What's Inside 'Waitress'?

William Statham

  • OnStage New York Columnist

Step one foot inside the Brooks Atkinson Theatre on Broadway recently and the sweet aroma of homebaked pie instantly ignites the senses. Suddenly you're taken to a place of comfort, home, and mama. You begin to float to your seat and as you gaze at the stage in your olfactory hypnosis, the sight of pies spinning in their display cases catches your eye. And this is all happening before the curtain even goes up on the new musical Waitress, by Sara Bareilles and Jessie Nelson. 

The musical is based off of the movie of the same name which starred Keri Russell. Jenna (Tony Award-winner Jessie Mueller) lives in a small town. She has two close friends, Becky (Keala Settle) and Dawn (Jenna Ushkowitz). The three work at the town diner and this waiting trio could be considered the Three Musketeers of the dining industry, much to the chagrin of their taskmaster boss (Eric Anderson). The friends help coach each other with their relationship woes, even helping Dawn go on her first date with an eccentric online love connection, Oggie (Jeremy Morse at the performance I attended). Jenna is famously known among her diner patrons for her heavenly delicious original pies. However, we soon learn that Jenna has an unexpected "surprise" of her own baking in the oven. What will Jenna do though? She's not quite ready for the onslaught of new motherhood. Her friends rally around her to try to convince Jenna to face this head on, but she is conflicted; mostly because of her abusive husband Earl (Nick Cordero). The only "babies" Jenna has are her late mother's pie recipes that were handed down to her. 

Photo: Joan Marcus

Photo: Joan Marcus

We soon find out that Joe (Dakin Matthews), the owner of the diner, recently came across a pie contest in the local paper where the grand prize is $20,000. Jenna soon realizes there's a bigger prize at stake here however: freedom from her husband. Before Jenna gets carried away, however, she has to confront her newfound pregnancy. Enter her new gynecologist, Dr, Pomatter (Drew Gehling) a fresh albeit nervous, post-med grad from Connecticut. Things between Jenna and her new doctor are awkward at first, until they have an exchange at a bus stop. A spark is lit and the two cautiously dance around one another each time Jenna has her routine checkups. Each time she comes, she draws him in closer with a new pie, each one more unique than the last. But Dr. Pomatter is married, as is Jenna. As they say, "there's the rub."

Under any other circumstances in this most recent Broadway season, Waitress (without question) would have swept the Tony Awards and all other theatre award ceremonies. There's just that pesky little skit about one of the founding fathers that trumped that. 

There are two important points to be made about Waitress: its message and its significance as a piece of art. So what is the message of this jewel box gem of a production? Jenna has been an unfortunate victim of love her entire life. How? Her father abused her loving mother and didn't show her any love. She lost maternal love when her mother died. She married a man who is obsessed with her but who she, herself, does not love. Love has failed her at every turn. Now comes Dr. Jim Pomatter who is offering her love at last but who cannot fully give her the kind of love she deserves. The message that we get from Jenna's story (and that she thankfully finds for herself) is she must first love herself and that, alone, is more than sufficient. 

What struck me the most about Waitress was how much the show, as a whole, represented one of the primary themes of the show: pie. With Diane Paulus' precision directing and Lorin Latarro's seamlessly fluid choreography, the show was beautifully layered. All of the ingredients came together beautifully from the sweet aroma wafting into the house of the Barrymore to the amazingly talented cast. From the sweet-sounding earthy onstage band that weaved in and out of the story to the gorgeous melodies of Sara Bareilles' score.

As for the cast, special attention must be paid to the brightest star currently lighting up a Broadway stage: Jessie Mueller. Ever since her role in the ill-fated 2011 revival  of On A Clear Day You Can See Forever, and going on to star in such shows as her Tony-winning turn as Carole King in Beautiful, Jessie has solidified her place as a bonafide Broadway star. Drew Gehling is the most endearing, honest and heartfelt doctor I've ever seen. His tenderness and awkward vulnerability were such relieving qualities to see in a leading man. The "ooohs" and "awwws" coming from the women in the audience were evidence of their pulling for him to win Jenna's heart the whole performance. Jenna Ushkowitz as the wide-eyed, at times nerdy Dawn was quite a pleasant surprise for someone like me who has only seen one episode of "Glee." She more than holds her own in this cast of dynamites. Jeremy Morse was on as Oggie (normally played by Chris Fitzgerald, who was Tony-nominated for this role) and within ten seconds, you see why. The part (the comedic relief for the show along with his partner Dawn) has a beautifully crafted comedic number staged by Paulus that shows Oggie's exuberance and eagerness to win his true love.Of special note is the incomparable Keala Settle who gave me chills during her Act Two opening power song "I Didn't Plan It," where she explains to Jenna that life doesn't always go as planned but she's made the best of her situation. Keala's fiery conviction and vocal chords of steel drive the song across the footlights and into the audience's lap with enough power to shake the Barrymore walls. Dakin Matthews, as Joe, embraces with his warm soul (albeit initial rough exterior as a curmudgeon) and offers a light fatherly touch that we all can identify with.

The passionate ensemble rounds out the cast of characters of the town and deliver a show that you can serve with a dollop of whipped cream and place a cherry on top. The cast often repeats throughout the night Jenna's three essential ingredients: sugar, butter, flour. I think they should add: passion, talent, heart. 

My favorite pop star wrote a musical! It’s GOT to be good!

Noel Katz

Oh. My. God. Didja hear? Sara Bareilles wrote a musical called Waitress and it's about to begin performances in Boston. Sara Bareilles is my favorite contemporary pop songwriter! It HAS to be amazing, right? So how excited am I?

Ooh: a discomfiting sense of déjà vu just hit me. I'm flashing back to my excitement that Paul Simon, my favorite pop songwriter like, ever! was focusing his genius on musical theatre with The Capeman. I mean, this is Paul Simon we're talking about, so it HAS to be good, right?

The Capeman depicted a true story of gang violence in late 1950s New York. And it's not as if we already have a show featuring gang violence, right? Oh, how could I forget West Side Story? How could rhymin' Simon?

These days producers seem to think that shows based on well-regarded, fairly-recent movies are most likely to succeed. And Waitress has a female protagonist. A little like Nine To Five, the 2009 musical Megan Hilty was in. Let me look that up, see how it did, and who wrote it. OMG: Dolly Parton! I love her! Who doesn't love her? Broadway audiences, apparently; they kept it afloat for just 148 performances.

Barrett Wilbert Weed, Jessie Mueller, and Keala Settle in the reading of Waitress. (© Jimmy Ryan)

Barrett Wilbert Weed, Jessie Mueller, and Keala Settle in the reading of Waitress.
(© Jimmy Ryan)

I'm not as excited as I was a moment ago. You, too? Let's not talk about how U2's Bono and The Edge created the worst financial disaster in Broadway history. And let's not talk about Waitress, because it's always unfair to cast aspersions on something that hasn't been seen.

Instead, let's speak in general about musicals written by people whose previous experience isn't in the theatre. To me, it's utter lunacy to believe that a person who has previously been very successful writing chart-topping hits will therefore be able to create a worthwhile stage-piece. The skills required to get a lot of airplay and downloads are - I hate to break it to you - completely different from the craft needed to tell a story on the stage. That's why so many rock star efforts are such disasters.

The theatre is a more wacky arena than most, inexplicably hopeful that hits can be created by neophytes. Vera Wang designs a pretty dress; would you let her design your house? Would we expect a hit if Philip Glass choreographed a ballet? Let's discuss this after seeing the Sondheim-directed movie, over a piece of Quentin Tarantino-baked pie.

Rock stardom, more often than not, involves penning songs in the author's own voice, usually for the author's own voice. Writing musicals involves delineating a whole set of characters, in different vocal ranges, who need to sound distinct from each other. Theatre scores benefit from mixing up the type of songs: the big chorus number, the small ensemble, the danceable tune, the introspective ballad, the duet where characters disagree. I'm one who believes variety makes for great pop albums, too. But these days rockers and rappers succeed on individual songs and the array on an album is less important. A Broadway show that serves up the same sort of song again and again will close faster than you can say "The Last Ship."

There's a point to be made about harmonic sophistication, something you find in many a Broadway score but relatively few pop albums, but I don't want to delve into music theory on such a sunny day. Instead I'll praise the rare popular music stars who've successfully made the transition. Elton John's musicals include Aida and Billy Elliot, hits that justified their anticipatory excitement. And Cyndi Lauper's Kinky Boots is a Tony-winner, helped by the know-how of her venerable collaborator, Harvey Fierstein. Were you similarly excited to hear songs by the author of True Colors and Girls Just Wanna Have Fun? So was I. Until I discovered Lauper didn't write those songs.

I don't mean to be a pessimist but when producers mount the work of celebrities from other media, it can seem like they've turned their backs on the opportunity to produce shows by theatre people, who've previously given some thought to how to keep things dramatically intriguing. So let’s be optimists and head over to Sheryl Crow’s Diner. I don’t mean a greasy spoon where she’s the cook; I mean her musical about male bonding in 1959 Baltimore. That’s the sort of thing Crow does best, right?