What does a hit smell like? In the case of Waitress, which opened April 24 at the Brooks Atkinson (and sold out during previews without once trekking to the TKTS booth), it smells exactly like pipin’ hot apple pie—or, better yet, Pippin-hot since the lead producers of both are Barry and Fran Weissler. They’ve installed in the lobby of the Atkinson an oven, which regularly rustles up desserts on the premises that send the right atmospheric aroma wafting out to welcome the patrons as they arrive.
Should their inflamed nostrils require a foretaste of things to come, Weissler has engaged a special pie consultant (conceivably, Broadway’s first), Stacy Donnelly. She delivers unbaked pies that are baked at the back of the house to create the aroma. For any audience member who might want to snack during the show, apple, key lime and cookies-and-cream pies are offered in special jar-size containers. More adventurous tasters may want to sample some of the 27 different recipes she concocted for the show.
True to its chick-flick roots (a super-successful 2007 indie sleeper written, directed and co-starring Adrienne Shelly, who never lived to see her genius gently come to fruition), Waitress is a feel-good musical with plenty of flour power. It begins with a magical mantra, sweetly whispered—“Sugar! Sugar! Sugar!”—and pies start flying by on an assembly line like kinky boots, with different dessert du jours posted on the blackboard menu at Joe’s Pie Diner for every scene change: Marshmallow Mermaid Pie, Blueberry Bacon Pie, White Knuckle Cream Pie, A Little Wild Wildberry...
Our heroine, Jenna Hunterson (played by 2014’s Beautiful Tony-winning Golden Girl, Jessie Mueller—with That Glow still intact), believes in baking her blues away. She has plenty to be blue about, starting with a child on the way from a marriage she wants to get out of. But, therapeutically, she has a flair for cooking up pies for all occasions, and for that particular predicament she creates her “Betrayed By My Eggs Pie.” When she falls in love with her warm- and open-hearted gynecologist, fresh from Connecticut and susceptible to Southern wiles, it’s “I Wanna Play Doctor With My Gynecologist Pie.” There’s a glitch, of course: He, too, is married, but, considering what she’s coming from, you can almost hear a “Go, girl!” coming from the audience.
Often you do, according to Drew Gehling, who plays the physician she plies with pies. “We get that a lot,” he said. “In fact, the other night—there’s a moment where Jenna and I stare each other down onstage—and a person in the audience literally screamed, ‘DO IT!’ at the top of their lungs. The audience lost their minds! Jessie and I just sat there and let that moment sink in. They wanted it to happen because they want her to have something good. They’re not looking at it from his perspective.”
Mueller took stock of the scene as well, interpreting it as a kind of turning point for the audience. “I think they go on the ride the characters do. They start in blacks-and-whites and sorta merge into gray matter. It’s a thrill when you feel the audience go with you on that. It means they’re invested in the characters. They’re not looking at it with a judgmental eye. They’re looking at it from the inside of the characters.”
Gehling is not the dreamboat doctor that Nathan Fillion presented in the movie but a quirkier, more comical creation. “Once I realized how gifted he was,” said book writer Jessie Nelson, “it was such a joy to write for him. He was so nuanced in what he could bring to the character. I had a really wonderful collaboration with Drew.”
The role started changing on paper, Gehling recalled. “We all kinda agreed that this was a person who, on the surface, seems to have everything that he should want and need—but, for some inexplicable reason, is unable to get it together. What you have here is someone who has done the right thing his entire life and made all the right decisions on paper and married the right person on paper and taken the right job and gone to the right town on paper—but hasn’t really had a second in his life to open his eyes and say, ‘Why am I here? Is this really what I want to be doing?’
“The way we chose to look at him was that this person has a lack of sugar, someone who has not really enjoyed the finer things in life. Once Jenna re-introduces that element to him, all sorts of things in his life wake up. I think that’s the key in,” he continued. “The minute he tastes the pie that she makes, a complete and total shift of worldview starts to happen there, even if he’s not necessarily aware of it immediately.”
Gehling had only bouquets for his leading lady. “Jessie is really marvelous and so present in our scenes together. It’s such a treat when you look someone in the eyes and you see that they are completely there with you, no matter what happens.”
The doctor’s polar opposite—Jenna’s brutish and abusive hubby, the evil Earl (easily the blackest hole in musical theatre since Rocky’s brother-in-law, Paulie)—is played by an actor with similar sentiments. “What I like about playing this guy,” said Nick Cordero, “is working with Jessie. She’s such a great scene partner. She’s got that X-factor. I was a fan before I met her, and now more so. She makes every day a joy.”
Not the least of Earl’s flaws is that he can’t see what he’s got in Jenna beyond her tips, which he’s quick to confiscate. “Let’s face it: You ain’t no Sara Lee,” he sneers, so it’s poetic justice the plot builds to A Big Bake-Off that will help her get away from him.
Because of the character’s negativity, Cordero tends to take his curtain call with a quick bow and run. “If they’re hissing me, I don’t hear them,” he said. “I feel like they’re clapping for the person before and after me. I just sneak in there while they’re clapping.”
Another male character important to the plot is Joe himself, the owner of the joint, a crusty old cracker who, of course, conceals a heart of gold. Delivering him properly Southern-fried, Dakin Matthews delights in the role: “For an actor, it’s a great character because each scene you discover something new about him. There’s what we call an arch to his development. You think he’s one thing, and the next scene you realize, ‘Oh, he’s a little more complicated than that.’ He’s influential in the plot, and he is also influential in opening up the emotional life of the main character.”
Director Diane Paulus, who made her Tony-winning mark on Broadway by “re-imagining” American musical classics (Hair, Porgy and Bess, Pippin), has turned that corner and started creating her own American musical classics. Waitress is, after the still-playing Finding Neverland, her second Broadway foray onto that tricky turf.
“I saw the film and fell in love with the possibility of it becoming a musical,” the director explained. “I saw the whimsy, I saw the heart, I saw the incredible emotional punch it had—and I saw it could be this a beautiful, intimate musical.”
Next step: Who could best do it? “I felt we should find someone who was outside of the traditional musical theatre, someone who could make the indie-film quality of it, and Sara was my dream at the top of the list. Lucky for us, she wanted to do it.”
A five-time Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter, Sara Bareilles bravely and gamely turned Broadway composer for the occasion and gifted the show with 16 songs—a pleasant package, indeed. Her Main Stem debut left her a little dazed.
“I’m really humbled and grateful to get to the finish line, which,” she added with a laugh, “is also the starting line. That’s so crazy in theatre. Our opening night, if everything works well, is the beginning of the life of a show. I’m just thankful I got the opportunity of trying to do this with a piece of material I really believed in.”
As Cyndi Lauper did for Kinky Boots, Bareilles keyed her songs to characterization. “My way into the material was trying to find the portal into the story of each character. I wanted to be their advocate in a way, and it was a really interesting exercise in empathy for me to try to imagine my own storytelling as their storytelling. But I love diving deep into the psyche of someone other than myself.
“Adrienne Shelly built this odd, beautiful, flawed world we get to play in intentionally. Everybody is a shade of gray, and I tried to express that in the music.”
Bareilles’ work made Lorin Latarro’s contribution—well, a piece of cake. “Sara’s music, basically, choreographs itself—sonically, textually,” the choreographer contended. “Not only is her music so beautiful, it tells you what to do with it.”
“A Soft Place to Land,” delivered by the three waitresses in the show, was Latarro’s favorite song to stage. “It creates a whole magical effect that comes from the music, and it’s sort of a metaphor for friendship—these women making this fight together.”
At the core of Waitress is a sisterhood that Jenna forms with her co-workers, Becky (Keala Settle) and Dawn (Kimiko Glenn). All three ladies enjoy the show’s top billing.
Settle, who rates a niche in The Guinness Book of World Records for the longest-sustained laugh on a Broadway stage (Hands on a Hardbody) and went on to become Madame Thenardier, mistress of the house in the Les Miserables revival, is still no fragile flower. “Becky,” she said, “always has an opinion, even though nobody wants it, but she’ll always give it to you, no matter what. That’s the beauty of who she is.”
Glenn was still reeling from her Broadway debut. “I feel like this is the best day of my life,” she confessed. “Literally, I couldn’t tell you what my favorite scene or favorite part of the show was. I enjoy every second of it. I have so much fun doing this role.”
But the part comes with some built-in tension: Dawn is the modest role that Shelly allotted herself in the film. “The character she played was so genuine, and I didn’t want to mess it up. I felt a lot of pressure on myself through the whole process.”
Jenna isn’t alone in her man problems. Her co-workers have ‘em, too: Becky, though married, has a substantial fling with the line cook, Cal (Eric Anderson), and Dawn has a five-minute date that leads to the altar with Ogie (Christopher Fitzgerald).
Since Ogie is a former Og of Finian’s Rainbow, a showstopper has been whipped up for Fitzgerald to knock out of the park. “Sara was able to give Ogie a song so that he could express his point in the movie,” the actor noted. “I feel he’s this force of love and positive energy in a story that is full of people who are lost or on an emotional search. Ogie’s got this great view of life, and that’s such a fun thing for me to play.”
A long way from his Soul Doctor, Anderson is nevertheless allowed his Polonius moment when his character, Cal, sticks an asterisk on Happiness: “I’m happy...enough,” he says—and Anderson feels this “gives Jenna the spark to want more. It’s a pinnacle thing for her to hear in order to realize there’s more to life than just ‘happy . . . enough.’”
Who couldn’t relate to that—and to Jenna? “She’s so many things,” said Mueller. “She’s like a regular gal, so relatable. She’s just trying to do the best she can with the hand life dealt her. I admire that, and I admire that moment she has about three-quarters of the way through the show where she goes, ‘OK. This is who I am, and this is where I’m at. What do I do with it now?’ It’s big. It’s big human stuff, y’know.”
The actress, first and last, credits Paulus for pulling the show through to Broadway. “Diane was such a rock. She always had such a respect and such a focus on the heart that Adrienne Shelly used for the core of the film, and I think Diane is the kind of person who has that in her. She has a huge heart, and I think her guidance through the whole thing was driven by that. We were lucky that she was the person steering the ship because that was always what she came back to. That was helpful for me because we were always measuring things together. It was like a Truth-O-Meter.”
There is a sad undertow to Waitress’ success. Shelly wrote the screenplay in 2003 while pregnant, shot it in 20 days three years later and was murdered, during postproduction, by a home intruder. The film’s last shot has Jenna walking into a hopeful sunset with her daughter, Lulu (played by Shelly’s daughter, Sophie Ostroy).