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by Michael Portantiere

Jessie Mueller: Theatre World Award Winner

  • JessieMueller.jpgThe show in which Jessie Mueller made her Broadway debut -- the revisal of On a Clear Day You Can See Forever -- didn't run very long at all, but Jessie herself is here to stay. This spectacularly talented young woman from Chicago will follow-up her acclaimed performance as '40s-era jazz singer Melinda in that show with a turn in what's sure to be the hot-ticket item of the summer: the Public Theater production of Into the Woods at the Delacorte in Central Park, in which she will play Cinderella. Before that happens, she has a date at the Belasco on Tuesday, June 5 at 2pm, where and when she'll receive a well-deserved Theatre World Award in the company of her fellow New York theater debutant(e)s Tracie Bennett, Phillip Boykin, Crystal A. Dickinson, Russell Harvard, Jeremy Jordan, Joaquina Kalukango, Jennifer Lim, Hettienne Park, Chris Perfetti Finn Wittrock, and Josh Young. I spoke with the delightful Ms. Mueller on a recent early-summer afternoon.


    BROADWAYSTARS.COM: Hi, Jessie. Before we go any further, can you tell me the correct pronunciation of your last name?

    JESSIE MUELLER: I was going to ask you the same thing about your name. [I pronounce it for her.] Oh, that's beautiful. Mine is "MULE-urr," as in "mule." You know, "hee-haw." That's it.

    STARS: I've been reading your bio, and I'm amazed by the range of roles you've played in Chicago and elsewhere: Adelaide in Guys and Dolls, Amalia in She Loves Me, Veruca Salt in Willy Wonka. How would you describe your voice, or do you even try to?

    JESSIE: [Laughs] It's a mystery! I've been so blessed in my career up to this point, to keep getting to do different things. After Clear Day, everyone was saying "You're a jazz singer," and I thought, "Not really..." I like singing jazz, but I love all kinds of music. Most of my experience has been in musical theater, so jazz crooning was fun because it was something I hadn't done yet.

    STARS: According to a previous interview, you considered a career as a classical singer. Is that right?

    JESSIE: Yes, I studied classical voice in college for awhile. I was in the drama department at Syracuse University, and we took voice lessons through the voice department. There was classical training built into the program there, which I really enjoyed, and they sort of took me through the questions. "What do you think about training classically?" I thought about it, and I'm glad I was exposed to that world, but the discipline it requires -- I'm not sure I could do it. It kind of takes over your whole life.

    STARS: On the other hand, they don't have to sing eight times a week.

    JESSIE: [As if the thought hadn't occurred to her:] That's true!

    STARS: Maybe you should reconsider?

    JESSIE: [Laughing:] I know! Is it too late?

    STARS: Do you think of yourself as having different "parts" of your voice, or not really?

    JESSIE: I don't know; that's an interesting question. I think, sometimes, one of the trickiest thing is to keep a connection between the parts of your voice and, if you're required to go back and forth, to make it sound like it's all coming from the same person. I like attacking things from a vocal point of view, figuring out the character would sound. I read an interview with Christopher Guest, who I think is an amazing performer, and he said he comes up with the sound of the character first. Sometimes it's a physiological thing as to where you place things in your voice, but for me, it's all about how I think the character might sound.

    STARS: Maybe it's best not to over-analyze it. I've interviewed Barbara Cook on this subject, and I get the feeling that she doesn't really like to analyze how she does what she does.

    JESSIE: Hmmm. I think that's one of the things I like about her. She always comes at it from the standpoint of, "What are you trying to say? What do the lyrics mean?" That's why she's such a brilliant singer and interpreter of songs. And I think that approach can give you a lot of freedom, rather than focusing on how you want to sound.

    STARS: Back to Willy Wonka for a moment: I'm assuming you were in a musical version with the Newley-Bricusse songs from the movie. Is that right?

    JESSIE: Yes. It was a children's theater musical version.

    STARS: Were you a child when you did the show?

    JESSIE: No, I was an adult playing a child. It was fun to wear pink, fluffy duds and be nasty and say all those things you can't say in the real world. "I Want it Now!"

    STARS: I'm so sorry there isn't a cast album of On a Clear Day. It would have been great to have a recording of you singing those songs.

    JESSIE: I was hoping to have that experience, but there were so many factors at hand. Our producers worked as hard as they could, but sometimes it just didn't happen. A cast recording is expensive.

    STARS: I was wondering if you worked at all with David Turner, who played the reincarnated version of your character, in terms of trying to copy each other's mannerisms, body language, or anything of that sort.

    JESSIE: We did have conversations about how much that wanted or needed to occur. We talked about certain gestures that we could maybe share in the moments where the transition was made from one life to the other, to come up with a physicality to sort of link Melinda and Davey, but part of the plot is that one life of the character possesses things that the other one needs but doesn't have. So, in a lot of ways, they're really different. But I'll never forget what happened at rehearsal one day: David said, "You know, you remind me of my mom," and he showed me an old picture of her. It was kind of uncanny. In the production, I don't think David and I looked anything alike, but I really look like his mom in that photo.

    STARS: That's a great story. Anyway, I wish there was a cast album.

    JESSIE: Let's start a petition! Isn't that what Facebook is good for?

    STARS: Great idea. Before I let you go, please let me congratulate you on your Theatre World Award.

    JESSIE: Thank you. I came to New York trying not to expect a lot, and it's been wonderful to receive such a welcome. The history of the Theatre World Awards fascinates me -- to see who was recognized for their debuts throughout the years, and where those people are now. I went to school with Josh Young...

    STARS: Really?

    JESSIE: Yes, at Syracuse. He was a senior when I got there, so we didn't know each other that well and we never really worked together, except that I assisted the director on a show he was in.

    STARS: Well, then the awards ceremony should be a big event for both of you.

    JESSIE: It's quite an honor, and very humbling.

    Published on Sunday, May 27, 2012

    Michael Portantiere has more than 30 years' experience as an editor and writer for TheaterMania.com, InTHEATER magazine, and BACK STAGE. He has interviewed theater notables for NPR.org, PLAYBILL, STAGEBILL, and OPERA NEWS, and has written notes for several cast albums. Michael is co-author of FORBIDDEN BROADWAY: BEHIND THE MYLAR CURTAIN, published in 2008 by Hal Leonard/Applause. Additionally, he is a professional photographer whose pictures have been published by THE NEW YORK TIMES, the DAILY NEWS, and several major websites. (Visit www.followspotphoto.com for more information.) He can be reached at [email protected]

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