It never entered her mind. And then it became an almost surreal reality.
Abby Mueller had watched her younger sister, Jessie, grab hold of the leading role in “Beautiful — The Carole King Musical,” when it was still in its tryout in San Francisco in October, 2013, and when she herself was working nearby, at the American Conservatory Theater, playing the role of Abigail Adams in a revival of “1776.”
She saw the show again when Jessie opened on Broadway, and cheered for her sister when she won the 2014 Tony Award for best actress in a musical. And then, while working in the Broadway production of “Kinky Boots,” Abby caught her sister’s performance one last time, just before she left the show.
“Not in a million years did I ever think I’d play that role myself,” said the actress.
But then Abby Mueller was asked to audition for the national touring production of the hit show, and in an ideal yet unexpected example of sibling casting, she got the title role. Now, Chicago audiences will have the chance to see her in the show as it settles into the Oriental Theatre for a 12-week run, Dec. 1, 2015 – Feb. 21, 2016.
‘BEAUTIFUL – THE CAROLE KING MUSICAL’
When: Dec. 1, 2015 – Feb. 21, 2016
Where: Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph
Tickets: $30 – $140
Info: (800) 775-2000; http://www.BroadwayInChicago.com
King, of course, is the Brooklyn-bred singer-songwriter (born Carol Klein) who, with her husband, Gerry Goffin, penned some of the greatest hits of the 1960s (“Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” “Chains,” “The Loco-Motion,” “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” “One Fine Day,” and the list goes on), and then went on to forge a stunning solo career starting with her breakthrough 1971 album, “Tapestry.”
“Beautiful,” with a book by Douglas McGrath, direction by Marc Bruni —and a slew of chart-toppers drawn from both the Goffin/King songbook, and that of the couple’s friends and competitors, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil —traces King’s personal and artistic evolution from the age of 16, when she was a prodigiously talented pianist-songwriter, through her troubled but creatively productive marriage, to her triumphant Carnegie Hall concert in June, 1971, when she was just 29.
“This is my first tour,” said Abby Mueller, who is fully enjoying life on the road. “It’s something I’ve wanted to do for years, but the business has changed quite a bit for Equity tours. I feel so lucky to be doing this one. We’ve been to six cities already, and I’ve had a chance to do quite a bit of sightseeing, although I’m still kind of figuring out my schedule.”
As most Chicago audiences know by now, Muelleris part of a Chicago show biz dynasty. Her parents, Roger Mueller and Jill Shellabarger, as well as her two brothers, Andrew and Matt, also are performers. A graduate of Evanston High School, Abby earned her degree in theater at Indiana University, and before hitting the regional circuit and Broadway made her mark in such shows as “The Three Musketeers” (Chicago Shakespeare Theatre), “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” (Drury Lane Oakbrook), and “Brigadoon” ( Marriott Theatre).
“In a way this is just like doing any other show — the same work ethic, the same sense of ensemble and community,” said Mueller. “But what is really exciting is that we are reaching so many people. In Boston we performed in an opera house with 2,600 seats. And I have to say it’s really great when you sense the audience listening to one of Carole’s early hits and almost saying out loud, ‘Wow, she wrote that?’ But what I carry with me always is my parents’ approach to life and work —the importance of being a good person as well as a good performer.”
She has observed those qualities in King, too.
“This past summer, in advance of the national tour launch, Carole appeared with Jessie’s Broadway replacement, Chilina Kennedy, and me on a ‘Today Show’ segment, and she was so warm and down-to-earth, so tiny and beautiful,” said Mueller. “I just watched her and listened to her, and was especially interested in the way she talked about how important it is for her to connect with the band, and how she loves musicians and the team they form.
“She surprised us and came to see the show in Boston — in disguise, as she did on Broadway — and she told us to just have fun with it, and enjoy the music. From the start the important thing for me was not to do an impersonation, but just be familiar with what she did, and then find a balance between that and my own thing. As for making the age transitions — well, I credit the wigs and the costumes. But really, it’s just such an honor to play her.”
On the practical side, there are the logistics of touring.
“I’m still struggling with the whole packing thing,” the actress confessed. “I travel with far too much stuff. But one really great thing is the electric skillet I bought when we started the tour in Providence, Rhode Island. Finding something to eat late at night is not always easy.”