Waitress Star Jessie Mueller Wouldn't Tweet This Article Even If She Could
The Tony-winning actress keeps her head down during another awards season on Broadway.
Jessie Mueller's Broadway career is only five years old but already boasts five credits, two headlining roles, a Tony Award, and now, a third nomination for her leading performance as Jenna in the new Sara Bareilles musical, Waitress.
Fresh from the Chicago theater circuit — the longtime stomping ground of her performing parents — she made her Broadway debut in 2011 in On a Clear Day You Can See Forever opposite Harry Connick Jr. The cast also happened to feature Drew Gehling, who now stars alongside Mueller in Waitress as Jenna's gynecologist and illicit love interest, Dr. Pomatter. Their characters never actually met in On a Clear Day, but Gehling serendipitously was one of the first to usher Mueller into the Broadway community.
"He and [Hand to God Tony nominee] Sarah Stiles — they gave me a bottle of champagne on opening night," says Mueller. "I'll never forget it. They said, 'Someone did this for us on our Broadway debuts so we thought you should have a bottle of champagne.'" (Continuing the tradition, Mueller recently gifted her Broadway-debuting costars with champagne on the opening night of Waitress.)
The role of jazz singer Melinda Wells earned Mueller her first Tony nomination — and the production's only nod. The next season brought The Mystery of Edwin Drood, in which she got to try her hand at British panto by playing British thespian Miss Janet Conover (who, in the musical, plays the part of Ceylonese orphan Helena Landless). Next, she joined the cast of George and Ira Gershwin's musical Nice Work If You Can Get It, tuning up her legit soprano to replace Kelli O'Hara as Billie Bendix.
About one year later, she would best O'Hara for the 2014 Lead Actress in a Musical Tony Award for her performance as the title character in Beautiful — The Carole King Musical. Now, after an out-of-town tryout with Waitress at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Mueller has earned another Tony nod for her starring role in singer-songwriter Bareilles' first Broadway musical.
Aside from the consistent acclaim, what's most interesting about Mueller's Broadway résumé is that it runs the gamut of musical styles and character types, with no evidence of type-casting in sight. A heterogeneous career, however, has been a foregone conclusion since her days as a musical theater student at Syracuse University. "In school, I really felt like I didn't fit a type," says Mueller. "I think everybody had a hard time putting me in a category. They all sort of realized, 'Hm, you don't really look like a soprano. You're not really a character belter.' But what I appreciated about my time there was we were all kind of figuring it out together. It was like, 'Maybe you would never play this role, but this is a great song for you so let's work on that song.'"
The exploration continued when she moved back to Chicago after graduation. "I just got to try lots of different things and learn from a lot of amazing people that I was working with," she says. "There's not millions of dollars riding behind something — so I think a lot of people took chances on me and cast me in roles in Chicago that I never would have gotten cast in possibly if I had come to New York right away. I got to be the not-your-typical-choice for a role."
These roles ranged from Tzeitel in Fiddler on the Roof and Anne Egerman in A Little Night Music, to Adelaide in Guys & Dolls and Amalia Balash in She Loves Me. (Incidentally, Laura Benanti, who now plays Amalia Balash in Roundabout's revival of She Loves Me, is up against Mueller in the same Tony category.)
Commercial Broadway was never on her radar, and even now that Mueller is at the center of its heat map, the thought that Broadway productions are betting the bank on her performances is one she'd rather avoid. "Even with this venture with Waitress — I personally was like, 'Well, we've got Sara,'" she says laughing, referencing the show's hit-making composer. "That's what made me feel more comfortable about it. I wasn't sure why anyone wanted to put money on me for it, but I was honored that they wanted me to do the part."
Continuing on the subject of the unexpected Broadway turn in her career, she starts to say, "I didn't think that I would —" Then, sensing the semblance of a humble brag, she abruptly cuts herself off with, "I don't know — I'm not going to say anything more about that."
Her aversion to self-promotion is in character for one of the increasingly few performers without a Twitter account or any public Internet presence to speak of. "I respect people that do that and that do it well," she says. "But I know for myself, that's not a healthy habit for me. It's another place in my life for me to compare myself to other people."
She's not immune from the actor's paradigmatic quest for validation, but she keeps it in check with an extra dose of mindfulness, labeling it the "part of my human nature that I'm not the proudest of." As such, she keeps herself on a strict no-review diet and makes sure "Jessie Mueller" takes a backseat to the characters she portrays onstage.
"If I've gotten to a point where people want to see something because I'm in it, I'm grateful and humbled. But having an awareness of that doesn't help me do what I need to do, I think."
Nonetheless, in her own way she acknowledges that "Jessie Mueller" (whom her Waitress costars have endearingly nicknamed "The Unicorn" for her rare blend of talent and humility) is irrevocably tied to each character she disappears behind.
"I think it's the hardest thing to remind yourself you have to do it the way you would do it," she says. "Because no one else is going to do it that way. If you don't do it, then no one else will — and the world won't see it."