Jessie Mueller Talks ‘Into the Woods’ and Shakespeare in the Park

For New York theatergoers, the Public Theater’s annual Shakespeare in the Park is a summer tradition that’s nearly impossible to miss. After fifty years of providing free theater productions to an audience that on any night could include any famous New Yorker (last year I sat in close proximity to both Tony Kushner and Peter Dinklage), Shakespeare in the Park is a theatrical experience in which the audience is truly a community. This summer has seen Tony nominee and Shakespeare in the Park alumna Lily Rabe star in As You Like It, and next week a new production of the classic Stephen Sondheim musical Into the Woods will begin performances in the Delacorte Theater in Central Park. The new Into the Woods, based on a recent London production, includes an impressive cast featuring Amy Adams, Glenn Close, Donna Murphy, and Chip Zein (who originated the role of The Baker in the original Broadway run in 1986). Starring as Cinderella is Jessie Mueller, who made her Broadway debut last fall in On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, for which she earned a Tony nomination. I talked with Mueller about the upcoming production, her brief yet impressive Broadway career, and the experience of participating in one of New York’s most cherished cultural institutions. 

You haven’t been in New York very long, have you? You came out for On a Clear Day and got that role?
I actually auditioned for the role in Chicago and came here in October, so I’ve been here just under a year. I feel very lucky that it all just sort of happened at once, and I’m super grateful because it’s not very typical.

How long were you performing in Chicago?
Let’s see, I think about five or six years performing there. I ended up doing a lot of musicals when I started working, and I did Animal Crackers at the Goodwin and some stuff at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre. I was really lucky to work at a bunch of different theaters and keep meeting new people and having different opportunities. I kind of bounced around to a lot.

It’s a totally different world between the theater scene there and the theater scene in New York. Do you think that prepared you to come to New York and collaborate with the caliber of people you’re working with?
That’s a great question. I was able to work and learn a lot from other wonderful actors in the Chicago community that I kind of grew up watching, and I think that’s how I learn best: just from doing it and making mistakes and then watching other people. I feel like I got the lessons in how to behave, how to be professional, how to get your work done and show up and be a pleasant person. As far as publicity and things are concerned, that doesn’t exist to the same extent [in Chicago]; it’s just maybe not as big. But I feel like I got invaluable lessons. I got to focus on the basics and on working, which was really good for me.

Had you ever performed in an outdoor setting before?
I have! I think it was two summers ago. It was actually another Sondheim show; I did A Little Night Music. So much of it takes place outside on this country estate, so it fit really well. I think a lot of people are excited to see Into the Woods outside, and we’re excited to do it outside because I think it’s just going to give it that little extra magic, you know?

What is the preparation like for doing a show outdoors as opposed to in a theatre. In terms of projecting, is there a big difference?
The weirdest thing is usually you start the show—because it’s usually summer theater that happens outside—when it’s still light out, which is a very strange sort of experience. As the night goes on, that’s when it starts to get dark, and you get more into the theatrical elements with the lights and everything. You really start to see it, which is going to happen with Into the Woods because, literally, as the play gets darker it starts to get darker outside. I think the audience is going to be more drawn into it as the play goes on.

I’ve never thought of that aspect. I saw Measure for Measure last year and watched as a raccoon ran on stage. The setting allows for the unexpected.
Sure! I’ve had a couple bugs in my mouth, I’ve heard strange animal sounds, planes flying overhead—those kinds of things. You had to make those calls, like, Should we wait? I mean everyone knows there’s a plane going, but do you wait to give your next line or just keep going on and talk louder?

Have you been rehearsing outside?
Not yet. We’re rehearsing in a rehearsal space right now, and I believe we start on the stage next coming Monday I think.

Have you done many other Sondheim shows?
No, I really haven’t. I think Night Music was my first, and then I did a production of Merrily We Roll Along. Into the Woods is probably my favorite; it’s the one I’ve always wanted to do, and it’s so funny because I would listen to it as a kid and I got into rehearsals and didn’t realize how intricate it is. We’ve been working so hard.

It seems like one of the hardest of his shows because it’s just non-stop.
It really moves. There are very few book scenes. It’s great; it’s like someone’s just flipping through a storybook.

And this role too, historically, requires a lot of physical acting. Are you doing pratfalls like in the two other major productions in New York?
We’re just kind of figuring that out, but it’s in the script that she falls down so there’s at least two falls. The whole production is very physical; it’s very ensemble-based and it’s going to be a very physical production. I think it’s going to be great because it’ll help bring people into it and it’s going to be really dynamic so watching it come together has been really fun.

It’s your first summer in New York. Have you been able to get a break and go see some shows?
I’ve gotten to go see some things; during award season I saw a bunch of stuff. We’ve had this insanely hot summer here but it’s just fun to be out in the city and out with other people. I’ve been in rehearsal a lot but I look forward to being outside too. It’s the fiftieth anniversary of this festival, and any time people ask what I’m doing and I mention this show, everybody just says it’s a wonderful thing. They’d go to it as kids, or get excited about it each summer—it’s a big community thing. And the fact that it’s free and has been since it started—it’s just a great thing, so I hope a lot of people come out and share that. I did get a chance to see As You Like It and that’s the thing, it really is an experience from the time you get there.

Just the people you’re working with on the show—Amy Adams and Donna Murphy…
Oh, they’re all hacks! [laughs]

And Chip Zien showing up as Mysterious Man. He’s someone that, if you grew up liking this musical, is kind of like your dad in a way.
He’s so iconic, I agree. I got chills the first time I heard him sing in rehearsal because it’s like you said: I grew up listening to him as the Baker. These characters, too, are such a beautiful blend between archetypes and real people, and I think that’s why the show is smart. So you hear that voice and you’re like, Oh my God, I feel like I know him.

Has Stephen Sondheim been active in any aspect of the production?
There have been several different versions of this show, so [the production team] has been in contact with him about changes—things that were cut, things that might be cut, that sort of thing. He was here for the first day for the meet and greet and so was James [Lapine], who wrote the book. That was very cool. To be in that presence, it was wild.

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