Tonys: How Broadway Actresses Tackle Music Icons Carole King, Billie Holiday, Janis Joplin

3:49 PM PST 06/03/2014 by Suzy Evans
Jessie Mueller in "Beautiful," Mary Bridget Davies in "A Night With Janis Joplin" and Audra McDonald in "Lady Day"

Nominees Jessie Mueller, Audra McDonald and Mary Bridget Davies spill their audition stories and vocal strategies to headline musical bio-dramas.

When Jessie Mueller first saw the audition listing for Beautiful, she was skeptical. "How are you going to Broadway-acize Carole King?" Mueller thought to herself when the notice popped up on Playbill.com. "That could be really cool, or that could go really wrong."

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Luckily for Mueller, who took home the Drama Desk for her portrayal of King and is the frontrunner to win the Tony for lead actress in a musical this Sunday, the former turned out to be true. Though Mueller isn’t the only actress tackling a music icon on Broadway this season, as five-time Tony winner Audra McDonald practically reincarnates Billie Holiday in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill, a performance that could win her a sixth statue, and newcomer Mary Bridget Davies kicked off the season of female music forces with her Broadway debut as the title rocker in A Night With Janis Joplin, which closed in February (an Off-Broadway remount was also recently canceled, but Davies nabbed a Tony nomination for her portrayal).

Musical bio-dramas-- shows that recycle an artist's hits to tell all or part of their life story -- are not new phenomena onstage. Berry Gordy spilled his biography and songbook on stage in last season’s Motown: The Musical, while Jersey Boys, about the rise of the Frankie Valli and Four Seasons, still regularly draws in crowds since it won the Tony for best musical in 2006 (Clint Eastwood's big-screen adaptation hits theaters June 20). However, while powerhouses like Diana Ross figure prominently in Motown, this season marks one of the first in recent memory where shows specifically about female musicians’ lives take not one, but three stages.

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"They’re trendsetters," Mueller tells The Hollywood Reporter, adding that the likes of Holiday, Joplin and King paved the way for artists like Adele, Katy Perry and Sara Bareilles. "If the only thing that comes out of this is people opening their eyes to celebrating uniqueness in women, rather than how beautiful their hair is, then I think that’s such a wonderful thing. Carole King made an iconic groundbreaking album out of a lot of vulnerability; she was one of the first women to be brave enough to say, 'Look at what happened to me.' And millions of women, even to this day, say, 'Oh my god, that happened to me too!"

Of the season's jukebox bio-musicals, Beautiful centers on King’s collaboration with her partner and ex-husband Gerry Goffin, friendship with fellow songwriters Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann, and the events that led to the release of her iconic album, Tapestry. A Night With Janis Joplin creates a fictional concert with the singer, and Lady Day, though ruled a play with music for awards consideration, adopts a similar form as a one-night cabaret act in Philadelphia in 1959, just months before Holiday's death.

The nominees note that portraying a real-life person can prove difficult, particularly when vocal qualities differ drastically. "Vocally, we could not be more different," McDonald says. Her jumping-off point for recreating the singer's tone comes from her grandmother’s speaking voice, which reminds her of Holiday’s. "I’ve been researching how to do her voice, and how her voice fits in my voice, for the past year and a half. I go to bed every night with her singing to me in my earphones, and wake up with her voice in my ears. I’m always surprised when people react to me as Billie ... I am not even sure how I capture her voice."

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Mueller changed her vocal approach as well to evoke that essential "Carole-ness," and also had to learn a new skill: piano. While she grew up taking lessons, there was no way for her to fully recreate King’s skill at the keys within the short rehearsal process. Though Mueller is hitting the notes as closely as possible, the instruments onstage sit hollow for prop purposes (the grand piano hangs in the wings so other set pieces can move beneath it), and the sound of the piano comes from music director Jason Howland in the orchestra pit.

Davies has been singing Joplin – and has even been compared to the performer – since she was in junior high, so the vocals came easy. She remembers singing along to “Piece of My Heart” with her mom and wailing like Joplin accidentally, almost surprised that she could mimic the technique without hurting herself. While she already had the voice down pat, she knew that the key to her—and Joplin’s—performance was the emotional connection to the music. "She had that outer shell, but really, on the inside, she was in desperate need of approval and love and acceptance,” Davies says. “You can’t show up and go, 'I’m going to play Janis Joplin tonight.' You’ve been doing it and thinking about it all day."

And Davies would know. A Night With Janis isn’t the first time she’s crossed paths with the rocker; she appeared in an earlier musical Love, Janis, and has toured with Big Brother and the Holding Company, the first band Joplin was in from San Francisco, on and off since 2007. When the show debuted in Portland in 2011, Davies didn’t even audition because she wanted to avoid being categorized as "that Janis girl," but when it returned a year later, she auditioned and was cast as the understudy. Just as the show began its pre-Broadway tour, the original lead dropped out during previews on the first stop—Cleveland, Davies’ hometown—due to vocal issues. "I don’t think Janis would have wanted it any other way," she says of her roundabout path to the show. "My stumble-y path along the way makes me a funnier person, and I think she would have liked that too."

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Of these three nominees, Mueller is the only one portraying a living icon. While King was not involved in the development of the piece, she did stop by the first New York rehearsals, after the show's successful try-out run in San Francisco, where she and Mueller first met. and they connected again when King surprised the entire cast by coming to see the show in April. "She felt it was enough of the things she wanted to be recognized in herself, and she also felt it was enough of me," says Mueller, adding that King’s approval helped quell her fears of "screwing it up" every night. "I learned that I had to bring enough of myself to it that I didn’t feel like I was doing an imitation."

While these shows introduce new audiences to these artists, the performers also have the steep responsibility of appeasing fan followings. Davies, whose show boasted swarms of baby boomers reliving the late '60s, says she heard all sorts of stories from people who had actually seen Joplin in concert, and McDonald, who admits she was scared of Holiday when she was young, wants people to see the Holiday beyond the drugs and alcohol that led to her death. "Every night before I go on stage, I tell myself, 'You are Billie Holiday’s defender. Go out there and tell the truth,'" says McDonald. "For me, I feel like I am going out there and telling it like it is. We are telling stories about the hard times, as well as the joys."

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