“We’re trying to make the theatre smell like pie,” says Stacy Donnelly, owner of Cute as Cake bakery and official pie consultant on Broadway’s Waitress. When it comes to the latest arrival at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, producers Fran and Barry Weissler spare no expense to highlight their show’s star—pie.
Based on the 2007 film by Adrienne Shelly, Waitress follows Jenna, a server at Joe’s Pie Diner who bakes pies as an outlet—and possibly a true escape—from her controlling husband, Earl. Her concoctions (and their unconventional names, à la “I Hate My Husband Pie”) are a culinary journal of Jenna’s experience. “It’s really about her creations,” says Donnelly, “and each creation is really her emotional place at that moment.”
Because pie is such a key ingredient to the storytelling, the Weisslers had the idea from when the show was in early development to use edible pies instead of props onstage. Donnelly was poised to merge the worlds of food and theatre since, prior to opening Cute as Cake with her mother eight years ago, Donnelly was a professional dancer who baked on the side for relaxation and some spare cash. Having worked with Donnelly on an opening-night cake for their recent Broadway success, Pippin, and other momentous theatre occasions, the Weisslers knocked on Donnelly’s door. “It was always the idea to have [the pies],” says Donnelly, “but making sure it worked and it was feasible.... [What is] the amount of pies that would need to be provided and can they last…?”
It seems anything is possible in show business. Donnelly now bakes approximately 32 pies per week for Waitress’ onstage use alone: 27 custom flavors that sit in cases on set at Joe’s Pie Diner and five pies served to actors onstage—“Blueberry Bacon” and “Betrayed By My Eggs” pie. Though the cast slices into five pies every eight-show week to serve to “customers,” only one actor actually eats the confection. Donnelly also preps an additional pie per performance that bakes in a lobby oven so that, yes, the theatre smells like pie, bringing her weekly total to a minimum of 40 full-sized desserts. In fact, they’re still adjusting the schedule of replacing on-set pies as they learn more about how long each dessert lasts under the lights.
Since Donnelly was first approached in 2014 to work on the project, she has baked thousands of pies over the course of Waitress’ development. During the workshop—when no real pies were used by actors in the show—Donnelly baked over 200 mini tarts for audiences to munch on. While she didn’t provide the pies for the show’s A.R.T. tryout in Boston, Donnelly baked 26 for the Waitress poster photo shoot in February 2015 and 35 pies for the television commercial spot this past fall—not to mention the pounds of pie made throughout the Broadway taste-testing and rehearsal process.
“A lot of the pies are from the movie, so they have actual recipes we’ve been able to research and put together,” says Donnelly. Still, like the movie itself, these recipes had to be edited for the stage. For the pies sitting in the diner’s display cases, Donnelly focuses on look rather than flavor. “If [a pie] has whipped cream, whipped cream doesn’t hold up very well under hot light. You’ll have to make it a consistency that isn’t necessarily the consistency you’d use to serve for dessert,” she explains. “With the crust pies, I definitely add way more egg wash so that it’s really shiny, and I don’t necessarily cook the crust pies as long because they need to be able to hold up and not crack onstage as they’re being transported [by the waitresses].”
The realness extends beyond the baking and ingredients to the talent onstage. As the consultant, Donnelly also worked with Waitress’ star, Jessie Mueller, to teach her “the beginnings of baking a pie, to its creation and how that would read across to an audience.” Last on Broadway as Carole King in Beautiful, Mueller throws herself into her characters. “She really just wanted to make it natural for her,” says Donnelly of Mueller’s dedication to kitchen technique. “She wanted to learn how to do it more ... for her own research to feel comfortable. She didn’t want to have to stop and think and bake and sing and have it be very disjointed.”
Like baking itself, Donnelly says it was an organic learning process in between takes on video shoots and throughout rehearsals. Mueller was no stranger to the kitchen, but now she’s cracking an egg one-handed. (Even Donnelly can’t do that.)
The fact that there is a pie consultant on Waitress—responsible for teaching the pie-maker in the cast to bake, cooking fresh pies for the show each week, whipping up mini pies for the Waitress merchandise stand and, now, infusing the theatre air with the smells of grandma’s kitchen—speaks to a new level of authenticity in every arena of the theatre. It’s not that a story like Waitress couldn’t have been told in 1995, but doubtful they would have hired a pie consultant over dropping the propmaster a note.
Waitress carefully measures authenticity and practicality. “There was a time in the world where everybody just wanted everything [in theatre] to be nice and perfect and, you know, fantasy,” says Donnelly. “Now everything is so real all the time. I think the audience is very educated. They want to feel a real experience. They want to be part of it.”
Ruthie Fierberg is the Features Editor at Playbill.com. She has also written for Backstage, Parents and American Baby, including dozens of interviews with celeb moms and dads for parents.com. See more at ruthiefierberg.com and follow her on Twitter at @RuthiesATrain.