of her career." "It's an homage to Carol without being an impression," she said. "It's so uncanny. It's hard to believe."
At Bond 45, Jessie Mueller talks of challenges, of work, of her admiration for her subject (King herself has not been directly involved with the project, although her daughter has been her eyes and ears at rehearsals). She speaks of her determination to reach the core of King's art ("What is it about her that people really respond to and love?').
And when pushed, she even talks of her desires. "I want it all," she says at one point. "Which is not to say I want to be a movie star or something. I want a career as a working actor, with a husband, a home, a family."
She is, surely, unlikely to go off the rails if she hits it yet bigger. "People have always called me an old soul," she says. And there are caveats aplenty ("I never want it to sound like I am speaking for Carole," "It's not about me, it's about her"). But you also can feel Mueller's innate interest in feeling, and thus transmitting, universals.
"Carol," she says, "was a normal woman trying to balance what women still are trying to balance." And, clearly, what Mueller is trying to balance.
With her name on a Broadway marquee.
"Beautiful" opens Sunday on Broadway at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre. Chris Jones' review will appear in Monday's Tribune.
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