Jessie Mueller on staging Carousel in the #MeToo era and portraying 'the complexity of women'
Jessie Mueller is ready to take a ride on the carousel.
Portraying the lead role in a star-studded Broadway revival of a musical once named the best of the 20th century by Time magazine might feel a bit like walking through a storm with your head held high. For Jessie Mueller, who will portray mill worker Julie Jordan in the third Broadway staging of the Rodgers and Hammerstein masterwork, it’s the chance to dip into a catalog of music she’s always loved.
The Tony winning actress is no stranger to revivals — she even portrayed Julie’s best friend Carrie in a Lincoln Center concert production of Carousel back in 2013. Yet, most audiences associate her with a more contemporary Broadway sound after she won a Tony for portraying Carole King in Beautiful and earned another nomination for originating the role of Jenna in the Sara Bareilles-scored Waitress. For Mueller though, it’s a return to her roots. “I was raised on the classics,” she says.
Mueller joins a production team that feels almost as hallowed as the musical itself. It includes Tony nominee Joshua Henry as her love interest Billy Bigelow, opera star Renée Fleming in her first Broadway musical, and New York City Ballet’s Justin Peck, making his Broadway debut as a choreographer. Yet, the production is not without a few raised eyebrows, given that it deals with domestic violence in a way that some might feel is insensitive (at best) amidst the reckoning of the #MeToo era.
In advance of the show’s opening night on Thursday, EW called up Mueller to talk about shifting away from a contemporary vibe to a musical theater classic, handling the issue of her character’s abuse in a particularly fraught moment, and why she’s always loved Rodgers and Hammerstein.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Audiences probably associate you with a more contemporary sound – what is that transition like going from this contemporary, more modern sound to some of the biggest classics in musical theatre history?
JESSIE MUELLER: A little bit daunting, first off. Ultimately, it’s been really freeing. It’s been fun to go back to my training. It’s a very healthy way to sing and, ultimately, very satisfying because Rodgers and Hammerstein melodies are so lush and rich. I think sometimes we forget about their genius because we think, “Oh those shows are from the ’40s and the ’50s,” but their intelligence and their lyrics and the mastery of the melody and the blending with the lyric, it’s kind of unmatched. It’s sort of where it all began as far as musical theater history and making its next big move into integrating story and song, so it’s been thrilling.
Do you feel the scale of the show is different any way – going from the more recent times of the ’60s/’70s and a contemporary show to a period setting in the 1870s?
Absolutely. I’ve always loved that kind of stuff. I’m the kind of actor who [loves] when I finally get my costume, and it sounds silly, [but] get the right underwear on if you’re wearing a corset. Even the way we live our lives day to day is so informed by the time and the place we live in. That’s fascinating to try to go back and think how someone would have loved or someone would have walked or someone would have stood – what they felt comfortable saying, what they didn’t feel comfortable saying. It’s all a part of who the character is and who the character becomes — how you create the character. I love that because I feel like there’s a wealth of information out there, and I kind of nerded out on research.
What was some of the research you did in terms of the time period?
Did you know there’s a carousel museum? I didn’t! I told you I nerded out. It’s a museum about carousels and European carousels and carousels coming to this country and what happened when steam power came into it. It was fascinating. The artistry behind creating carousels. The other thing I never thought of — the turn of the century and after the industrial revolution, all these young women were going to work in these mills and they were making their own money and there started to become all this time and opportunity for enjoyment and recreation. That’s when things like fairs and carousels came into play, and people could make money off other people’s recreation and enjoyment for the first time in a long time. The research of getting into “Why was this such a big deal?” We think of something like a carousel now, but what did it feel like to someone who had never been on an amusement ride, let alone had much time for joy or letting loose outside of her 12 hour day when she was working in a mill? Waking up at 5 or 6 am and working all day and getting one to two days off a week. It would be like her version of a rock concert or something. The night Julie meets Billy is getting into how special that [outing] must have been.
Were you already a lover of Rodgers and Hammerstein?
I grew up on that stuff. I grew up watching the films of Carousel and Oklahoma, and The Music Man and My Fair Lady – all the classic musicals of that golden era, The sort of more modern musical theater or what was modern when I was at a ripe teenage age, I wasn’t really listening to that stuff. I was really more raised on the classics.
Was there something here you were particularly excited to tackle and sing? Or something you were intimidated by?
“If I Loved You.” All the way. Totally intimidated by it. From the outside it has this aura of being one of the greatest musical theater scenes ever written. That’s how people view it and it does deserve that because it’s so beautifully written and structured and complex and ultimately, satisfying and romantic and all these things. Looking at it from the outside was very intimidating, and then it took that leap of getting inside it and working with Jack [O’Brien], our director and [Joshua Henry] who’s playing Billy. Then, it started to feel like we get to live this like we do any other piece that we jump into. But that was the one that was definitely intimidating to me from the get-go.
Unlike Beautiful and Waitress, this isn’t a new show – it’s something a lot of people, even casual fans of musicals, are familiar with from popular culture, community theater, and so on. Has that changed the experience or your approach at all?
No, it didn’t really. I felt, safety’s not the right word, but a welcoming energy in that because I know the piece is so beloved. I just felt like we had to be true to it, if that makes sense. And kind of not get there and screw it up. The thing is it’s a beautiful piece and [it’s] sort of a sigh of relief as an actor where you go, “I know this works.” This has been tried and tested as opposed to a new musical where you work so hard to create it and you hope for the best and you move this around and you change this song and you do all that. That work has all been done, and it’s a piece that has stood the test of the time, so it’s an honor to dive into something like that knowing you have an integrity to uphold in it, but that has already been tested. There’s no, “Should we change the second act opening number? Is it landing?” You know it works.
What’s it like working with Renée Fleming and seeing her approach as an opera singer? Have you traded any vocal tips?
I’m fascinated by her every day. I just watch what she does and I watch how she breathes and how she forms her sounds and her vowels. She’s also just one of the loveliest people I’ve ever met and very funny and down to earth. It was a pleasure to walk into the room with her and know her work and have sort of an awe about her and then have her be such a lovely person. She’s just been so game from the get-go to dive into the process. It’s been such fun for all of us because we’ve got people from all different worlds. She’s coming from the opera world, we’ve got people more from straight theater, musical theater, the dance world, straight-up ballet world. It’s been fun for everybody to get together and learn from each other.
We don’t see dream ballets that much anymore. How do you think audiences will respond to that?
Bringing Justin Peck into the process and into the piece, the idea was, “Is there more room for dance throughout so that for a modern audience and for a modern consciousness when we get to a ballet it doesn’t feel like vocabulary we’ve never established?” That was the hope and the goal from the beginning. How do you make sense of someone breaking into song? And then the idea moving from that, how do you make sense when someone breaks into dance? And then three-quarters of the way through the play, how do you make sense of the fact that characters are just using movement to convey emotion? Justin’s done an incredible job in the way that he’s established vocabulary throughout the piece so that when we get to the ballet, it feels very satisfying because the emotion there is heightened in such a way that being able to deliver the bulk of it through dance and through music [makes sense]. I watch from the wings sometimes in the ballet. This sounds really weird, but you can feel the audience listening and leaning forward. It’s like every breath is like 10 feet above their head in the audience. You can just feel this energy. It’s really amazing.
With Joshua Henry in the leading role opposite you, I’m sure there have been some adjustments to accommodate the fact that you’re telling the story of an interracial romance in a time when that was taboo. Can you tell me more about that and how the two of you have approached it as a team?
Maybe at the beginning, it sort of struck us that way. As an actor you always use the tools of who you are and your experience of what you have to offer. But really, as the process went along, the idea of race just didn’t seem as prevalent to us. For he and I, we’re just Billy and Julie, and we’re the characters that fall in love and fall in love with each other and it’s all sort of mixed in with the circumstances of the play. Ultimately, it’s more about how these two people unfortunately never communicate the things that they need to communicate with each other, and from that point on, we sort of see the way their relationship falls apart.
I’m sure you’ve seen and probably discussed the New York Times article about doing this and other revivals in the middle of the #MeToo movement – how much have you discussed those more problematic aspects of the play? And how are you all handling that in this particularly fraught contemporary moment?
It’s just so much a part of our consciousness now, that it’s a part of all the aspects of all of our lives. I’m glad to say I’m experiencing more of a conversation in my artistic workforce world than I ever have before. But it’s a job as an artist to reflect the world we live in, that’s our job. The fact that we get to tell this story and some of the complicated issues that come up in this piece right now, I feel like it’s a really good thing. It’s really important. The piece doesn’t shy away from the difficulty of the subject matter, the difficulty of the violence and that it’s hard to swallow. Rodgers and Hammerstein, you look at their other pieces, they were very brave in the stuff that tackled whether it was racism or class structures in The King and I or South Pacific, or whether it was pioneer expansion of Oklahoma, whether it was the idea of violence and the difficulties of a romantic relationship in Carousel. It was all about the contradictions of life and love. That’s what they were interested in. As an actress, at least at this point in my journey, I’m not interested in playing a superhero, I’m interested in playing a human. I think one of the best things I can do is portray women and portray the complexity of women with as much honesty as I can.
On a personal level as an actress, how have you approached that – there’s a tendency in society to judge women who don’t leave their abusers from the outside but of course it’s much more complex than that, so what types of research did you do to make sure you could approach it without judgment?
Part of my research, whether I knew it or not, was that I just went through a process with Waitress that also dealt with similar subject matter and had some wonderful contacts and conversations during that process of my exploration of exactly what you’re talking about — what it’s like to be inside something rather than looking at it from the outside. The job of the actor is never to judge your character. You have to come from the inside of your character. For me, the most amazing thing about the show is actually the focus on love and forgiveness and redemption. When we look at the show from the outside, we remember the more prickly things, but the show is really about the human experience and how we decide to spend our life on this earth and within that, all the complexities of that — all the pain, all the suffering, all the love, all the joy that comes with that. The exploration of how we spend our time and that’s always what I’ve walked away from the piece feeling the most and learning the most from.
Did you find a lot of unexpected similarities and parallels between this and Waitress?
Funnily enough, this feels so different. I’m not even sure I could explain why. It could be that one is a very modern story. One feels like more of an exploration of where we’ve been. It’s not that it’s any less immediate, One of the things Carousel raises is how much what the characters go through and the facts that occur in exposition of the story are direct consequences of the character’s circumstances. That brings up a lot of questions about class and gender and education and the tools people have or the lack of tools people have, the communication and the lack of communication, and all the drama that ensues comes as a result of those things.
Lastly, you made your film debut in The Post this past winter — do you have plans to do more off-stage things in film or TV?
I had such an amazing experience working on that film and it was my first foray into that. I couldn’t have had a better experience, so I always like to keep expanding and trying new things. As scary as it is, it’s really good and really vital for an artist, so I would love the chance to do more in the future, but for the time being, I’m on the merry go round.