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On playing a legend in 'Beautiful: The Carole King Musical'

September 23, 2013

YellowBrix

Sept. 23--Jessie Mueller has to feel like a natural woman every night in "Beautiful: The Carole King Musical."

The Tony-nominated actress plays the lead in this pop musical, which traces the early life and work of the legendary singer-songwriter. With a book by Douglas McGrath (Woody Allen's "Bullets Over Broadway," "Checkers"), direction by Marc Bruni ("Old Jews Telling Jokes") and choreography by Josh Prince ("Shrek the Musical"), "Beautiful" is making its world premiere at San Francisco's Curran Theatre through Oct. 20, before bowing on Broadway in January. (This is the high season for nostalgic musicals with "One Night With Janis Joplin" and "Ella" also sure to appeal to the boomer generation.)

Mueller has been on Broadway before, notably in "On a Clear Day I Can See Forever" and "Nice Work If You Can Get It," but she's never been the heart and soul of a musical like she is now. The fate of this out-of-town tryout, which spins around hit tunes such as "I Feel the Earth Move," "So Far Away," "Will You Love Me Tomorrow," "Up on the Roof," "You've Got a Friend" and "Chains," rests on the strength of her performance, and she knows it. No pressure.

"At first, it was terrifying. How do you sound like her? Nobody sounds like her," admits the down-to-earth actress during a rehearsal break. "But now what I am trying to do is capture the authentic feeling of her music. I want to honor that sound. She's really getting inside my skin."

King, who was initially aghast at the idea of a musical based on her life, has since given the project her blessing. Mueller, who admits to being intimidated by having to evoke a pop-culture icon onstage, has taken that seal of approval to heart. She feels a kinship with King that is keeping her grounded during the artistic process.

"She was a star in a very nonstar kind of way," says the soft-spoken actress. "She remained a private person. There was no Twitter feed, no Facebook page. She was a star on her own terms. She was a star because of her gifts, and that's why people loved her."

She also takes her inspiration from King's sense of candor and authenticity, her willingness to take risks. King co-wrote her first No. 1 hit song at the tender age of 17. The songstress may have also started a revolution in the music industry with her 1971 album "Tapestry," which helped usher in the age of the singer-songwriter. Certainly she was the first female solo artist to sell more than 10 million copies of a single record. Mueller says her strength came from her outlook on life.

"Part of what's challenging about her but also what I admire about her so deeply is her optimism," says the actress. "She is the eternal optimist, and she is wholehearted and driven and ambitious about everything she does."

The emotional roller-coaster of King's life and times is what makes the part such a thrill to play.

"She's a joy to listen to, because the music always came from an honest place," says Mueller. "She sings a note because she means it."

Mueller is also taking pains to be true to King's biography, from her humble Brooklyn roots to dizzying heights of fame and the ache of a broken marriage (with her lyricist husband, Gerry Goffin).

"Her vulnerability was absolutely her strength," says Mueller. "When she loved, she loved deeply, that's part of the story."

She is also quick to point out that although the musical draws on a chart-topping songbook, she does not consider it a sing-along musical in the manner of "Mamma Mia!"

"It's not at all a jukebox musical," she says. "The story is beautifully woven throughout so that it's very organic. You see where she is in her life when she writes these songs, and that will stay with you."

Evoking a Grammy-winning artist is no easy feat, but Mueller thinks she's got the key to the Carole King mystique.

"The trick is to give people what they expect and what they crave but also to do something fresh."

Contact Karen D'Souza at 408-271-3772. Read her at www.mercurynews.com/karen-dsouza and follow her at www.twitter.com/KarenDSouza4.

'BEAUTIFUL: THE CAROLE KING MUSICAL'

Through: Oct. 20

Where: Curran Theatre, 445 Geary St., San Francisco

Tickets: $50-$210, 888-746-1799, www.shnsf.com

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(c)2013 the San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.)

Visit the San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.) at www.mercurynews.com

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