Paid? To laugh constantly with other cast members and portray a silly character in a musical with multiple endings? Actress and singer Jessie Mueller, a 2001 Evanston Township High School graduate, could not believe her good fortune as she performed the role of Helena Landless in Roundabout Theatre Company’s 2012 revival of The Mystery of Edwin Drood in New York City.
“What a fun group of people,” Mueller, 34, recalls during a phone conversation from New York. “We goofed off a lot. I thought for sure they would fire all of us for having too much fun.”
Instead of receiving a pink slip, she earned a Drama Desk Award nomination for Outstanding Featured Actress in a Musical. Two years later Mueller—the daughter of actors and Evanstonians Roger and Jill (née Shellabarger) Mueller (they met at Northwestern University) and the girlfriend (for eight years running) of New York-based movie producer Andy Truschinski—heard her name announced at Radio City Music Hall as the winner of Best Actress in a Musical for her role in Beautiful: The Carole King Musical in 2014.
“I am grateful that I am working in a field I love, in a field that interests me, and that I’m working a ton,” Mueller says. “It’s paying the bills, yes, but I know it could turn on a dime at anytime. While growing up I had a fairly realistic view of acting because of my parents’ involvement in the theater community, and then I got to know their friends, who are also actors, also wonderful people.”
Mueller, with her wondrous talent, returns to the Evanston community on October 15, when she’ll headline “Showcase ETHS! A Tribute to YAMO’s 60th”—a matinee benefit show celebrating six decades of the high school’s legendary student-produced comedy revue—at her alma mater’s auditorium. Mueller and a host of other YAMO alumni will regale theatergoers with a 90-minute show featuring blasts (songs and skits) from YAMO’s past and performances from professional productions.
Mueller plans to warble at least one selection from Beautiful: The Carole King Musical.
“My favorite formative experiences in the arts were YAMO ones,” says Mueller, who graduated from Syracuse University with a bachelor’s degree in fine arts in 2005 and launched her professional acting/singing career shortly thereafter with a part in a musical comedy, Once Upon a Mattress, at Drury Lane Theatre in Oakbrook Terrace.
“I didn’t act before high school,” she adds. “But when I got to (ETHS), the environment there exploded with opportunities for me—valuable opportunities in the arts, from courses to plays to YAMO, especially YAMO. Everything about YAMO is student-created, and that’s what I loved about it. Students wrote the material, wrote the music, directed it, orchestrated all of it. Eyes at school lit up when you told people you were a part of YAMO.”
In her sophomore year at ETHS, Mueller was in a YAMO skit directed by one of her brothers, Matthew Mueller. It spoofed A Chorus Line with a sketch set in a ubiquitous fast-food chain.
“Instead of singing, ‘At the Ballet’,” Jessie Mueller says, “the performers in the skit, with all us waiting in a line, sang, ‘At the Subway’.”
Mueller’s go-to place to inhale breakfast fare along the North Shore during her childhood was Walker Brothers Original Pancake House in Wilmette, followed closely by Lucky Platter in Evanston.
“Apple pancakes or chocolate chip pancakes (at Walker Brothers) were the best, plus they were so filling,” Mueller says. “It was like having breakfast and dessert, all on the same plate. And you couldn’t go wrong with any of the egg dishes at Lucky Platter.”
It doesn’t appear Mueller will have to scramble for a gig on stage anytime soon. She collaborated with Carole King and producers Jason Howland, Steve Sidwell, and Billy Jay Stein to win a 2015 Grammy Award for Best Musical Theater Album (Beautiful: The Carole King Musical); received two other Tony Award nominations (Best Featured Actress in a Musical, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, in 2012, and Best Actress in a Musical, Waitress, in 2015); and collected the 2015 Sarah Siddons Society Actor of the Year Award, putting her in the august company of previous winners Bette Davis, Lauren Bacall, Faye Dunaway, Geraldine Page, Julie Andrews, Brian Dennehy, John Mahoney, and William Peterson, among others.
Mueller will next appear on Broadway as Julie Jordan in a revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel in the spring of 2018.
“It’s whatever I’m working on at the moment,” Mueller says of her most challenging role to date. “My hope, with each performance, is that I’m somehow building off my previous role. Every opportunity comes with challenges, and there are usually hidden challenges with each role.”
Mueller makes her silver screen debut early next year, with the director of the film, The Post—none other than Steven Spielberg. It is scheduled for a wide release on January 12, and it’s about Washington Post’s involvement in exposing the Pentagon Papers. Other cast members include Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks.
Mueller plays advice columnist Judith Martin, aka Miss Manners.
Mueller, Broadway veteran, has pitch-perfect advice for aspiring actors.
“Keep learning about yourself and don’t forget to live your life,” she says. “Sure, you’re playing a character when you’re up there on a stage, but you’ll learn about yourself during a performance. You’ll learn a lot of things along the way, and you’ll figure it out. In a way, though, I’m still trying to figure it out, still trying to figure out this exciting field. But I’m okay with that, because it’s thrilling just to be a part of it.”
Showcase ETHS! A Tribute to YAMO’s 60th will be staged on October 15, beginning at 1:30 p.m., at Evanston Township High School, 1600 Dodge Avenue, in Evanston. Please visit supporteths.org/showcase-eths for more information.