During the 2015-16 theatre season, it was nearly impossible for any Broadway musical to compete with Hamilton – Waitress was one of the few that seemed to have a fighting chance. While Hamilton was going viral on social media and being applauded for its groundbreaking music style and diverse cast, Waitress was cast in the shadows.
Based on the 2007 indie film of the same name, the majority of the creative team is comprised of women, and two out of three of the female leads are played by women of color.
The story is centered on Jenna (Jessie Mueller), a waitress and pie chef at a diner in a small Southern town who is stuck in an abusive marriage with her husband Earl (William Popp). After a drunken night with Earl, her fellow waitresses and friends Dawn (Jenna Ushkowitz) and Becky (Keala Settle) convince her to take a pregnancy test, and she sees a positive result. The crotchety old owner of the diner, Joe (Dakin Matthews) tells her about a pie contest in a nearby county with a $20,000 grand prize, which Jenna sees as a way to escape her situation. She starts saving for the entrance fee and gets caught up in an affair with her gynecologist, Dr. Pomatter (Drew Gehling), all while trying to keep both a secret from her husband. Earl ends up finding the money she’d been stashing for the contest and seizing it, so she is not able to compete in the contest as planned. However, when she sets eyes on her newborn baby for the first time, she finally gathers up the courage to leave her husband and Joe leaves her the diner, allowing her to start a new life for her and her baby.
Pies are featured heavily throughout the musical and even throughout the theatre, serving as a vehicle for Jenna to express and process her emotions. The pies she invents have funny and creative names such as “Betrayed By My Eggs” pie, “Getting Out of the Mud” pie and “I Hate My Husband” pie. In the corner of the theatre’s lobby is an oven with a real apple pie, loaded with extra cinnamon and spices to fill the theatre with the most authentic pie smell, and waitresses walk around before the show and during intermission with baskets of mini pies in mason jars, in hopes that the smell of pie will entice audience members to spend a whopping $10. The show even has its very own “pie consultant,” baker Stacy Donnelly, who ensures that the baking techniques depicted onstage are as accurate as possible.
Waitress marks Sara Bareilles’ Broadway debut, and her songwriting style and voice are prevalent from beginning to end. Before the curtain rises, the audience hears Bareilles sing a jingle asking them to turn off their cell phones to the tune of her song “Cassiopeia.” The musical opens with her recorded voice singing “sugar, butter, flour,” a leitmotif that appears again and again whenever Jenna is expressing her feelings in the form of pie recipes. Bareilles, who has always been known for writing about her life and emotions in songs like “Love Song” and “Gravity,” is adept at translating the characters’ feelings into music. Many of the songs do little to move the plot forward but rather provide insight into what the characters are experiencing and deepen the audience’s understanding of them. For example, in her solo “When He Sees Me,” Dawn explains her fear of dating and not having control over the situation if she were to develop feelings for anyone.
The musical is also the first Broadway show with women in the top four creative spots, with director Diane Paulus, choreographer Lorin Latarro, a book by Jessie Nelson and music and lyrics by Sara Bareilles. Many publications applauded the fact that Waitress has an “all-female creative team” (a statement that is not entirely true) and several theatre critics gave the musical a feminist treatment, analyzing the characters (which were too stock and over-the-top for their liking), and determining whether the dialogue passed the Bechdel Test (it doesn’t). Vulture magazine declared that the musical “is clearly, passionately, and for the most part delightfully a feminist musical.” For the most part, this is true –the unbreakable female friendships between Jenna, Becky, and Dawn are featured prominently, and the musical is probably the first to have a song about a pregnancy test (“The Negative”). The show even very briefly touches on abortion during Jenna’s first appointment with Dr. Pomatter.
While this is a massive improvement in a male-dominated entertainment industry, calling a musical “feminist” is not a particularly convincing reason to pay hundreds of dollars for a ticket. Even Sara Bareilles expressed the hope that “the gender thing sort of stops being the selling point.” Is the show itself actually good? The Chicago Tribune took note of this and criticized the show’s portrait of male characters, particularly Dr. Pomatter, who “feels like a sitcom doc rather than a serious love interest,” and Earl, a “standard-issue man-spreader.” As a feminist musical, it is definitely a step forward but far from perfect.
Furthermore, in a Broadway season that is hailed as being especially progressive, Waitress falls short. Obviously there’s Hamilton, which features a cast and creative team that is overwhelmingly people of color. There’s also Allegiance, which has an all Asian-American cast, and The Color Purple, which has an all-black cast. However, it was still especially meaningful that the show cast Asian-American actresses in the role of Dawn. Kimiko Glenn (Orange is the New Black) originated the role on Broadway, and currently, Jenna Ushkowitz (Glee) is filling in while Glenn is on a leave of absence. It is extremely rare, especially in theatre, to cast an Asian-American actor in a role that was originally not written with an Asian person in mind (Adrienne Shelly played Dawn in the movie). It is even rarer to see an Asian actor playing a role that is not a caricature or stereotype of Asian people. Better yet, no one batted an eye at this casting choice, and there are very few articles online that have pointed it out. With Waitress, the entertainment industry is one very small step closer to a future where Asian-American representation will no longer be an issue.
Perhaps the show could have been more successful if we focused less on evaluating how progressive it is, and paid more attention to the fact that Waitress is actually really good. Not Hamilton-level mind-blowing, maybe, but I walked out of the theatre incredibly impressed and profoundly moved. The dialogue is clever, funny, and witty, and the songs range from whimsical to heartbreaking. I’m not a particularly emotional person and I cried like a baby, especially during the ballads “You Matter to Me” and “She Used to Be Mine.” Every girl can find pieces of themselves in Jenna’s character and relate to her struggle to find a way out of her terrible situation and improve her life.
The biggest selling point of the show, however, is how phenomenally talented the cast is. The entire audience was collectively holding their breath during Jessie Mueller’s nuanced and emotional rendition of “She Used to Be Mine,” and Christopher Fitzgerald, who played Dawn’s love interest Ogie, stole the show with his physical comedy and the hilarious delivery of Ogie’s made-up poetry. While the performances are sometimes over the top and larger than life, the characters are absolutely endearing and loveable.
It is nearly impossible to get your hands on Hamilton tickets, but if you find yourself in New York City this theatre season, it is definitely worthwhile to spend your money on Waitress instead.
Isabelle is an aspiring music industry executive who spends most of her paycheck on concert tickets and cold brew coffee. She currently resides in New York City, where she is studying music business and juggling more internships than is humanly possible. She also co-founded an a cappella group, Baruch Blue Notes, because she is a giant music nerd. Her friends all call her Izzy, and sometimes they call her “Virginia” for no apparent reason (it’s a long story).