Jessie Mueller’s ‘Beautiful’ dilemma
The Broadway actress Jessie Mueller brought the smartphone camera into focus and tapped on the photo icon.
“From Drama Desk winner to photographer," quipped Jarrod Spector, Mueller’s costar in the best musical Tony nominee “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” and one of her subjects in the impromptu back-of-the-room photo session at the Tony Honors, an annual theater-season event.
Doesn’t she want to be in the shot so she has a selfie to remember the moment? a bystander asked.
“Believe me, I’m more than happy not being in it,” Mueller said with a no-really laugh.
More than the Oscars or the Emmys, the Tony Awards--which will be broadcast Sunday at 8 p.m. from Radio City Music Hall--feature a tight-knit group of veterans who know and in many cases have worked with one another. This year, there are few categories more seasoned — or daunting — than lead actress in a musical, whose Idina Menzel (“If/Then”), Kelli O’ Hara (“The Bridges of Madison County” ) and Sutton Foster (“Violet”) count 14 Tony nominations, three wins and an abundance of shows among them.
Yet the pre-ceremony oddsmaking favors Mueller, a 31-year-old first-time nominee in the category who arrived on Broadway less than three years ago and would prefer to skirt the edges of the hot-house Tony campaign season.
Over the course of 24 hours earlier this week, Mueller, fresh off her win for lead actress in a musical at the Drama Desk Awards, will jet, heeels helping to provide what biology didn’t, from the women-themed Lilly Awards to the Tony Honors to a photo session with other nominees at the Empire State Building to a “Beautiful"-themed event at Lord & Taylor. In the evening she’ll return to the Stephen Sondheim Theatre to take the stage, as she has eight times each week for the past six months, as Carole King.
She does it while walking an insider-outsider line, the somewhat ambivalent product of the awards machine mid-crank. On the Tony Honors red carpet — her second in an hour — Mueller spots Menzel and pulls her aside for a quick inside joke, then stands for several interviews gamely talking about the storytelling ethos of “Beautiful” (which is also nominated for best musical, drawing raves for its heartfelt moments and throwback charm).
But once at the event Mueller, though friendly, won’t really play the candidate. As past host and 2014 acting nominee Neil Patrick Harris ordered white wine and held court at the bar, and voters mingled with an assortment of nominees including Bryan Cranston, Mueller spent much of the evening in one corner of the room deep in conversation with Steve Sidwell, the arranger and composer of “Beautiful,” talking about music and his native England.
“Oh, God, should I have done that more?” Mueller said, when her minimal flesh-pressing was remarked upon. “I’m not very good at politics. I’m not sure I’m really comfortable with this whole thing.”
That sentiment seems fitting given the Chicago native’s role as King, who began her career as the less visible half of a songwriting team behind dozens of hits other performers made famous before years later evolving, uneasily, into a public figure in her own right.
It was a career aspect Mueller she said she connected to before tackling the part — and is now, as a result of the show, somewhat surreally living out herself.
“A lot of people put Carole on this feminist pedestal, made her this icon, but it took her a lot of work to get to that point. She had to learn how to be out front,” Mueller said. “And I feel like I’m dealing with something similar in my own way, where my life has changed and my work has changed and there have been these opportunities given to me and it’s, like, ‘How do you deal with that and stay the person you are?’”
She felt a little guilty, she said, when, after a number of years working in the same Chicago scene as her parents and three siblings, all actors, she arrived on Broadway in late 2011 and found Tony recognition immediately for her turn as the free spirit Melinda Wells in “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever,” a quickly shuttered, critically dissed show that nonetheless garnered Mueller a featured actress nomination. “It was, ‘Do I deserve this? Why is this happening to me and not my friends and family?’”
Like awards season in other entertainment fields, the Tonys circuit is filled with the pressures, perks and occasional absurdities of an increasingly packed calendar. Contenders who normally face the public in the distancing guise of an onstage character must now press the flesh at events for the 870 voters who control the biggest moment of their professional lives.
And unlike Oscar nominees, Tony contenders are often continuing to do the work they’re promoting even as they’re promoting it, a task that approximates a sitting president running for re-election, but with more cocktail parties.
Mueller’s turn on the trail has had an added dimension, since she’s in the mix with actors she came of age idolizing. She was barely 13 when Menzel garnered her first Tony nomination. Mueller also said she met this year’s lead actress in a play nominee Tyne Daly and found herself hesitant to offer any opinions. “A titan. I like that word,” Mueller said, when it was supplied by a reporter. “How can I tell Tyne Daly what I think when I’m thinking that?”
Of course it’s that unassuming air — “down-home,” in the words of “Beautiful” general manager Charlotte Wilcox — that has made her a favorite onstage playing King in the first place. (The singer, incidentally, surprised Mueller at a performance, not telling the cast she was coming and sitting in the audience in disguise before materializing onstage during a curtain call.)
In person, Mueller, though prone to the musical-actor tic of ending the occasional sentence with a singing flourish, comes off as thoughtful if earnest, talking about the role of women in theater and her reservations about sending the wrong feminist message in glammed-up Tonys photos. She wore an intense expression while a presenter at the Lilly Awards (which recognize women’s contributions to American theater) lamented a lack of opportunities for women on Broadway.
Mueller admitted she’s given some thought to her Tonys speech if she wins (a fifth candidate, newcomer Mary Bridget Davies from “A Night With Janis Joplin,” rounds out the field) but has tried to refrain from over-preparing — not so much for superstitious reasons but because she thinks it will mean more that way.
“People keep asking me how I’ll feel. And I think, I don’t know how I’ll feel because this is life’s big moment. It would be a blessing to be completely tongue-tied because that’s how you know you’re really experiencing it.”
As the Tony Honors began to wind down, Mueller turned to a reporter and a publicist, having perhaps reached her patience threshold, and said, “Let’s blow this popsicle stand.” On her way out, she stopped to empathize with the people working the check-in desk. “Are you guys OK? Because I could totally get you a drink.”
Then she stepped outside, where on a crowded Midtown street, a young woman approached her tentatively and said how much she admired her portrayal of King. Mueller smiled, looking genuinely surprised at the recognition, then hurried to meet a friend for dinner.
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