On the Beat

On the Beat

Will Jessie Mueller enter Broadway’s star chamber? Indra Thomas turns her talents to Great Day!, a CD of spirituals.

On the Beat Mueller lg 1112
Mueller, lighting up On a Clear Day 
© Paul Kolnik 2012

AMONG THE INDIVIDUAL performers appearing in Broadway musicals during the past year, one of the biggest surprises was JESSIE MUELLER, in the ill-fated revival of On a Clear Day You Can See Forever. This rethinking of the BURTON LANE–ALAN JAY LERNER show about psychiatry and reincarnation closed on January 29 of this year after only fifty-seven performances. The revival was afflicted with so many miscalculations that it never really had a chance. (I have seldom seen a less energetic star turn than that of HARRY CONNICK, JR. as the psychiatrist, Mark Bruckner.) Still, the show's failure saddened me, because it has a glorious score. The decision to split the psychiatrist's patient into two different characters — the '40s band singer Melinda Wells, played by Mueller, and the gay floral designer David Gamble, played by DAVID TURNER — could have worked much better had it not been for the casting of Turner; there was no suggestion whatsoever of heat between the two men. And why do so many attempts to recreate the '70s turn the whole era into a nightmare vision of fuschia platform heels and tangerine bell-bottoms? (Anyone who lived through the '70s remembers that it was more about dressing down than dressing day-glo.) 

Still, when Jessie Mueller sang a jazzy arrangement of a nearly forgotten Burton Lane song from Royal Wedding, "Ev'ry Night at Seven," she provided the show with the lift it needed. Mueller has a stunning voice that essentially does whatever she needs it to do. In the tradition of great musical-comedy stars, her features are slightly irregular. She's got a mouth that can cut right across her face, not unlike PATTI LUPONE's. But, as with the young BARBRA STREISAND, when she sings a soft romantic ballad, such as another Royal Wedding interpolation, "Too Late Now," you would swear that she's beautiful. She doesn't hog scenes the way a lot of Broadway divas do; she just fills them out with a talent that not only throws off thrilling sparks but gives off a satisfying afterglow. She has that rarest of qualities on Broadway — elegance. She seemed so inarguably the star of On a Clear Day You Can See Forever that last spring, when it was announced that she had been nominated for a Tony Award as Best Featured Actress, I was momentarily confused, thinking that the Tony voters had nominated the monumentally irritating SARAH STILES, who played Muriel Bunson.

So what is Mueller's future likely to be? The adjective we inevitably apply to today's top-notch female Broadway talents — CHRISTINE EBERSOLE, MARIN MAZZIE, VICTORIA CLARK, RACHEL YORK, RANDI GRAFF — is "underused." It's been years since the great female stars — and many of the male ones, for that matter — have benefited from having first-rate material written for them on any kind of regular basis. Whenever a musical such as The Light in the Piazza or Grey Gardens comes along, I hope that the tradition of writing for stars is making a comeback, but these shows seem to appear only in a fitful rhythm. Recently, Mueller received excellent reviews as Cinderella in Into the Woods at the Delacorte Theater. This month, she returns to Broadway in the Roundabout Theater Company's revival of The Mystery of Edwin Drood at Studio 54. It would be wonderful if the up-in-smoke revival of Funny Girl (which was to feature two other major "underused" Broadway talents, Graff and ALIX KOREY) could be resurrected as a vehicle for Mueller. It would be even more wonderful to see her land in a string of new shows designed to give her talents full range — before the momentum gets lost. 

I REMEMBER VIVIDLY the day that I first heard INDRA THOMAS. It was at the Licia Albanese–Puccini Foundation Gala in 1997, when she gave a magnificent performance of "Marietta's Lied" and had me wondering why she hadn't placed higher in the competition. I've followed her progress over the years, and although there have been high points, I'm still waiting for her to break through in the U.S. the way I think she needs to. Next March, she'll sing Il Trovatore at Arizona Opera, and she turns up in a few concert and recital engagements throughout the season, but as she said in a recent telephone interview, "I've been in Europe for about eight years, and I'm trying to get a surge going in the U.S."

She may be aided by the release, this month, of Great Day!, a collection of spirituals produced by Delos. SANDRA LUTTERS is her pianist. Thomas's interpretations are superb — deeply felt but also showing a keen musician's impeccable taste, never so choked with emotion that they become maudlin. (Her only miscalculation is a tendency to distort her diction, robbing certain moments of immediacy.) One cut in particular, "Give Me Jesus," has an intimacy you don't often hear.

Thomas's father was a Baptist minister, so she has been singing spirituals since childhood; she can be heard singing in the funeral sequence in the 1989 Oscar winner Driving Miss Daisy. She's quick to point out that unlike full-blown gospel, spirituals are sung "in the same place as classical music. I try to sing them in a classical form — classical, yet not classical. I wanted to remain as true to the form as possible when it comes down to the dialect. Some spirituals are so proper, and the pronunciation is so exact, but there's a certain way to pronounce it — a certain dialect — and I tried to keep that. I hear some people sing them, and I think, 'Yeah, but to my ear, it didn't sound correct, because it was in a box.' I try to make sure that these songs transcend that box that we like to stay in when we sing classical music." spacer 

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