On the Phone With Jessie Mueller

On the Phone With Jessie Mueller

If Jessie Mueller were a song, she’d be No. One with a bullet. A not inappropriate way to refer to the actress who has been chosen to play singer/songwriter and pop immortal Carole King in the new Broadway musical, Beautiful, now in previews for a Jan. 12 opening night. Beautiful, indeed. Just two years ago this month, Mueller made her Broadway debut in the revival of On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, earning a Tony Award nomination for Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Musical. Two shows later (Nice Work If You Can Get It and The Mystery of Edwin Drood), and her name is above the title. What have these roller-coaster two years been like? "I have to pinch myself from time to time," she says in the following interview.
 
FL: This may sound like a silly question, but what made you want to play Carole King?

JM: Her music is not what you expect of a Broadway show. So, the challenge of it intrigued me. I think she’s a fascinating person. And then you get into the story, and she gets even more fascinating. As an artist, I find her very authentic.

FL: Has Carole King been involved in the project?

JM: Definitely. Most directly through her daughter Sherry Kondor [an executive producer of the show]. I haven’t gotten to meet Carole yet though. [This interview took place on Oct. 23, when the show was about to go into rehearsal.] I’m excited for when that day comes.

FL: It’s interesting that she’s kept away, allowing you to discover the character.

JM: As an artist, she gets it. She’s also a very private person, and I understand that as well.

FL: Carole King has such a distinctive singing voice. Is that something you’re trying to replicate?

JM: The short answer is I’m not trying to imitate, but I am trying to emulate. Nobody can sound like her. I think it’s one of the things that draw people to her. The sound of her voice and also what’s behind it. I mean, she sings a note because she means it. She sings a lyric because she means it. That’s been my approach. Technically, I’m doing things to give hints and flavors of what we love about her approach to music and her phrasing. I thought a lot about other shows that I’ve seen and loved, like Million Dollar Quartet [about Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins] and End of the Rainbow [about Judy Garland]. They did a beautiful job of giving enough of the essence of a performer without giving an imitation.

FL: Do you consider Beautiful a jukebox musical?

JM: No, I don’t think of it as a jukebox musical, not that there’s anything wrong with jukebox musicals. It’s more its own thing. It’s a play with music. Man, this show is like the Pandora’s box of hits of the Sixties. The songs we have to choose from. It’s not a musical in the sense in which characters necessarily sing their thoughts and feelings as monologues. But it is a musical in the sense that, when songs appear, the story is moved forward and the emotional stakes are heightened. I tell people that they have to see it to understand it because it has the best of all the different worlds.

FL: What’s been the reaction so far?

JM: My parents came to see the show—this is their music—and said afterward that they would never hear these songs in the same way again because now they know the context of either the joy or pain they came out of. It was really eye-opening for them. What’s interesting is that when Carole was starting out, and even when she was at the top of her fame, the public didn’t know everything about artists. Artists didn’t have websites. They weren’t on the cover of every magazine. Carole particularly seemed so very far away from [the publicity mill]. This show is fascinating because so many people love her and her music, and hopefully we’re deepening that because we’re letting them into what was really going on [in her life] while she was composing.

FL: Did you ever expect to be the star of a big Broadway musical?

JM: I didn’t. I grew up in a household of actors in the Chicago theater community, which is different, but very vibrant in its own way. I really didn’t know Broadway. Broadway to me was like Ethel Merman. This still kind of blows my mind.

FL: What would you say if I said to you, “You’re the next Ethel Merman”?

JM: Hey, if I could have a career like hers, I’d be very happy!

[A condensed version of this interview appears in the December 2013 issue of IN New York magazine.]

 

>> Beautiful—The Carole King Musical, Stephen Sondheim Theatre, 124 W. 43rd St., 212.239.6200

 

PHOTOS:
(1) Jessie Mueller in rehearsal (top), © Nathan Johnson

(2) Jessie Mueller as Carole King in the recording studio in Beautiful—The Carole King Musical, © Joan Marcus