Chicago Shakespeare Theater (CST) will be celebrating the close of its 30th anniversary season tonight with its annual gala. But to suggest that this company ever comes even close to completing a season would be a mistake, for it is the very essence of a 24/7 operation. And with the addition of its new performance space, The Yard at Shakespeare – an innovative, immensely flexible, fully enclosed performance center that stands on the footprint of the former Skyline Stage – it will soon be producing even more work for both the general public and its educational programs. Its first production at The Yard – James Thierrée’s “The Toad Knew,” an import from France – will be presented in September.
Attendees at tonight’s gala will get an early glimpse of The Yard, which is still something of a work-in-progress (and is connected by a long lobby to CST’s principal Navy Pier home). They also will be entertained by two Tony and Grammy Award-winning musical theater actresses – Jessie Mueller (who grew up in Evanston, and is part of a theater dynasty), and Heather Headley (a graduate of Northwestern University).
Mueller, who is briefly returning “home” after working on a project she described as “still under wraps,” began her career here, starring in shows at the Marriott Theatre, Drury Lane Theatre, Court Theatre, Writers Theatre and the Goodman.
But before any of that, the actress, just back from earning a degree at Syracuse University, was hired by Chicago Shakespeare Theater.
“I got my Equity card there,” said Mueller, “and worked on my first new musicals [“Three Musketeer,” “How Can You Run with a Shell on Your Back”] there. And I traveled to England with the company in 2006, playing Lady Mortimer in Barbara Gaines’ production of ‘Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2′ at the Royal Shakespeare Company. That was one of those moments in my career where I really felt I had started to grow up. I met lifelong friends at CST, and have memories from working there I’ll never forget. So I’m thrilled for them now as they begin this new chapter.”
Since 2011, when Mueller moved to New York for her first Broadway role – playing opposite Harry Connick, Jr. in a revival of “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever” – she has enjoyed a most impressive string of triumphs. She went on to play Cinderella in “Into the Woods” at the Public Theatre, and “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” at Studio 54 Theatre. Then, in 2013, she originated the title role in “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical,” for which she won a 2014 Tony. Two years later she starred in another new musical, Sara Bareilles’ “Waitress,” for which she received a 2016 Tony nomination.
It was only after leaving “Waitress” that she got to take a vacation.
“I went to Hawaii with friends,” she said. “It was incredible, and not a place you ever really want to leave. But I’m so glad I got the chance to go. Whoever came up with the whole ‘vacation’ idea – well, they were really on to something.”
Although she has already won a Grammy Award (for the cast album of “Beautiful”), Mueller has yet to put together an album of her own and confessed: “The idea of it is so precious to me. I want it to be right – the right time, the right material, the right collaborators. But I’m starting to lay the groundwork. I love recording and it’s definitely something I want to do more of.”
As for her next big project, the news is already out. In the spring of 2018 she will star as Julie Jordan in the Broadway revival of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic, “Carousel,” with Joshua Henry (who played Aaron Burr in the early Chicago run of “Hamilton”) as Billy Bigelow, and opera star Renee Fleming as Nettie Fowler.
“Some of the casting for ‘Carousel,’ was already in the works when I was part of Renee’s ‘Chicago Voices’ program at Lyric Opera in Chicago this past February,” said Mueller. “I had recently met her backstage when she came to see ‘Waitress.’ At Lyric we mostly talked about remembering our lyrics for the event, but as the evening progressed, I realized what a gift it was to be coming together at that moment in time. It was a magical evening for everyone involved, with an awesome positive vibe backstage.”
Mueller will stay on in Chicago after the CST gala, “hanging with my family, and watching the Tony Awards on television” this Sunday. “It’s been quite the season on Broadway, with lots of exciting new stuff,” she said. “I got to see ‘Come From Away,’ which I loved – such a beautifully directed show, and a real ensemble piece.”Despite her remarkable run of successes since arriving in New York, Mueller has never acquired even a hint of “the New York personality.” Asked what her advice to young actresses who have just arrived in the city might be she said: “Surround yourself with people and experiences that keep you grounded. New York is a fantastic city; it can also be extremely distracting, and it can be all too easy to focus on truly unhelpful things. So just know who you are, and hold tight to that. And oh yes, try to get out of the city at least once a month and clear your mind (and your lungs).”Funds raised at the CST gala will benefit the theater’s Chicago Shakespeare in Classrooms and Communities initiatives, which includes its widely recognized education programs and its Chicago Shakespeare in the Parks summer tour. The theater has already raised $1.2 million of its $1.55 million goal.