There’s a “Beautiful” symmetry to all this:
She’s the sister of Jessie Mueller, whose insightful and passionate performance in New York earned her a Tony Award for best actress in a musical.
“We didn’t intend to set out to do that,” says director Marc Bruni of casting another Mueller in the role. “She came in and auditioned.”
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Some things run in the family.
“Jessie and Abby share a sense of vulnerability and authenticity in their acting that makes them very well-suited to play the character,” says Bruni, who directed both the Broadway and touring versions of the show.
I got to see Jessie Mueller play the role of Carole King in “Beautiful” in New York. While I’m not the world’s No. 1 fan of jukebox musicals, this one is done with such empathy (and good writing) that it made me a fan. It’s one of the best I’ve seen recently of the genre. Just hearing Jessie Mueller’s voice change in terms of timbre and emotional depth as she portrayed her character over the years was entrancing.
For Bruni, the key to the show’s success is that it was never about impersonating King but instead capturing her essence. (And performing her long list of iconic songs, including “One Fine Day,” “A Natural Woman” and “Some Kind of Wonderful.”)
“There’s certainly a vulnerability about Carole that we wanted to capture,” he says. “Carole herself was utterly confident in her work life and just as insecure about her personal life. Finding someone who could capture that self-effacing quality was critical. The real story of the show is the way she was able to own her own talent and come into her own not only as a singer-songwriter.”
The musical starts in 1958 with Carole as a Brooklyn teenager determined to become a songwriter. She falls into the magic at the Brill Building in Manhattan, where many of America’s great pop hits were written, and goes to work for music publisher Donnie Kirshner. After teaming up both romantically and professionally with Gerry Goffin, she toiled in relative obscurity before she started singing her own songs in the 1970s.
The national tour’s stop in San Francisco at the Orpheum Theatre is a special kind of homecoming. The musical tried out at the Curran Theatre before heading to New York, and enthusiastic audiences helped shape the show, Bruni says.
One big change between the tryout version and the final product: The producers in San Francisco kept hearing that audiences wanted to hear “You’ve Got a Friend.”
The problem with the early version, Bruni says, is that there wasn’t a good place to include the song. So Douglas McGrath, whose book for the show is a major reason why it’s as good as it is, extended Carole’s story forward farther into the phase of her career when she (reluctantly) put on the singer-songwriter hat. It created a natural spot for “You’ve Got a Friend.”
Bruni says he and the rest of the creative team knew they had a good show on their hands in San Francisco. “What we couldn’t have envisioned was the depth of love and nostalgia that people have for Carole’s music. I had an experience that I think a lot of people had: I had no idea that all these songs came from the same source.”
That’s all changed, of course. Bruni, born in 1977, has come to know and love King’s contribution to pop-music history.
“Now I watch the show and have nostalgia for an era I didn’t even live in,” he says.