'Beautiful' Star Jessie Mueller Talks Carole King, Sara Bareilles, Pop Music Onstage

In 2011, Jessie Mueller was just another actress from the Midwest when she got cast opposite Harry Connick Jr. on Broadway in On a Clear Day You Can See Forever. After nabbing a Tony Award nomination for the role (and her impressive scatting), she's become something of a fixture on the New York stage, most recently winning the Tony Award for best actress in a musical for her portrayal of Carole King in Beautiful.

The role could land her another award: a Grammy. The original cast recording is one of five — alongside A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Aladdin and West Side Story (with the San Francisco Symphony) — nominated for best musical theater album. (Lead vocalists are considered among the nominees.)

"It's a completely different world," Mueller says on a Friday evening in her dressing room backstage at the Stephen Sondheim Theater. "I didn't think I'd ever have a chance — well, I used to! I used to want to be a singer and recording artist. I still do, I think, at some point."

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She certainly is racking up the pop music crossover, most recently working with Sara Bareilles on a workshop production of her musical Waitress, based on the 2007 film by Adrienne Shelly and starring Keri Russell. The Hollywood Reporter sat down with Mueller to talk about the Grammys and pop music onstage.

Have you talked to Carole King at all about the nomination?

I haven't! I'm sure she knows. She knows what's up. She's done the Grammy thing a few times.

Exactly! It's interesting to be nominated for recording songs, many of which have already won Grammys.

I think that's very unusual. The music serves a different purpose than it does on the albums that all the original music appeared on. I have no idea what the [National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences'] feelings on it are or whether that puts it in a different sort of light for them — whether that's a help or a hindrance to a win or a lose.

Well, Jersey Boys won the Grammy for original cast recording in 2007, and those songs had already won awards. But it is a different situation than say Cyndi Lauper, who won for Kinky Boots last year. Do you find it's difficult for pop music to translate to Broadway?

It depends on the music. Take Broadway out of the equation. Say "theatricalizing" any kind of music, the music that appears in a musical has to fit the story. You have to know what you're going for; you have to know what your piece is. Yes, it can be tricky theatricalizing pop songs. People have done it. Jersey Boys is another great example. But, like what you said with Cyndi Lauper, more and more pop writers are being intrigued by the possibility of going into that world — Sting, Sara Bareilles, Sheryl Crow, you know what I mean? To me, all those writers make sense, because all those writers write stories in their music. For them, I think it's just an extension. Why not try it?

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And you worked with Sara Bareilles on Waitress. What was that like?

Oh my god, it was amazing! She's the kind of writer you would want to work with. If she wants to keep working in this medium, it's going to hopefully go beautifully for her. She's really open. She works really fast. She's not necessarily precious about her stuff. If she sees something isn't working, she would change something, or she would change a key or change a lyric. She seemed very invested in the whole thing, not just what she was bringing to the table. It was really cool to watch her work.

Do you feel like you sing a pop song different than a musical theater song — whether it be in Beautiful or in the Waitress workshop?

To me, it's even the difference between singing musical theater or jazz or rock or pop — the intention is different. It's a different sound because it changes what you stress, whether you're focusing on sound or story. For me, with musical theater stuff, yes, you have to hit the notes and you have to sound good, but it should never be about sounding good. You will sound better if you know what you're trying to do. You should be singing a high note because you have to hit the note because you have to get your point across. But pop music is different to me. And it's been fun to do this show because you always want the lyric to come through and the intent. That's what Carole does so brilliantly.

How was performing in the studio for the Beautiful cast album different than performing onstage?

I think about it a little differently because I know nobody is going to be seeing my eyes; nobody is seeing my body movement. In the show, often the songs appear as a songwriter singing their song as a performance. But sometimes they have a little bit more of a dramatic context to them. I feel like I remember when we were recording "Too Late" that to me felt very different recording it in the studio than it does in the show. In the show, it's a very specific moment dramatically in the transition for Carole King as the character, into "I can't perform in front of people" to being like "I can do this." But on the album, it's just a great song and a great groove, and we really laid into the groove more.

You've talked about how Carole King has inspired artists like Sara Bareilles and Adele. Do you have any favorite artists?

Sara has been one lately. I really have a lot of respect for Katy Perry. I listen to her before a show if I need to get pepped up, and we got to meet her a couple of weeks ago. She came to the show. The music world is so challenging to me — so anyone who can navigate that, especially women in that world.

When I spoke with Idina Menzel earlier in the year about her success with Frozen, she talked at length about feeling pigeonholed as a Broadway performer when she first started in the recording industry. Do you feel like there's still a divide, or is there more crossover between the worlds?

I don't know! I mean, Idina's a really good example. I was just having this conversation with someone the other day. In the '40s and '50s, that line used to be jumped so much, like the theater songs were the pop songs. And the same songs would be recorded by people on Broadway and Frank Sinatra or Ella Fitzgerald. I don't think there is as much a blending now, but that's not to say that there can't be or there shouldn't be. Look at all the pop writers who are intrigued by what is this musical theater thing?

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But I'm curious, based on Tupac's Holler If You Hear Me closing quickly earlier this season and now Sting's The Last Ship closing, is there overlap in the music and theater audiences, or does there need to be?

That's an interesting thing. Because are you talking about two different audiences? That's the basic question. It also just has a lot to do with people might not know. It's a tricky job for the producers because they have to pigeonhole it a little bit so they market to somebody. But if something is good, it's good. That sounds like such a trite statement.

Well, it still has to be good. You can't just rely on the name recognition.

There should always be the challenge to be excellent. It's like when people come to a show like this, and they know the music is going to be good,and they say to me, "The acting is so good!" And I'm like, "Did you expect it not be because it's a musical?"

What do you think musical theater's place is at the Grammys?

I don't know! There's a lot of time and talent and money put into the recordings of these Broadway shows, and they are a wonderful record — as in past, not as in recording — of a moment in time. That's a funny thing too because in some ways, it's a little outside of the form because one of the things about live theater is it never really should be captured. It lives every night, and then it goes away, and then it lives again. And a cast recording is some people's only glimpse into the show.

But it's one of the things honestly that annoys me about people recording in a show. The whole point of coming to the theater is to experience it in the moment. The thing that I don't think people realize is we're not a movie. It's not done. We are affected by what we see. I'm distracted by the recording light, which in turn does something to my performance, so I'm not giving you the best I can give you. That's why a cast album should be precious, but the way it's different is everybody involved in the show in the process is a part of the conversation about how it's going to be represented. It's not a random recording of a Wednesday night of one flash-in-the-pan moment when maybe somebody had a cold and somebody records it from the balcony, and then everybody judges it on YouTube. So in that right, I think it does have a place. It is a specific recording art. It is trying to record a live, living, breathing thing.

Do you have any desire to record an album of your own?

Oh yeah. This show has made it even more crystallized for me. I just need to do the work about what I want that to be. I don't want to say something until I feel like I have something to say. And part of that is the Carole King journey represented in this show — a huge part of that journey is her figuring out "Well, I have something to say, and it's what I have to say, and it's going to have to be enough, and other people will dig it or they won't dig it." It's me, Jessie, figuring out what do I have to say? Because I want it to be authentically that. It's very different for me. I'm much more comfortable being in a character.