In the final week of previews, before a show officially opens on Broadway, the director freezes the show—meaning a full halt to substantive changes on the production (the text, the music, the design) no matter how long it runs. Few shows have bucked this rule, but none to more inclusive results than Broadway’s Waitress.
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“Initially we kept Old Joe as a man as that’s how he was portrayed in Adrienne Shelly’s beautiful film and we wanted to honor that,” says book writer Jessie Nelson of writing the character of Old Joe for Broadway’s Waitress. “As our lead character Jenna was surrounded and supported by her women Waitress comrades, it seemed good for the balance to have an irascible male grumpy fairy godfather presence.”
But as time went on, the creative team continued to examine the precedents of the Waitress world. Beginning in 2017, Waitress honored Breast Cancer Awareness month by switching the diner uniforms from the powder blue to pink. In September 2018, the production welcomed the first black actor to tackle the lead role with Nicolette Robinson playing Jenna. “In this moment of time, it seems like a wonderful brush stroke to make the owner a woman—a strong, savvy business woman who is trying to help another woman find her footing.”
Beginning November 19, actor June Squibb (Alexander Payne's film Nebraska, plus Gypsy and The Happy Time) assumes the role now known as Old Josie. Turns out, the decision to switch Old Joe to Josie was a consequence of specifically wanting to cast Squibb—who Nelson knew from previous film work. “She came to see Waitress as a friend and colleague and she and I began to play with this idea of Old Joe the owner of the restaurant becoming Old Josie,” Nelson explains. “Diane and Sara also loved the idea of the owner of the diner being a savvy business woman.”
“Sara, Jessie and I have always discussed how great it would be if the role of Joe could become Josie,” says director Diane Paulus, “and there is no better actor to bring this idea to life than June Squibb.”
The creative team has been working on the necessary script changes—which Nelson assures are minimal. “Since Old Joe is a man who never chose to marry or have a family and children that choice became interesting to look at as bold choice coming from a women from June’s era,” says the writer.
The rest will be up to Squibb and her interpretation of the essence of the diner owner. “June is a master in her craft and will bring all sorts of salty sweetness to the role of Old Josie,” says composer-lyricist Bareilles. “Having someone like June Squibb in the cast of Waitress in any capacity is a dream come true, but to have her be the one to reimagine one of our most beloved characters, Old Joe, as a woman is just out of this world.”
Squibb, who turned 89 the day of her first rehearsal, will play the role through January 6, 2019—after which the creators have been mum about whether the character will be Josie or Joe. No matter, the musical from an all-female creative team continues to push boundaries. “I am so proud of our production for our continued commitment to inclusivity and diversity on stage, and this is a bold and imaginative moment in the story of Waitress!”