Evanston native Jessie Mueller has the world at her feet. After a Broadway triumph in On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, Mueller is currently the rage of New York with her inspiring take on songwriter Carole King in Beautiful. Sheridan Road Theater Critic Brian Kirst recently caught up with the busy Broadway star.
Sheridan Road: Jessie, every artist who grows up in Evanston seems to credit it with their interest in being creative. Is that your take, as well?
Jessie Mueller: Oh, absolutely. I went to a parochial school until eighth grade. It was a great school, but at that time there wasn’t really an arts program. So I didn’t really experience that until I got to high school and went to Evanston Township. The theatre program at Evanston Township was amazing. I felt like a whole new world had opened up to me.
Is that when you decided performing was something you wanted to pursue?
I think so. At least, I experienced it in a more realistic way. My parents are actors. So, I and my brothers and sisters sort of grew up around the theater. But I never really did any acting until I got to high school. I finally started doing it, and I loved it. I loved the camaraderie of rehearsal. I loved meeting people who were as weird as I was. That was very comforting. So, yeah, that is where I think it kind of clicked.
You did so much work in Chicago. Was there a particular production that meant a lot to you?
Sure. Shenandoah at the Marriott Lincolnshire is a special one. It was my first time working at the Marriott. I had grown up going to shows there as a little kid and I always wanted to work there. It was just a very special show. It’s about family and the whole cast just kind of clicked. My dad was in it. My sister was in it.
Chicago is very family-oriented. Each neighborhood is like a small town. How was your transition from the Midwest to the East Coast?
New York is like a bunch of little towns, too. You find your park and your grocery store and your coffee shop—all the little things, but it’s just more compact. Chicago is just more laid-back. So, it’s kind of…if we could meld the two…the rent [prices] of Chicago with the energy of NYC, that would be awesome!
As awesome as working with Harry Connick Jr. in On a Clear Day You Can See Forever?
Harry was an angel! He was like a big brother to me. The best thing he did was lead by example. I don’t even know if he was aware he was doing it. But I was certainly watching. They way that he handled himself and the way he led the company and his attitude and his work ethic—that was the best teaching that I could have experienced. I’ve just been blessed to work with people like that who are at a certain point in their careers and are still really lovely people.
Like Carole King, whom you are portraying now in Beautiful.
She came to see us on our first day back in New York. We did the show in San Francisco and then came back to rehearsal here. She surprised us. She was just so warm and open. It was a great reminder to sort of focus us. You know, this is why we are doing this. It would have been easy to come back and get caught up in the hype of it all. But meeting her that day reminded us why we were doing this. She is just such a special lady.
How have you intertwined your vocal style with hers?
That’s a good question. I think I know what it is in my mind. I’m never sure what it seems like to an audience. When I listen to her music and when I watch her perform, what I take away from it is this authenticity. She’s just so honest. There were things that I do that try to give the essence of her vocals—this grooviness and a raspy-ness.
So, what do you think you’ll take from this experience when it’s over?
It’s hard work, I’m not gonna lie. This is the most demanding thing I’ve ever done. I am super grateful for it, but I am always tired. I am living like a nun right now because it just takes a lot out of me. So, it’s very humbling to walk up there during the curtain call and people are so happy and grateful. We get to give them a glimpse into the people who wrote the music. People recognize themselves in it. You get to see these geniuses who wrote this music, and you realize that they are probably more like you than you ever thought. They fell in love and they had a divorce and they were challenged.
To me, that is kind of what it is all about. You go to the theater to be entertained, for sure. But we also go to the theater to feel something, to connect.
That could be your overall answer. You’ve connected with people doing this.
Yes. That’s why I wanted to do this in the first place. Not just this show, but as a performer, overall. Maybe that is the big picture. That’s what this means to me.