Hidden Strengths

AUG 9, 2015

Waitress Star Jessie Mueller Gives Voice to Vulnerability

by Amanda Faye Martin

“Life is like a pie,” reflects actress Jessie Mueller. “You have to have a sturdy, flaky, buttery crust in order to hold your filling.” As she explains where to find the best banana cream pie in New York City (Joe Allen), why fruit pies are only good homemade, and the secret to her mother’s strawberry rhubarb, it’s easy to see how Mueller’s down-to-earth charm has made her one of the most celebrated musical theater performers in the country. In 2014, she won the Tony Award for Best Leading Actress in a Musical for her heartfelt portrayal of Carole King in Beautiful, an original biographical musical about the iconic singer. In rehearsals for the A.R.T.’s world premiere production of the musical Waitress, Mueller brings that same extraordinary voice to the character Jenna, an expert pie-maker stuck in a small town and a loveless marriage. Whether she’s singing one of Sara Bareilles’s moving ballads or chatting about her favorite Midwestern pie chain, Mueller exudes sincerity and warmth.

The daughter of two actors and sister of three siblings who are also all performers, Mueller grew up in suburban Chicago surrounded by theater. She never felt pressured by her family to perform, but was attracted to the process and culture of theater. “It was my parents’ job, and I understood there was a lot of work involved from an early age,” she remembers. “But I also saw the camaraderie. I saw my parents’ friends with them after a show. I saw that world—it’s unlike anything else.” Mueller began acting in high school, and later studied theater as an undergraduate at Syracuse University. Returning to Chicago after graduation, she was quickly recognized for her remarkable voice and captivating stage presence. Within a year, Mueller landed a role at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, and then continued to perform at many of Chicago’s leading theaters, winning her first Joseph Jefferson Award in 2008 in Carousel and another in 2011 in She Loves Me. In 2011, Mueller made her Broadway debut playing the romantic lead in On a Clear Day You Can See Forever. Since then, she has performed in Into the Woods at the Public Theater and Broadway productions of The Mystery of Edwin Drood and Nice Work If You Can Get It. Her poignant performance in Beautiful inspired Carole King to join Mueller onstage after a curtain call for an impromptu duet of “You’ve Got a Friend” that raised money for the 2014 Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS initiative.

Jessie Mueller

An inquisitive actress who is deeply inspired by the developmental process, Mueller’s exploration of her character’s psychology and voice in rehearsal is invaluable. She explains that the relationship among Waitress director Diane Paulus, book writer Jessie Nelson, and composer Sara Bareilles has influenced her own collaborative approach to new work. “I like the way those ladies all work together,” she says. “They’re very open to feedback from actors, and they’re great collaborators and communicators.” The music written by Grammy- nominated singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles has played a critical role in helping Mueller develop her character, and she’s found an artistic kinship with the pop star. “It’s beautiful what artists like Sara do, because they’re working through their stuff and letting us into it,” she observes. “Sara’s music makes you feel like, ‘Oh, you wrote that about me, didn’t you?’ And of course she didn’t, but that’s what a good song can do.”

Mueller’s characters in both Beautiful and Waitress have been admired for their strength and resilience. In Beautiful, Carole King rises to stardom and reclaims independence after a failed marriage; in Waitress, Jenna aspires to get more out of life after years stuck in an abusive relationship. Both characters confront romantic and professional challenges, and persevere by pursuing their dreams and working through something in themselves. “People say they relate to the strength in the characters I play,” says Mueller. “But I think what they’re really relating to is my characters’ vulnerability. I think that’s where most of the connection comes from— that’s where the empathy comes from. The strength of a character doesn’t really exist without the vulnerability.”


Amanda Faye Martin is a second-year dramaturgy student at the A.R.T. Institute for Advanced Theater Training at Harvard University.

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