Jessie Mueller

Jessie Mueller and Megan HiltyJessie Mueller and Megan Hilty aren’t just best friends on screen.

In fact, the Broadway alumni have been practically inseparable since filming the Lifetime movie, Patsy & Loretta. Released last month with an accompanying soundtrack now available for purchase, the biopic found Mueller and Hilty teaming up as iconic country singers Loretta Lynn and Patsy Cline. 

Now, the duo continues to combine forces by kicking off Seth Rudetsky’s new Broadway concert series at Town Hall. In between each song, Rudetsky will be interviewing the actresses and however they answer will inspire what Rudetsky will play and have them perform next. No two performances of “Seth Rudetsky’s Broadway” will be the same, as its unscripted and unique format allows for truly one-night-only shows. This Monday (December 2), Mueller and Hilty will join Rudetsky for an evening that promises to be full of show-stopping musical performances, up-close and personal conversations, and lots of surprises.

Leading up to this concert, I spoke with Mueller (Tony Award winner for Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, and nominee for Carousel, Waitress, and On a Clear Day You Can See Forever) about collaborating with Hilty, her creative process, returning to Broadway this winter in The Minutes, who she’d like to play on season three of Smash, and more.

Jessie Mueller

ALEX KELLEHER-NAGORSKI: Prior to collaborating on Patsy & Loretta, you and Megan Hilty didn’t know one another. Now, it seems like you two are best friends! Why do you think you two have such great chemistry together, both when performing and not? 

JESSIE MUELLER: I feel like there are many parts of our personalities that are very different – but there’s just something about her that I innately really gel with. I think she has a tremendous sense of humor. She’s a really hard worker and she knows what’s important. She doesn’t allow bullshit to take up a lot of space in her life. I really admire that. And we’re both just big dorks, so we get along well.

You’ve done several solo concerts with Seth Rudetsky in the past. What makes him a musical director/creator you keep coming back to work with again and again? 

Seth has such a vast knowledge of music and especially of the musical theater repertoire. He constantly amazes me. He’ll throw out an idea for a song, or I’ll say, “Oh, gosh, well, I used to sing this one song,” and he’ll just start playing it. He’s one of those musicians. As funny and big as his persona is, I think sometimes people forget what an amazing technician he is. So to me, it’s kind of the blend of the two things.

He’s really fun to perform with because he’s such an amazing performer. I find that the energy just flows back and forth between us really well. He’s really funny. He’s great at off-the-cuff stuff, and he keeps me on my toes and makes it fun! You never quite know what’s going to happen and I think that’s very freeing.

He’s just such an amazing musician. Playing with any musician is a different experience. It’s about chemistry, like you were talking about with Megan. I just feel like we have both a good musical chemistry and a good conversational chemistry.

At the show, you and Megan will be interspersing your performances with behind-the-scenes stories about your career thus far. Are there any particular tales you can tell me today as a bit of a preview for what fans expect?

When I’ve done shows with Seth in the past, I told him my story about my first job on Broadway. He was like, “Well, we have to do that. We have to tell that story!” I had one of those almost actor nightmare moments, where I went into an audition with a particular song and then the casting director said, basically, “Do you have this other type of song?” Of course I didn’t, so I ended up just looking to the accompanist and saying, “Can we do this again with a different style to it?” 

Luckily, the accompanist completely rose to the occasion. Ultimately, I ended up getting the job but it was certainly one of those nail biting moments. I was like, “Oh my god, I don’t have exactly what they’re looking for!” So I just made something up. I have a feeling that story might resurface.

But I can’t wait to hear Megan’s! I want to hear audition nightmare stories of Megan’s. So hopefully I will get to. People don’t get to see the part that’s just you, the people auditioning you and the accompanist. That’s all that’s ever in the room. It’s like this secret enclave that people don’t get to view very often. I think stories about that are always interesting.

What type of music will you and Megan be performing at Monday’s concert? Will you be performing songs from Patsy & Loretta, your respective shows, holiday music, and/or something totally different? 

It’s going to be a little mix of all of those things! It’s going to be some of the stuff that Megan and I have done in shows and also just some of our favorite songs. We’re going to sprinkle in a little holiday stuff in there. There might also be a little Patsy & Loretta in there – we’ll have to see!

Jessie Mueller and Megan Hilty

As a performer, how is your creative process different when preparing to go on stage as Jessie Mueller versus as a scripted character? 

Oh, interesting. I usually find it more stressful. I think I find solace in slipping into a character. Usually, you also have much more preparation time for something like that. 

Not that you don’t prepare for concerts – it’s just kind of a different animal because there aren’t the layers of transformation and research. It’s a little more of a “come as you are” party. I think that’s part of why it could be so fun, and hopefully why it could be engaging for audiences. But it’s certainly a different experience. It’s a more personal experience, or it can be. It’s something that is still kind of new to me. I’m still exploring it, but I feel like I learn a lot every time I do it! 

One of the many things that I loved about Patsy & Loretta was just how remarkably similar you sounded to Loretta Lynn. From Carole King to now Loretta, how do you transform and manipulate your voice to so perfectly match the nuances and tones of these legendary performers?  

Gosh, well thank you. The first thing I have to say is it’s so nice to hear something like that. I’ve had the experiences of somebody saying, “Gosh, you sounded just like so and so,” and then somebody else will be like, “You didn’t sound like her.” To me, it’s such a personal thing. Everybody experiences and hears things differently. So sometimes I lean into that. I try to do a lot of listening. I try to dig into “what do I love about this person’s voice? How does this person’s voice make me feel?”

Technically, I can’t duplicate… It is very difficult to duplicate someone’s voice. There are people that are brilliant at it – but to me, it’s about finding certain nuances, phrasings, shaping of vowels, and so on. 

I experienced that working on Patsy & Loretta. I was so fascinated by the way she looked and the way she sang. That was an interesting challenge because we look very different. Our facial structures are very different. So the way she creates sounds, or a certain sound, is very different than I would. As a singer, as a technician, you realize things like that really come into play – the spreading of the jaw, where you’re putting your sound, how you’re phonating. It’s a lot of playing with that stuff. It’s a lot of guesswork. Sometimes it’s trying something, recording it, listening to it back, and being like, “Oh, that doesn’t sound anything like I thought it sounded in my head. Let me try this instead.”

I really find it fascinating because I love people’s voices. You spoke of Carole King and Loretta Lynn, those are two of my favorite voices now. I love the sounds of their voices, and both of their voices make me feel something when I hear them. I think there are just certain voices like that. Harry Connick is one of those people for me also. There are certain voices that the sound, the timbre, whatever it is, they just do things to you. Those are people that I have that reaction to. 

It’s the work of like, “Okay, so what is that all about? Why do I have that reaction?” Or, “How do other people react to her, and what do they love about her voice?” Only then can I try to figure out how I can filter that through myself.

Sandy Hook PromiseThis concert will be raising funds for Sandy Hook Promise. Why do you think this organization is so important? 

Not to get political or anything, because in so many ways, I think it just goes so much farther than politics. But I believe that as a country, we’re in a slightly wounded state and I think that’s where violence comes out of. That’s where fear comes out of. It comes out of wounds. 

I certainly think that there are things we can do and there are actions we can take and should be taking. But also I think that we have to remind ourselves of the little things we can do to care for one another and to heal the really deep stuff that makes someone grab for a gun in the first place.

Sandy Hook Promise has done a really great job at getting the word out there. There’s a new back-to-school commercial out that’s pretty shocking. For so many kids, things like lockdown drills will always be a part of their school experiences. They never were part of mine, so for me, that’s so surprising and heartbreaking. 

In terms of the concert, it always feels good to do something like this for a purpose. And I think this is really an excellent one.

On January 5, Waitress will be closing up shop on Broadway. The last time that we spoke, you said that “playing Jenna has taught me to own your feelings and your thoughts. The good, bad, and the ugly.” What are some of your biggest takeaways from your journey originating the role of Jenna and what do you think the show’s legacy will be?

I guess I agree with my statement from before! I can’t say that I always practice what I preach. I’m definitely still working on all of that. But I think it opened up that kind of thinking for me in a way that I hadn’t explored before I started working on that project. It’s something I still think about, because now that I’ve had time away from it, I see it in a very different light.

I think Waitress has brought and spread so much joy and so much hope to people. A lot of people have felt affirmation and hope from it in the sense that they have watched characters in that show go through very difficult things and come out better for them. I’ve spoken to a lot of people who relate to what those characters go through. That’s a very powerful thing. 

I think it is a very powerful thing, too, for women to witness other women acknowledging their own questions, downfalls, failures, accomplishments, and all the complexities that the characters experience in that show. We don’t see a ton of really fully-dimensional female characters all the time. With that show and with the people behind it, that was something everyone felt very strongly about. That’s something that’s resonated very strongly with audiences, both female and male, but I think especially for women.

The MinutesThis February, you’ll be returning to Broadway in the play The Minutes by Tracy Letts and featuring a cast that also includes Armie Hammer, Blair Brown, and Letts himself. What made you want to tackle a play instead of a musical this time around? And what is it about this specific play that made it the perfect one with which to make that switch?

One of the huge draws was Tracy Letts and his work. Once I read the play, I was really taken with it. It was unlike anything I’d read or worked on before. I haven’t done a play in a long time so I wanted the challenge.

To be honest, singing on Broadway eight times a week is really, really hard. It can be very rewarding but I wasn’t ready to step back into a big musical. Then this came along and so many wonderful people got involved. It really felt like something I wanted to be a part of. It’s something very exciting to be a part of!

At the same time that The Minutes will be playing its limited engagement, your sister Abby will be opening the musical Six as one of Henry VIII’s wives. In fact, your parents and two brothers are also all actors. How do you think coming from a family full of performers helped prepare you for your eventual Broadway domination? What are some of the ways that you’re all able to support one another’s creative endeavors while simultaneously working on your own? 

One of the best things that I got out of it was I got a healthy dose of reality about what it might actually be like. I don’t feel like I went into all this with stars in my eyes, like, “I want to be a star, Mama!” It was like, “This is really interesting and this is really hard work. This might go really well sometimes, but sometimes it might be really hard and challenging and demoralizing.” I saw all that growing up.

Since my parents are actors as well, that’s one of the things that we relate to and lean on each other about – the ups and downs of it. That’s also what makes it exciting. When you get to celebrate someone in your family that you love and is having success, it’s partly because you know how hard it is. So I think it’s important to celebrate that when you get the chance to.

SMASHFans are always clamoring for there to be a third season of the cult classic TV series Smash, which Megan Hilty starred in. If the show were to come back, would you want to be on it to work with Megan again? What would your dream character in that universe be? 

Oh, hilarious! I know, I feel like we’ve been hearing all these rumors. I’d work more with Megan in a heartbeat. What would I want to do though? I’d want to play somebody funny. Maybe I can play her makeup artist or her hair person or something. Or her assistant! I think that would be hilarious. Or I could play something I would never do, like a really outlandish choreographer. Any of that would be fun!

How will you be celebrating the holiday season this year and do you have a new years resolution for 2020? 

My main goal is just to be with family and friends, and appreciate all of the time together and our blessings. It’s been a busy couple of years, and there is a lot to be grateful for.

New Year’s resolution? My biggest thing is just to be healthy – physically, emotionally, spiritually, and really, really focus on putting that first. Then from there, hopefully, other things fall in line. I really appreciated how important that is this past year. So I will continue to be working on that!

CLICK HERE to purchase tickets to see Jessie Mueller and Megan Hilty in concert with Seth Rudetsky at Town Hall in New York City on Monday, December 2 at 8pm. 

Alex has been writing for PopBytes since 2011. As the Theater Editor, he focuses on all aspects of Broadway, Off-Broadway, Regional Theater, and beyond. Alex lives in Western Massachusetts and can be found on Twitter at @AlexKNagorski.