Jessie Mueller and Joshua Henry Are the Yin to Each Other's Yang in Carousel
The 2018 Tony nominees discover the layers of their Julie Jordan and Billy Bigelow, with help from director Jack O'Brien.
"I feel like we're still finding our groove," Jessie Mueller says. "Stella is getting her groove back."
It's been a busy couple of months for Mueller and Joshua Henry, the above-the-title stars of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Carousel at the Imperial Theatre. In rapid succession, they went from rehearsals to previews to opening to the all-consuming Broadway award season. Both Tony nominated this year for their performances as Julie Jordan and Billy Bigelow, they had a lot to concentrate on, and now, in Henry's words, "We've gotten to this higher plane where we can play again, without thinking about the 50 things we did before coming to the theater."
Playing is what they did when it came to discovering Julie and Billy, two characters whose on page and onstage struggles aren't black-and-white. It took them, and director Jack O'Brien, almost the full 6 weeks of previews to really find the essence of their characters. And, according to the pair, that's been the most fun part of the process.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Were Julie and Billy on your list of roles you'd always wanted to play? How long into the process did it take you to discover who they are?
Joshua Henry: I'd never thought about doing this show before, although "If I Loved You" was the first song I ever sang in musical theater.
Jessie Mueller: I played Carrie in a production in Chicago, and then in a concert version with the New York Philharmonic. I think Julie was always a role that confused and frightened me. It wasn't even the uncomfortable subject matter. People can look at her on the page and say she's shy or simple, but Jack O'Brien was the one who said she's really strong, and that's what I wanted to bring to it. He was instrumental in unlocking what that was for me.
Joshua: I knew Billy was this charismatic guy who did some pretty horrible things. I had a sketch of what I wanted to do vocally and emotionally, but I found the character closer to opening night. It took me a while to feel comfortable with a scene like "If I Loved You."
Jessie: I didn't quite get "If I Loved You." I didn't understand what they're saying. Why are they saying "if"?Are they flirting? Is she being coy? Does she know what she's getting into? I didn't understand this woman. We blocked that all through previews.
Joshua: In that scene, they get so much out of each other. They see each other so much more than anyone else ever has. Getting that scene unlocked so much about the character for me. It was then that I felt I had a hold on who he is and what he wants when nobody else is around. That was really late in the process, but I've got to say, it was a lot of fun to be stumped by him and then find it.
Jessie: What you just said about who the person is when no one else is around? That's when I started to figure out what "If I Loved You" is. All of a sudden, nobody else is watching, and these two people, at some point, are just kind of like…"Eff it. This is who I am and this is what I want ." They're so blatantly honest with each other. They're the yin to each other's yang.
How much did you talk about the racial and gender aspects of the piece and production?
Joshua: A couple of times, we all went out to dinner, which was Jessie and Lindsay's idea. Jack and Justin Peck were there, and we just put all the cards on the table. Is this colorblind? Is it intentional?
Jessie: Is it color-conscious?
Joshua: That was a really great conversation to have. There were things that made me uncomfortable, like the cop who corners me in the pre-"If I Loved You" scene. Is he gonna be a white cop or black cop? Those are really big deals. When we're in the bench scene together, are we really a black guy and a white girl at this moment here in 1900? Is it literal? Jack was really sensitive to all of us, and also to the world.
Jessie: We had a lot of those conversations, too, regarding the women. "What's the Use" is normally done with all the women onstage with Julie. Sometimes it's staged as a "lay at my feet, dear children, and let me tell you the ways of life." We felt like that wasn't really what was going on. It took us a couple of iterations to find it. We went through some previews and then back to the rehearsal room, which I had never done before.
Joshua: That was huge.
Was that helpful in terms of the way you looked at the show and the characters?
Joshua: Jack laid the foundation, and now what we get to do is explore more and more. I was thinking about the forest scene on the way here. Things are starting to make more sense now that I have time to devote to it.
Jessie: The other thing Jack was so great about...He would encourage us. He'd say, "I'm not looking for performance now or for you to figure this out yet. Let's work on this layer, and then the next layer." I've never had a director really communicate that. Oftentimes, I feel like the clock is on and there's money at stake and you gotta get up there and dance for grandma and it better be great and you better get it right. And he wasn't like that.
Joshua: Jack had a sense of adventure, and was willing to go down a different path that we hadn't been down before. Not trying to put a fix on it.
Jessie: Which happens so often. You and I have worked on so many pieces where six months into the run, you realize "We're still playing that Band-Aid, aren't we?"
Joshua: He was a very confident, trusting director. He trusted the people in the room when the clock was ticking. That was the great thing about this process.