For many of us, following in the footsteps of a sibling might stir complicated feelings. Like: How did my little sister eclipse me?
If Abby Mueller has any doubts about following her little sister Jessie into the lead role of a Broadway blockbuster, she’s not saying. Instead, she cheers on Jessie, who won a Tony for originating the role of 1960s and ’70s hitmaker Carole King in “Beautiful” and recently nabbed a recurring role on ABC’s upcoming drama “The Family.”
Abby, who plays King in the national tour of “Beautiful” that comes to Minneapolis for a two-week run opening Wednesday, views her sister’s success with pride.
“We shared a room growing up,” she said. “Anyone who knows us knows that we’ve been able to have these awesome separate careers.”
The two grew up in an acting family that was like a Chicago version of the Barrymores. Her father, Roger Mueller; mother, Jill Shellabarger, and brothers Andrew and Matt also are performers of note.
At one point, all of the siblings were in high-profile shows — Jessie and Abby on Broadway (in “Beautiful” and “Kinky Boots,” respectively), while one brother was at New York’s Lincoln Center and another was back in Chicago.
Nonetheless, the Mueller kids apparently did not feel pressured to go into show business. “In fact, our parents encouraged us to study and do other things,” Abby Mueller said.
She ended up studying acting at Indiana University, while Jessie did theater at Syracuse. But Abby’s minutes-older twin Matt majored in humanities, while Andrew studied linguistics.
“We came to theater on our own, but we had great exposure to it, obviously,” Abby Mueller said. “We didn’t have much money, but we went to everything except for the Broadway shows. [My parents] wanted us to find our way into something fulfilling, not force it down our throats. And we saw how much of a struggle it could be, growing up.”
Her parents also imparted lessons about building character, onstage and off. Mueller said she and her sister share many traits, including a sense of openness and honesty in performance.
“Carole King is an icon, and I think what Jessie did — and what I’m doing — is not an impersonation of her,” Mueller said. “You can’t fake an icon. You do an interpretation, and bring the truest part of you to that role.”
The jukebox musical traces the trajectory of a shy Brooklyn teen who goes to the Brill Building on Broadway, intent on becoming a hitmaker. She teams with lyricist and soon-to-be husband Gerry Goffin.
In those days, songwriting teams competed fiercely to have their compositions recorded by the hottest artists. King and Goffin, whose hits include “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” “Up on the Roof” and “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” were pitted against Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil (“On Broadway,” “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling”).
“Beautiful,” which has a book by Oscar-nominated screenwriter and playwright Douglas McGrath, tracks the friendly competition between the two couples, while relating King’s personal struggles — and showing how those trials fed into her hits for artists such as the Drifters, the Chiffons and Bobby Vee.
Mueller was familiar with King’s songs, especially “Tapestry,” the 1971 solo album that includes “So Far Away,” “It’s Too Late,” “You’ve Got a Friend” and the show’s title song.
“It is intimidating to play someone like her, but fortunately, the show is so well-structured, you just slip right in,” said Mueller, who has headlined the national tour since it kicked off in September in Providence, R.I.
She got a chance to perform with King on NBC’s “Today” show in August. She shared the honor with Chilina Kennedy, the actor starring in “Beautiful” on Broadway.
“It was a trip,” Mueller said. King did a solo version of “A Natural Woman,” then invited the two actors to join her for “I Feel the Earth Move.”
“She was so warm and friendly,” Mueller said.
Did King offer any advice?
“Nope. She just said, ‘Have fun being me.’ ”