While enjoying a brief bit of down time between her Tony Award-winning turn in “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical,” and her next project, the world premiere of the musical “Waitress,” actress Jessie Mueller arrived for an interview in a chic aqua lace dress and high heels, which she quickly removed in favor of gym shoes.
Settling in with a bowl of cereal and an espresso at the Sun Times’ cafeteria, the Evanston-bred actress spoke frankly about the extraordinary success she has enjoyed since she first arrived on Broadway in 2011, and about the Sarah Siddons Society Award she is receiving April 27 at the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire. The Sarah Siddons Society, founded in 1952 by prominent Chicago theater patrons determined to promote excellence in the art, presents its annual award (named after the 18th century Welsh actress), to an actor of outstanding achievement. Previous winners have included Audra McDonald, Barbara Cook, Patti LuPone, John Mahoney and Brian Dennehy.
I asked Mueller, now 32, about how she began her Tony acceptance speech with the words, “I have to thank God, because without Him nothing is possible.”
“There are so many talented people who just haven’t had the right opportunity yet,” she said. “There is no rhyme or reason for it, and I’m just so grateful about my own luck. With all her talent and brilliance, the coolest thing Carole King said to me in one of our rare chances to chat was that she has always seen herself as a vessel — that the work comes through her, but it comes from God. She talked about how a performance is so much bigger than herself but just happens through her. And that made sense to me. It’s how I try to see it too.”
Mueller also recalled the legendary Chita Rivera’s advice: “The readiness is all. Just be prepared.”
“That made me think back to my decision not to go to New York right after I graduated from college [Syracuse University],” said Mueller. “I wasn’t in the right place in my head yet to deal with success and failure and all the rest. I wasn’t entirely sure who I was, and why I was doing this [theater] thing.”
As it happens, Mueller’s career turned into a sort of reimagined, warm-hearted show biz twist on the Cinderella story — a fairy tale very few actresses ever get to experience for real. It goes like this:
Once upon a time, an actress from a theatrically-minded, Evanston-based family spends her post-college years forging a career on the stages of resident theaters and storefront-size operations in the Chicago area. In the wake of a beguiling performance as Adelaide in the Marriott Theatre production of “Guys & Dolls,” she learns she has been cast in her first Broadway musical — a revival of “On a Clear Day” in which she will co-star opposite Harry Connick Jr. The show has problems, but Mueller earns great reviews, as well as a Tony Award nomination for best featured actress. Nice start.
The actress then moves on to play Cinderella herself in Stephen Sondheim’s “Into the Woods,” on the stage of the Public Theatre’s fabled Delacorte Theatre in Central Park. And as soon as her glass slipper is put away, she joins the cast of a Broadway revival of “The Mystery of Edwin Drood.”
Then the proverbial pumpkin turns into a full-fledged golden coach. And in January, 2014, Mueller opens on Broadway in “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical,” originating the title role of the beloved singer-songwriter who began her career as a teenager, wrote a slew of chart toppers with her husband in the 1960s, and memorably broke out on her own in the early 1970s.
Mueller would go on to win the 2014 Tony Award for best principal actress in a musical — joined on stage by Carole King herself for a performance. Later she would pick up a Grammy Award for the show’s cast album.
Then, just a week ago, it was confirmed she would be starring in”Waitress,” a new musical based on the 2007 film that features a score by singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles. The show, to be directed by Diane Paulus (“Pippin”), will have its world premiere at Boston’s American Repertory Theater’ beginning Aug. 1, and it’s a good bet a Broadway date will be set soon. Mueller will be playing Jenna, a pregnant waitress trapped in a small-town and a loveless marriage, who finds relief in “making creatively-titled pies, and in a budding romance with an unlikely newcomer.”
“The ‘Waitress’ team is comprised completely of women,” said Mueller. “And while I love men, I have to say that things did feel different in the workshop room.”
But before the actress plunges into all that, Mueller is to be feted as the Sarah Siddons Society presents her with its 2015 Actress of the Year award at its benefit gala. In a tribute titled “So Beautiful,” she will be toasted with performances by fellow Tony Award-winners Heather Headley (“Aida”) and Deanna Dunagan (“August: Osage County), and by her talented family. Her parents, Roger Mueller and Jill Shellabarger, will introduce their four children, including Jessie’s sister Abby (currently on Broadway in “Kinky Boots”), and brothers Andrew (who just opened in the Chicago Children’s Theatre world premiere of “Wonderland: Alice’s Rock & Roll Adventure”), and Matthew (now at Northlight Theatre rehearsing the new musical “Shining Lives”).
Proceeds of the gala will support the Sarah Siddons Society’s Scholarship Fund for theater students at Columbia College of Chicago, DePaul University, Northwestern University and Roosevelt University. Benefit tickets are $95. Student tickets are $25. For reservations call (800) 838-3006 or visit Beautiful.BrownPaperTickets.com.