Theater & dance

theater

Jessie Mueller steps out of character — with some trepidation

Jessie Mueller in “Beautiful — The Carole King Musical.’’
Carlo Allegri/Reuters
Jessie Mueller in “Beautiful — The Carole King Musical.’’

It’s been almost exactly five years since Jessie Mueller won a Tony Award for her portrayal of the title figure in “Beautiful — The Carole King Musical.’’ Now Mueller is playing another legendary singer, Loretta Lynn, in “Patsy & Loretta,’’ a Lifetime biopic tracing the friendship between Lynn and the tragically ill-starred Patsy Cline (played by Megan Hilty of NBC’s “Smash’’).

Chances are that both “Beautiful’’ and “Patsy & Loretta’’ will come up when Mueller sits down with Seth Rudetsky on July 8 at the Emerson Colonial Theatre for a combination of conversation and musical performance. A pianist, music director, and host on Sirius XM’s On Broadway channel known for his outsize personality and his encyclopedic knowledge of musical theater, Rudetsky acts as onstage accompanist and interlocutor for Broadway singers in the interview/concerts that make up what is now called “The Seth Rudetsky Series.’’

Boston audiences got to see (and hear) Mueller’s abilities in 2015 when she originated the lead role of Jenna in “Waitress’’ at Cambridge’s American Repertory Theater. After the musical transferred to Broadway, Mueller earned a Tony nomination for her performance (she was also nominated last year for “Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Carousel’’ and in 2012 for her Broadway debut in “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever.’’) The Globe spoke with Mueller by phone.

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Q. Can you give me a sense of what the Boston audience should expect at the Colonial Theatre? Do you see it as a chance to provide a fuller portrait of you?

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A. That’s what it ends up being. To me, that’s what is exciting about it and terrifying about it. I’m usually more comfortable approaching an audience through telling a character’s story. But the thing that’s cool about this is I still get to do that through the songs, visiting and revisiting some of the roles I’ve played and loved and been fortunate to do. But then the other side of it is I get to do it with somebody. To me, there’s the comfort and the joy of playing with somebody. And the fact that it’s somebody like Seth. There’s nobody like him. His energy is infectious. It’s just so fun to do, because we can play off each other, he’ll throw stuff out there, we’ll riff off of something. He likes to take people through their work experiences and their careers, but you never know how he’s going to approach a question. Not just for the audience but for me, there’s always an element of surprise. It keeps it really honest. And I hope that for the audience, it gives an inside look, what it’s like doing what we do.

Q. In your career you’ve alternated between classic roles like Julie Jordan in “Carousel’’ and Marian in “The Music Man’’ on the one hand, and then originating roles like Jenna in “Waitress’’ and Carole King in “Beautiful.’’ Can you talk about the different challenges inherent to each: first the task of bringing a new interpretation to a well-known role, and then the task of creating a new character?

A. They are really different, but in some ways essentially the work is the same. Each experience kind of informs my next experience, which I guess is kind of a no-brainer. “Beautiful’’ was unique because it was a new show, but it was also playing a real person. So that had its own unique research process. Then doing something like Jenna: It was also a new musical but it wasn’t based on a real person. It was developing a character that already existed, but as a fictional character [in the 2007 film version of “Waitress’’]. Because of my experience on “Beautiful,” it emboldened my desire to always feel like I’m developing a character that feels like a real person. Doing something new and original is so exciting. There’s just an energy in the room as you’re all creating it. It’s exciting and terrifying at the same time. Sometimes it’s maddening, because you don’t know if it’s not working.

Q. You did such an amazing job in “Beautiful’’ doing Carole King’s distinctive voice. When the run was over, did you find yourself slipping into her mannerisms? Was it hard to get back to Jessie’s voice?

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A. [Laughs] Not really. I think by the time I was actually done with the show, I shed that pretty quickly. If someone asked me to do it again, I don’t think I could. It would take me a minute. [Pause] I feel like I could sort of click into the voice. [But] it was easy to kind of shed that skin, as it were.

Q. And now you’re inhabiting the skin of another legendary singer, Loretta Lynn. As a stage performer filming a TV movie, what were the challenges of adjusting to a screen performance, as against a live stage performance?

A. It was interesting. I feel like I learned so much from Megan Hilty, who plays Patsy Cline in this film. She was explaining it the other day. To her, when she started doing film stuff, she thought it was going to be so different, and she was afraid everyone was going to tell her “It’s too big, it’s too big,’’ so she’d have to get small-small-small. But what she realized is it’s just a difference in where the audience is. That makes sense to me. You do that even when you’re in a theatrical space, in whether you’re playing a small house or a big house. It’s just about how far you have to go to reach people. It was a fascinating learning curve for me, doing the TV film, just having to realize that the audience is still close to you, when the camera is close to you. Then we have Callie Khouri as our director, and she’s just so smart and trustworthy. I could just ask her: “Callie, was that too big? Was that too jazz-handy?’’ We had a running joke about that.

Q. You initially made your name in Chicago. What in your view makes the Chicago theater scene so dynamic?

A. Oh, God, I keep trying to figure out what it is, because I totally agree with you. I think it is extremely dynamic. It’s kind of like a Midwestern nose-to-the-grindstone thing there. There’s such a focus on the work. Nothing against any other places where great work happens, but there’s kind of a no-nonsense about it in Chicago: “Just do the work. Get in a room with good people and get the work done and tell stories.’’ You have a lot of the theaters on a subscription base, and many are not-for-profit. There isn’t this demand to have these huge blockbuster things. I’m so grateful I got to work there and learn so much from such amazing people there.

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Q. It’s been kind of a dizzying five years for you. Have you found yourself struggling to catch your breath and feeling disoriented, or has it been a fun ride, or a combination of both?

‘I hope that for the audience, it gives an inside look, what it’s like doing what we do.’

A. It’s been a combination of both. I feel so fortunate, but I still have the very Chicago thing in me. I’m still, I can’t believe I’ve gotten to do some of the things that I’ve gotten to do. And I like to think I’ll always have that nose-to-the-grindstone ethic of like, “OK, well, I gotta keep proving myself,” and I’m just grateful I can pay my rent and do what I love to do and get to work with interesting people. That is one of the most satisfying things to me lately, is working with people I really enjoy working with. I find that very satisfying rather than “I want to do this big splashy project because it’s a big splashy project.”

THE SETH RUDETSKY SERIES STARRING JESSIE MUELLER

At Emerson Colonial Theatre, July 8 at 8 p.m. Tickets$39-$169, 888-616-0272, www.emersoncolonialtheatre.com

Interview was edited and condensed. Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter@GlobeAucoin