Broadway actress Jessie Mueller met singer-songwriter Carole King only once last fall, but both sides came away happier—the actress with implicit approval to play King, and King pleased with the way things were going.
Mueller had been playing King for years as she helped develop the Broadway-bound "Beautiful: The Carole King Musical," but King couldn't bear to rehash her early years so she kept it at arm's length.
Then, on the first day of rehearsals back in New York after playing an out-of-town tryout in San Francisco, Mueller spotted something at the door amid the hubbub of cast and crew.
"I see the hair," she recalls, referring to King's signature cascading curls. "I went, 'OK, I guess this is happening today.'" King was with her daughter, Sherry Kondor, the singer's manager and a producer of the show.
King and Mueller found each other in a crowded elevator, which then deposited them on the same floor. "There was no avoiding it then," says Mueller. "I think Sherry said, 'I have someone I'd like you to meet.'"
Mueller was a virtual expert on King, who wrote or co-wrote some of the greatest pop singles of the early 1960s.
She had been wading through King's catalog—from co-writing The Shirelles' hit "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow" to Little Eva's "The Locomotion" to her masterpiece album "Tapestry."
The 30-year-old actress had brushed up on her piano work to more faithfully appear as a young King onstage, altered her singing voice to sound more like King and read everything about the songwriter. Still, seeing her in the flesh was striking.
"I think she makes people feel like they know her because of her music and because I'd been watching her and studying her, it was the strangest thing of feeling like 'I feel like I know you but I know I don't. So I don't want to overstep,'" says Mueller. "But she's so warm and open."
After the hug, King graciously met the rest of the cast and told stories. Then the 70-year-old sneaked away, leaving the stage pros to get on with portraying her budding career and first marriage, to Gerry Goffin.
"She didn't want there to be any kind of fuss, anybody getting dressed up or any kind of anticipation," says Kondor. "She just wanted to come in, find them in their zone and just say 'hello.'"
The show opened this month with mixed reviews but almost universally positive notices for Mueller, who previously starred in "On a Clear Day You Can See Forever" with Harry Connick Jr. She replaced Kelli O'Hara in "Nice Work If You Can Get It."
King may be keeping her distance, but Kondor says her mother has seen video footage and has been impressed. "Everything she's seen of Jessie, she's so thrilled with," says Kondor. There's even one scene in which Mueller belts out "(You Make Me Feel Like) a Natural Woman" and turns with a big smile to acknowledge her fellow musicians. "Carole looked at that and said, 'I do that! How does she know I do that?'" says Kondor.
Finding someone to play King on Broadway wasn't easy. Theater professionals are known to be polished-looking belters, something Carole King really wasn't.
"There are not a lot of Carole Kings running around looking for work on Broadway," says Kondor. "There was something about Jessie when she walked into the room. Just looking at her, I thought to myself, 'This one could be Carole-like. Wait a minute.' The more she did her audition, the more it was clear, 'There's something about her.'"
Mueller is the third of four children raised by actors in Chicago. All of her siblings are in the business: sister Abby is in "Kinky Boots" on Broadway, brother Matt is in "The Merry Wives of Windsor" in Chicago and brother Andrew just closed the off-Broadway production of "Peter and the Starcatcher." Her father wasn't able to come to the "Beautiful" opening because he's in "42nd Street" back home.
Mueller knows she doesn't always sound exactly like King or look like her, but hopes she gives an honest overall impression. But King's own daughter says she does better than that.
"Watching it, there are those moments where I get so comfortable with it that it's like it feels like, 'That's my mommy!' It's very strange," she says. "Now, I'm not stupid. I know that's not my mom. But it's a little trigger in my brain that is kicking off whatever mommy neurons fire."
Mark Kennedy can be reached at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits