Jessie Mueller never expected to outgrow the Chicago theater scene. She grew up in a family of actors in Evanston, Ill., and loved nothing more than watching her parents dress up for local awards banquets when they were nominees. She went on to win acclaim there for roles in “Carousel” and “She Loves Me,” once even borrowing a dress for a prize ceremony that her mother had worn years earlier.
But there Ms. Mueller was on Monday afternoon: A newly minted Tony Award in her right hand, her Randi Rahm gown over her left arm, she hurried through the glamorous Carlyle Hotel in Manhattan with Midwestern realness, wearing black Adidas track pants and worrying about the room service bill. The night before had been one of those star-is-born moments for Broadway, with Ms. Mueller winning the Tony as best actress for “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical.”
Now she was back to her old self, grounded and unaffected as she wedged her Tony beside a pack of Poland Spring bottles in the back of an S.U.V. taking her home to her one-bedroom walk-up in Astoria, Queens.
“I always thought moving to New York would mean starting over in theater, because I had great work in Chicago and didn’t want to become a waitress here,” Ms. Mueller said as the Upper East Side passed by in her car window. “I didn’t have the money. I thought I’d get wrapped up in all the wrong things. And now look at what’s happened. It feels like a wonderful accident.”
The 31-year-old Ms. Mueller is in many ways still the nervous newcomer. Accepting her Tony on Sunday, she didn’t know what to do with her award as she tried to balance it with her crumpled speech — “I have a wadded up piece of paper,” she mumbled as she collected herself. After taking a breath, she spoke with a clear and firm voice about her faith.
“I have to thank God because without him, nothing is possible, and that is true — that will always be true,” Ms. Mueller said, delivering the last clause with emphasis.
Did it seem odd to her to discuss her Lutheran faith in the context of receiving an award for playing a Jewish singer-songwriter?
“Beliefs and spirituality are something that Carole and I talked about Sunday night, actually,” Ms. Mueller said. “Carole said, ‘We’re instruments,’ and I feel the same way. I’d never want to tell anyone what to believe or not believe. But there’s no doubt in my mind that God put me in the right place at the right time.”
That place turned out to be a Chicago audition room in 2010, where she stood before the Tony-winning director Michael Mayer (“Spring Awakening”) during his search for talent for a Broadway-aimed musical project, “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever.”
“I got very excited about her ability to conjure a kind of old-school performance style fueled by a contemporary sensibility,” said Mr. Mayer, who cast her as the romantic lead, Melinda Wells, a 1940s singer opposite Harry Connick Jr.’s main character. (The show was a reworking of the 1965 Broadway musical of the same title.)
“Jess is unusually gifted in so many ways,” Mr. Mayer continued. “Her extraordinary voice is only part of the package. Seriously funny yet vulnerable, she has a surprising strength dressed in her unguarded humanity.”
Yet her upward climb in New York theater came in fits and starts. While “On a Clear Day” opened on Broadway in 2011 to weak reviews, Ms. Mueller was welcomed by many critics and scored a Tony nomination for best featured actress.
More important, she caught the eye of several powerful New York producers and directors.
She was cast as Cinderella in a 2012 revival of the Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine musical “Into the Woods” at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park. And she had a shot at the title character in the musical “Violet” when Todd Haimes, artistic director of Roundabout Theater Company, held a workshop of the show. By all accounts it went well, and Roundabout considered staging the musical Off Broadway. A Broadway run was too risky without a star name — and Ms. Mueller was not yet a star. So “Violet” fell through — until this year, when Roundabout mounted a production with the two-time Tony winner Sutton Foster as Violet.
As it happened, Ms. Foster was nominated for the best actress Tony for the performance, but lost to Ms. Mueller on Sunday night.
Mr. Haimes did end up casting Ms. Mueller as the temperamental twin sister Helena Landless in the 2012 Broadway revival of “The Mystery of Edwin Drood,” and she has worked steadily since then. Three weeks after “Drood” closed last spring, she moved into her first leading lady role on Broadway, replacing Kelli O’Hara as the bootlegger Billie Bendix in Broadway’s “Nice Work If You Can Get It.” And immediately afterward came “Beautiful,” first an out-of-town tryout in San Francisco last fall and then the Broadway run starting in late November.
Ms. Mueller had to audition for “Beautiful” like everyone else; the producers were seriously considering a few other actresses before she came in, but a spokeswoman for the producers declined to name those performers. Ms. Mueller also had to win the approval of the people who held the life rights to the musical’s story, including Ms. King and her ex-husband, Gerry Goffin, before being cast; they signed off on her last year. Ms. Mueller did not take part in any workshops of the show, but rather opened cold before the audience in San Francisco.
“Jessie just came across to me as very devoted to the material, respectful about the music and the story, and had a wonderful energy to her,” Ms. King said in a recent interview. (The two performed a memorable “I Feel the Earth Move” during the Tonys telecast.)
Brian Sills, a close friend and fellow actor who met Ms. Mueller in Chicago and lives around the corner from her in Queens, called her the “real deal” who hasn’t been changed by her changed fortunes: “She’ll make you a mean silk flower arrangement lickety-split,” he said. “She can also whip up some pretty mean crepes. And every Sunday morning she forces me to eat bagels from our favorite shop, Astoria Bagel. Seriously. She forces carbs on me. It’s barbaric.” (She is also still dating Andy Truschinski, an actor who is now on national tour in the play “War Horse.”)
Ms. Mueller, who is expected to stay in “Beautiful” for months to come — a growing hit, the show is on sale through early January — has no firm projects on the horizon. She said she wasn’t sure if the Tony would markedly improve her chances at plum roles on Broadway, or if she would have a better shot at traditional leading lady roles that she never saw herself booking.
But with a Tony about to go on a living room shelf in her Astoria apartment, it doesn’t seem to matter right now.
“I always loved playing the sidekick, and that’s what I expected — I didn’t think I was pretty enough or diva enough to play the lead,” Ms. Mueller said. “I guess that’s why I love playing Carole. She’s this woman figuring out who she is, and grows into herself before the audience.”
Reprinted from the New York Times, June 2014, "Taking Her Tony Home" by By PATRICK HEALY