Tony Awards 2016

How Tony Nominee Jessie Mueller Conquered Broadway

The Daily Beast

May 16, 2016

There is a lot of flour used by Jessie Mueller and the rest of the cast in the musical Waitress. So, when the air conditioning at Broadway’s Brooks Atkinson Theater plays up, the results can be messy.

One recent evening, the air-con “was coming in, not out,” meaning Mueller and her colleagues—gently blowing flour from their palms out to the audience—were lightly coated in the stuff, and carried on performing, “trying to be dreamy with it.”

When we speak by phone, Mueller apologizes for her slightly clotted voice: allergies, she says. “I’m about to boil some garlic and ginger to get the inflammation down.”

Of how she keeps her voice healthy for the demands of eight shows as week, she says, “I keep talking to a minimum. I nap on two-show days. I don’t really drink much, it’s very drying. I get a lot of sleep. For me, that is the only thing that reboots my voice. If I haven’t had enough sleep, there is nothing I can do to repair that damage.”

Mueller, 33, has been nominated for a second Tony for her role as Jenna, a waitress in a diner stuck in an abusive relationship, but dreaming of a better life away from her awful husband Earl (Nick Cordero).

Mueller won her first Tony for her role as Carole King in the musical, Beautiful, in 2014, and in Waitress must navigate the tricky transitions of singing happily about pie-making, while conveying Jenna’s desperation to escape her unhappy marriage, as well as falling in love with her gynecologist (Drew Gehling).

The musical, based on the 2007 movie of the same name and with music and lyrics by Sara Bareilles, sees Jenna and her waitress buddies at the diner—Becky (Keana Settle) and Dawn (Kimiko Glenn)—deal with both matters of the heart and the baking oven.

Dawn’s eccentric paramour, Ogie (Christopher Fitzgerald), steals every scene he is in, winningly and shamelessly.

Despite Fitzgerald’s audacious act of stage piracy, Waitress is notable for having an all-female lead production team, as well as a female focus.

“I never thought of myself as a feminist,” says Mueller. “I’m from a generation that were the daughters of feminists. To me, if that term is polarizing it’s not serving us. The term had to be created at a time because there needed to be a term to define something different.”

Today Mueller prefers the term “human-ist,” but if feminism still has currency and a need to exist, she says, “as long it’s not polarizing people, then yeah I’m a feminist.”

In the musical, to segue from happy to sad, intense to light, says Mueller, is to simply remain truthful to the spirit of each scene—the comic, as well as the serious.

The show has also re-awoken her pie-making skills. “I used to bake with my mom a lot when I was little. I liked to get my hands dirty and help when I could. The crust is the hardest thing: that’s what keeps me from making pies. My stirring skills have gotten really good though.”

Some of the pies are real in the show, some are models, and one is baked in the foyer every evening to send enticing smells into the audience—it is later fed to cast and crew.

Was there pressure on Mueller being back on Broadway, with a Tony already to her name?

“I think early on I did feel little bit of pressure,” Mueller, who seems extremely modest and down-to-earth, says. “I think it was self-induced—just the sense that I had been so blessed with the success of Beautiful that it gave me a little bit of choice, and what I did next was really important.”

Becoming a celebrity was another puzzle. For Mueller, “it’s something that means something to someone else, I don’t know what that thing means to me. I understand the responsibility of it: My name is on a marquee, people are depending on me.”

But celebrity in itself doesn’t help her do her job. Its definition is all in the perception of others, though Mueller is “grateful if it means that people are into what I’m doing, and if that means I am able to do really great things. That’s what I love about it.”

She wanted to “top” Beautiful professionally, just as she always hopes to be doing her best work—and while both the latter and Waitress feature two female characters struggling to express themselves, the musical challenges of the two shows are very different.

Mueller wanted to be an actress from a young age, growing up in Evanston, Illinois: her parents and siblings are all actors. “I was taken with theater from the beginning, it was the coolest thing for me. I was entranced, and it was the most natural thing because it was what my parents did.”

Performances of Sherman Edwards’ 1776 and Stephen Sondheim’s Gypsy that she saw at age 4 or 5 stayed in her mind, particularly the strippers in the latter: “They had the best songs and outfits.”

As to what was fascinating her young mind, it was “the magic of becoming someone else, the music, and I was fascinated with the actresses coming out of the stage door with their lashes still on—it seemed otherworldly to me.”

Mueller didn’t start performing herself until high school (Evanston Township), “which had a brilliant theater department and still does.”

When she was contemplating college life, the idea of training to be an actor struck Mueller with trepidation: Her parents being actors meant she knew “a little bit about the pressures of the actor’s life.” Her mother encouraged her to do what she wanted, “and I didn’t have biochemistry as a fallback,” says Mueller, laughing gently. Acting it was.

A family of actors does not mean a lot of collective competing with each other, Mueller says: parents and siblings all go to each other’s shows, schedules permitting.

“It’s a built-in support system and understanding. My brothers and sister and I have such respect for each other, and we’re so different.”

Coming to Broadway was not an all-consuming ambition of hers, Mueller insists.

“It really wasn’t. Because of where I grew up, I was part of a theater community. I wasn’t one of those kids who wanted to be on Broadway. I wasn’t acquainted with New York and Broadway: that, to me, was Guys and Dolls. I didn’t have an understanding of what Broadway is, and the amazing community and platform that it is.”

A breakthrough role came in the 2011 revival of On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, for which she scored a Tony nomination, and then, the following year, Into The Woods.

“I was kind of terrified,” Mueller recalls of coming to New York. “I was thrilled, but On a Clear Day… closed soon after it opened. I would never give anything back of that experience, but I did think afterwards, ‘What am I doing?’ There were a couple of crazy dark moments. I wasn’t sure what was to come, then Into The Woods came up, and so I thought, ‘Cool, I’ll stay and do this.’”

The Tonys win for Beautiful in 2014 changed her professional life: of that day, she recalls rehearsing for the ceremony, doing a regular performance of Beautiful, returning for the ceremony, another stage performance within the ceremony, then the announcement of her as the winner.

She laughs that she had been most proud that she and her fellow Beautiful cast had managed all the to-and-fro of the day, and so the moment of winning itself remains “otherworldly, a buzz of people high-fiving you and giving you hugs, then ‘the show must go on.’”

It was “a huge honor,” and it certainly opened professional doors for Mueller, she says. Of the actor and writer Andy Truschinski, her boyfriend of six years, she adds, “I couldn’t do any of this without him. We’ve been together 6½ years. He is the most loving, grounded person and force in my life. Any of this really wouldn’t be worth it if he wasn’t around. He is so understanding. He gets it.”

As to the future, Mueller says Beautiful and Waitress both came out of nowhere, and so she cannot say what her desired roles are: She hopes the most interesting parts will present themselves.

This year’s Tony nominations, featuring black actors and actresses in many categories, have been favorably compared to “Oscars So White.”

“I’m very excited about it,” Mueller says of Broadway today. “People are talking about how honest and powerful shows are. If there is the room for truth and honesty and inclusiveness at the heart of everything, and people are coming to Broadway and feeling they are represented and relating to the stories in front of them, I think we’re in a really good place.”