DEBUT OF THE MONTH: Jessie Mueller of ON A CLEAR DAY
Jessie Mueller is currently making her Broadway debut in ON A CLEAR DAY YOU CAN SEE FOREVER alongside Grammy and Emmy Award winner and multi-platinum recording artist Harry Connick, Jr. The production opened on December 11, 2011 at the St. James Theatre. The show tells the story of psychiatrist Dr. Mark Bruckner (Harry Connick, Jr.) who is still mourning the death of his wife. He unknowingly takes on the case of a lifetime with David Gamble (David Turner), a quirky young florists' assistant. While putting David under hypnosis to help him quit smoking, the doctor stumbles upon what he believes to be David's former self, a dazzling and self-possessed 1940's jazz singer Melinda Wells, played by Mueller. Dr. Bruckner finds himself swept up in the pursuit of an irresistible love affair with this woman from another time and place. With a new book by Peter Parnell, based on the original book by Alan Jay Lerner, the musical is reconceived and directed by Tony Award-winner Michael Mayer.
Jessie Mueller comes from a well-known family of performers in her hometown of Chicago. Her breakout role came this year when she starred as 'Miss Adelaide' in director Matt Raftery's production of "Guys and Dolls" at Chicago's Marriott Theatre. She followed that critically acclaimed performance in June with another musical playing at the Marriott, "Shout". This year, Ms. Mueller was the recipient of the 43rd Annual Equity Jeff Award and was named 'Chicagoan of the Year' in theater by the Chicago Tribune. What seemed like a fairytale year for the mega-talented actress was only the beginning when she was cast in the starring role of a Broadway musical opposite a major star.
Mueller took some time out of her busy schedule to chat with BWW about what it was like to have a true Cinderella story unfold as she made her debut on the Great White Way.
Well, I must start by noting that it’s one thing to have a Broadway debut, but it’s quite another to debut in a lead role opposite a major star like Harry Connick Jr. Talk about pressure! What was that like?
Well, the great thing about Harry is that, even from the very first time I met him, which was at the final audition, I was so nervous to go in there. I’d been a big fan of his for a long time. When I walked into the room, he was sitting in a chair with his back to me and I was like ‘Hi. I’m Jessie’ and he turned around and said, ‘Hi, I’m Harry.' And from that point on, he’s just been that kind of person. He’s just got such a great vibe about him. And he makes everyone feel so comfortable and just gets to work.
I read that on a recent appearance on 'The View', he referred to your talent as well, I think he actually called you a ‘super freak’, but in the most positive sense!
(Laughing) Yeah, I mean he has been amazing. He’s been so supportive and I’m even a bigger fan now, you know. He’s a great guy.
I know that you come from a well-known acting family in Chicago.
Yeah my whole family is in the business. My parents moved out to Chicago and that’s how we all got there. That’s where I started my career, in Chicago.
Was there ever a time when you thought you might possibly go into a different field or did you always know you wanted to be in theater?
Well I definitely went through a period when I was little, I thought ‘ooh, this is strange, this isn’t what I want to do’. And then I defintely went through a period when I was applying for college when I was thinking ‘I don’t know about this’. Because growing up with parents in the business, you kind of learn all sides of the business and you learn that you just never know what’s coming next. The highs are so high and the lows can be so low. I definitely knew I wanted to go to college but I felt a lot of stress about choosing what I wanted to do. I didn’t know if I wanted to go into visual art or performing art. I definitely had that doubting period.
So were you a theater major in college?
Yes, I did end up choosing it as my major.
What were some of your earliest influences growing up? I’m sure your own family was one of them.
Yes definitely my family. And you know, this show has been so fun to do because I always loved old movie musicals growing up. 'White Christmas' was one of my favorite movies, 'Singing in the Rain', 'Meet Me In St Louis'. So I always kind of loved that genre and that period and era. I was so blessed to have the opportunities that I did in Chicago and work with some of the most amazing actors there that I’ve ever worked with. I got to grow up watching a lot of theater and watching a lot of amazing actors and actresses so that was definitely an influence. I mean I was going to shows when I was like four years old probably. And somehow stayed quiet in the theater!
Did you always dream of coming to Broadway one day?
Well, I did take it one step at a time. But I think deep down, yeah that was always in my mind. I think anybody that wants to be a performer, especially if you’re speaking of live theater, that’s kind of what’s in your mind. Yeah, I’m so happy to do what I was doing in Chicago and I was working, and for an actor, that’s like gold. I was just happy to be working and making a living and then this show came up and it felt crazy, it kind of just happened.
The roles that you’ve had in the past really have had quite a range to them. From old-fashioned musicals like you spoke about to Shakespearean productions. Do you have a preference for one type of role over another?
I don’t really. One of the things I like doing most is jumping from one thing to the next. I think its really challenging and it keeps me working hard and it definitely keeps it interesting. I think that’s how I’ve learned a lot. It’s just sort of trial by fire and then figure out how to do the next thing.
Your recent role in Chicago was Adelaide in ‘Guys and Dolls’, which happens to be one of my all-time favorite shows.
I know it's like one of the perfect American musicals. I mean I really think it’s up there. It’s just so well crafted.
What was it like playing Adelaide? She seems like she would be a really fun character to play.
She was! And I was so blessed to work with our director Matt Raftery, who’s one of my good friends. He kind of went out on a limb for me. I mean, its not what people normally had seen me do in Chicago and I was a little young for the role. He was like, “I think we’re gonna do this” and I was like, ‘Ok’. It was so fun. I watched a lot of Judy Holliday because it’s one of those roles where you kind of feel like it’s a little pressure. It’s been done so well by so many amazing actresses. But Matt was great in helping me figure it out step by step through my eyes . Adelaide’s so much fun - you get killer songs, you get to be a club singer and you get all those comedic bits, amazing outfits!
And it’s that same time period that you love.
Yes! And also, her heart is so on her sleeve. Everything is just right there with her. She doesn’t have much of a filter, so it was really fun.
What was the audition process like for ‘On A Clear Day'?
Well I got a call form my agent saying that the creative team was coming to Chicago for auditions for the ‘American Idiot’ tour. But then I got call from her saying, ‘Ok they want to see you that day but it's for another piece. They’re gonna be reviving ’On a Clear Day’ with Harry Connick Jr’. They gave me all my materials and I tried to learn my songs and I went in really not knowing what to expect or probably what was actually going on. I auditioned for them there. It was just Jim Carnahan, the casting director. He said ‘Ok, great - really interesting. Nice to meet you'. And then he said ‘Can you come back for a callback tomorrow?’ and I was like, ‘Oh God, I actually can’t’.
Now looking back it's like, ‘What were you thinking?!!’, but at the time, I was involved with a reading of a play I was doing. I mean I really felt like I couldn’t just leave and not show up for it. It was kind of complicated. So he said ‘Ok, well you can fly yourself to New York next week. We're having more callbacks.’ And I said ‘Ok, I’ll do that!”.
So I flew myself to New York the next week and had another round of auditions and got to meet Michael Mayer, the director and several producers, and the music director, Larry Yurman. I had a great time and flew back home thinking, ‘ Well that was fun. And probably nothing will happen but what a great experience’. And then I got another call saying, ‘We want you to keep moving on with this. We want you to come back and audition with Harry'. It was a while before that audition happened. We played phone tag about when it would occur but finally they flew me back and I worked with the director and had the audition with Harry in the afternoon. Again, I thought it was such a long shot but I thought, ‘This is so cool. What a great opportunity'. I had to just take it for what it was worth.
Did you get the opportunity to sing with Harry at that point?
Yes, I did! I got to sing with him in the audition and the funny thing was the way it happened. I was just so nervous I wasn’t sure if I could concentrate. There was a scene we did together that lead us to the duet that’s in the show. Harry started singing first and I mean I’m sure everyone in that room saw it across my face. It was just unbelievable! I’d never heard him sing live before. I had a bunch of his records, but to see and hear that sound coming out of his mouth, just a few feet away from me! I actually was like, ‘Wow, now I have to sing!’
I was actually thinking that when I saw the show the other night - when the two of you were singing the duet, looking into each other’s eyes. I can’t even imagine what that must be like.
It’s so funny because I guess in theater, sometimes you have those moments when you are so into it but sometimes you kind of have that third eye where you’re like looking what’s actually going on – a cell phone is ringing, my dress is coming up, somebody has something in their teeth. And sometimes you just have those moments when you think, ‘This is unbelievable. I get to sing with Harry Connick, Jr. ‘ It’s really wild.
I loved that dance number when all three of you, (Mueller, Connick, Jr. and Turner) ballroom danced together. That was so unique.
Well thank you. We love doing that. We worked really hard with that. Our choreographer, Joann (M. Hunter) was really patient with us and we came up with something really unique that tells a story so well.
The director of the show (Tony-award winner Michael Mayer) decided to reconceive the original book by Alan Jay Lerner. In light of the recent controversy involving the upcoming revival of Gershwin's 'Porgy and Bess', in which people took issue with some of the changes made by the show's creative team, I was wondering what your feelings are about the changes made to 'On A Clear Day'.
I don’t know if my opinion really counts, but I mean it’s theater…so it’s kind of put out there for a reaction and I think anybody’s reaction is valid. I think maybe some of the responses to the Porgy and Bess controversy was not unlike the idea of reininventing Shakespeare – people have been reinventing Shakespeare since the 1920’s, performing it very differently than in Elizabethan times. We’re really always rewriting things or resetting things. If you look at Rodgers and Hammerstein, they were doing outrageous things for their time. We look at them now and see sweet little shows but they were writing about racial struggles and sexual relationships. So I think it's kind of our job to just look at something and try to reinterpret it and try to give it a fresh face while still maintaining the integrity of what the piece was trying to be. It’s a tricky thing. You always have to have a balance. They were very concerned about that with this show and worked really closely with the estates of the writers of the music and the book.
And obviously had their approval?
Right and their blessing. That’s what’s been so cool too - to meet all these people who have been involved with the project and with these legendary writers and to have their blessing is kind of amazing.
Well the changes they made certainly add a whole new dimension to the story.
And I think what they were concerned about was that there wasn’t enough conflict for the character of the doctor. It was like, ‘well why can’t these two present people just fall in love with each other? They’re both wonderful and kind of available.' I think Michael Mayer was just really interested in upping the stakes for the characters and I think that’s what he has accomplished when they reworked the story in the way that they did.
Have you heard any backlash about the changes made?
I don’t read reviews so I’m sure people have had opinions about it. I haven’t really personally but like I said, we’re kind of putting it out there and reactions are going to come.
Is there a dream role that you would love to play?
Oh, I feel like I’d like to do anything and everything from ‘Into the Woods’. I’d like someday to play Mama Rose. I’d like to play Fanny Brice and I’d love to do some more plays. I haven’t done a play in a couple of years.
Can you tell us what it was like for you when you first stepped onto the stage on Opening Night?
It was nerve-wracking in a way but once I was out there it was fun. It was the anticipation of it mostly because my family was in the audience and I just always get nervous when my family’s here because I respect them so much and I want to do well. It was such a wild crowd, with such a great energy in the audience that night that it was a thrill - it was really thrilling. I tried to concentrate on what I was doing but there was a little part of my mind that was in touch with what was going on and that this was my debut and it only happens once so I tried to take it all in!
ON A CLEAR DAY YOU CAN SEE FOREVER is now playing at the St. James Theatre at 246 W. 44th Street. For tickets, please visit: http://onacleardaybroadway.com/or call Telecharge.com at (212) 239-6200 or Outside the Tri-State area (800) 432-7250.