It is an (almost) precedent-setting piece of casting. But then what else would you expect when it comes to those Mueller sisters, Abby and Jessie — two members of the Chicago-bred “family dynasty” that includes a set of parents and a pair of brothers, all with busy theatrical careers.
The announcement on Tuesday that Abby Mueller would be playing the title role in the national touring production of the Broadway hit, “Beautiful – The Carole King Musical” — following in the 2014 Tony Award-winning footsteps of her sister, Jessie — was a big surprise. And unique, except for what theater maven Howard Sherman noted was the replacement of Jenny O’Hara by her sister, Jill, in the 1968 original Broadway production of “Promises, Promises.”
Yet anyone who has seen Abby in many Chicago musicals (her vivid star turn in the 2010 Drury Lane Theatre production of “Seven Brothers for Seven Brothers” remains unforgettable, but she also left her mark on more than a half-dozen shows at the Marriott Theatre), knows that she possesses a remarkable voice rife with intense emotion. And her current gig in “Kinky Boots,” which marks her Broadway debut, was a huge challenge as she served as swing for five different women and went on for all of them.
To be sure, Abby’s performance as Carole King promises to be an interesting comparison study for those who caught Jessie on Broadway, but audiences seeing the show for the first time will have the opportunity to discover a performer of genuine depth, with a voice that moves easily from Broadway standard to country western to pop.
In a phone chat this afternoon, Abby Mueller chatted about picking up where her sister left off, and heading out on a long tour that will begin in Providence, R.I. this September, will play in Chicago (Dec. 1, 2015 – Feb. 21, 2016), and is booked to run through September 2016.
Q: How did this whole thing come about?
A: I just got a call from my agent this past fall when plans were underway for finding a replacement for Jessie in the Broadway production and for the national tour. And of course when my agent first suggested it I just laughed and said, “Are you kidding me? That might just be a little too close.” But I spoke to Jessie to get her read on the whole thing, and she said “Sure, go do it.” And the thing is, I will not be “the next” girl to play the role after my sister. Someone already is doing it on Broadway, and in London, so we’re all in the same boat. And as Jessie also said: “Just look at the amazing opportunity, and you’ve always wanted to go on tour, so go for it.” My dad [actor Roger Mueller] said the same thing.
Q: How many times did you see Jessie perform the role?
A: Three times: Once at the final dress when it was having its pre-Broadway tryout in San Francisco; the opening night on Broadway because luckily it was on a Sunday night and I didn’t have a performance of “Kinky Boots”; and then on a rare Wednesday matinee I had off when she was giving one of her last performances this March.
Q: What was your audition like?
A: They had me do the two big songs, “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” and “Beautiful.” What was cool was that I’d already met director Marc Bruni and the creative team, and they were all very welcoming. And from the start they told all the potential Caroles to just be more of themselves. The great thing about this show is that it’s not an imitation or an impression of Carole King. Each actress is just a vessel, a unique filter, and hopefully the alchemy works. I’m also a few years older than Jessie, and a couple of inches taller.
Q: Did you ever get to meet Carole King?
A: No, but I’ve always loved her music and remember buying the “Tapestry” album way back when I was in high school. In my apartment in Queens I even have a window ledge — and a cat — so I will now definitely take a photograph like the one on that famous album.
Q: Do you play the piano?
A: Well, I’m working on that. I had lessons till I was nine but then switched to oboe.
Q: What city are you most looking forward to visiting while on tour?
A: I’m thrilled about being in Chicago over the holidays — the first time I’ll be home for Christmas in years, and I’ll be able to see my grandma and many friends. But the whole itinerary is great.
Visit broadwayinchicago.com for more information on the show’s Chicago engagement.