Playing the mayor and his wife in the current Drury Lane production of “Bye Bye Birdie” is giving real-life spouses Jill Shellabarger and Roger Mueller a rare chance to perform together.
It is an opportunity, as well, for the Evanston couple to reflect on their long careers in theater and on the family life that has helped propel their four children to early triumphs in the same profession.
Experts at affecting various roles onstage, Mr. Mueller and Ms. Shellabarger are unaffected and down-to-earth in conversation at their South Evanston home. They joke about their parts in this show being so small that Mr. Mueller’s character was nameless till the cast made up a name. But landing even their small roles in a production with director/choreographer Tammy Mader “feels like we were invited to the party,” Ms. Shellabarger says.
It has been so long since she has “done a whole rehearsal process,” Ms. Shellabarger says, that she had forgotten how demanding it is to be “gone from home 10 to 12 hours a day. You have to remember to throw in the laundry.”
Just five times before have the Muellers had the pleasure of acting in the same production. One of those times – playing John and Abigail Adams in the Jeff-award-winning “1776” in 2000 – counts as a career highlight for them both. The Chicago Tribune lauded Mr. Mueller’s “rousing central performance” as the “prickly John Adams, unpopular and disliked” but “passionate in his drive for independence” and praised Ms. Shellabarger for “acting charmingly” and “singing sweetly” as his wife. The two were last onstage together eight or nine years ago.
What stands out as they talk about their experience in a business sometimes criticized for glitz and superficiality is the extent to which their lives are grounded and sustained by family and faith.
The Muellers have seen how long hours of hard work and backstage tedium can turn a cast into a family. Ms. Shellabarger says she is so impressed she is “dumbstruck by the kids in [“Bye Bye Birdie”]. It tires me out watching them”; post-interview, she will be baking a birthday cake for one of them.
The Muellers, he from St. Louis and she an itinerant Navy daughter, met at Northwestern University. They married and jump-started their own family with twins Matt and Abby (better to have twins first, Ms. Shellabarger says, when you “don’t know better”), followed by Jessie and then Andrew. No one detected the twins until Matt was born, Ms. Shellabarger says, which made the event “one big, happy surprise.”
From then on, the couple managed to intertwine their lives and art. “My agent began booking auditions around my nursing schedule,” Ms. Shellabarger says. She frequently did voiceover work from home. And “because we don’t work for a living,” she adds with tongue in cheek, “Roger was involved as a father.” He was also a regular on the local theater scene, playing in shows like “West Side Story” at Drury Lane and “Brigadoon” at the Goodman, while she appeared in others such as “Oliver” and “My Fair Lady.”
“That’s what’s so great about Chicago [actors] – to see how they can have normal lives and families,” Mr. Mueller says. The Mueller children grew up in the midst of a close-knit theater community, babysitting for Ms. Mader’s children and attending shows that starred their parents’ friends.
Creativity was encouraged in the Mueller home, say the parents. “There was a lot of singing and reading,” Mr. Mueller says, adding that he is grateful all the kids inherited their mother’s voice. At ages 6 and 7 Abby and Jessie sang “Sisters” from the movie “White Christmas”; old musicals were the soundtrack for family road trips. “We were the only family looking for a ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ recording in a Walmart in Alaska,” Mr. Mueller says.
There were no lessons, consistent with the parents’ belief in letting their children be children. But in the second-floor room the children shared, there were bedtime stories (“Chapter books!” Ms. Shellabarger exclaims) brought to life with professional flair. “They heard lots of silly voices,” Mr. Mueller says.
The children attended St. Paul Lutheran Academy in Skokie through eighth grade. The parents’ agent, a family friend, waited till the kids were teens to approach them about auditioning. They never acted in a play until they entered Evanston Township High School.
Once at ETHS, they seized the “wonderful opportunities” there, say their parents – acting in and directing the student production, YAMO; going on the annual theater department trips to the Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ontario; playing lead roles in school plays and musicals.
Ms. Shellabarger remembers watching Abby in the chorus her freshman year and thinking, “She’s the real deal.” Two years later Abby was so convincing as the mad Ophelia that Ms. Shellabarger had to take an upset little brother Andrew home.
Both Abby and Jessie launched their careers in Chicago and have worked with their dad more than once. But inevitably, the family scattered to far-flung stages. Jessie followed her star to New York, where she won a Tony for her portrayal of Carole King in the musical “Beautiful.”
Abby, from the time she was little, had wanted nothing more than to tour with a Broadway musical, Ms. Shellabarger says. But when she received a call to audition for a show that turned out to be “Beautiful,” Mr. Mueller says, “None of us thought it would happen.” Abby phoned Jessie, who urged her to “go for it,” and Abby opened in Chicago to rave reviews.
The Mueller siblings are “very supportive of each other,” say their parents, even going out of their way to catch each other’s shows. When Jessie received the Sarah Siddons award at the Marriott, Matt and Andrew serenaded her with their own rendition of “Sisters.”
Now Abby is poised to hit the road with “Beautiful”; Jessie is in rehearsals for “Waitress” in New York; Andrew is in Capital Repertory Theatre in Albany, N.Y.; and Matt is rehearsing Hitchcock’s “The 39 Steps” at Theatre at the Center in Munster, Ind. “They have worked hard and had some luck,” their father says. When possible, he and Ms. Shellabarger crisscross the country to see them perform. They express the greatest pride at hearing from colleagues who have appeared with the younger Muellers that they are hard working and responsible – and at finding all four “honest” and “genuine” onstage.
The clan had a precious 36 hours together in Evanston at Christmas. But most often, someone is missing when they gather. The family used to sit an effigy of the absent member in a rocking chair. Now the stand-in for the missing person is the life-size image on an afghan presented to Ms. Shellabarger when she retired from Still Acting Up!, the senior acting troupe she directed at the Skokie Park District for more than a decade.
The Muellers have given thought to what makes their family work. “The kids have so much fun together. They make each other laugh. That’s one of the secrets of family: Do a lot of laughing and a lot of praying,” Ms. Shellabarger says.
“They love each other a lot,” Mr. Mueller adds. “That’s what it’s about. That, and grace.”