In 2007, the release of an indie movie about a pie-baking waitress named Jenna who was trying to escape an abusive relationship was shrouded in tragedy. Months before, its writer, director and supporting star, Adrienne Shelly, was murdered in her home by a construction worker in her New York City building. The loss added gravity to the film’s whimsy and its story of resilience, friendship and new beginnings, elements that transfer over to the sweet, touching musical adaptation of Waitress, which opened Sunday night on Broadway at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre.
As a tribute to the powerful story of a woman told by Shelly, Waitress has made history as the first Broadway musical to fill the four top creative spots with women. The show is the combined effort of director Diane Paulus (Pippin), book writer Jessie Nelson (I Am Sam), choreographer Lorin Latarro (Movin’ Out) and, for her Broadway debut, Sara Bareilles, who wrote the music and lyrics for the show.
“All of us were so committed to creating something that would feel in-sync with Adrienne Shelly’s film,” Paulus says of the work done by its creative team. “We invoke her practically every day of this process because she was such an incredible writer, actress and director.”
Each of the creative team had her own relationship with the film, but Nelson was the most familiar with it. “When my daughter was 12 years old, she discovered it, and she would subsequently play it at every slumber party she had at the house,” the writer says. “I think I’ve seen it 20 times.”
Paulus’ initial viewing of the film was also the inception of the show. The celebrated Broadway director had met with producer Barry Weissler as the pair sorted through movies to adapt for Broadway, and Weissler had sent her a DVD copy of Shelly’s film. “It has the heartbeat of a musical in it,” the director explains of her immediate need to translate the film to the stage. “It’s a fairy tale, and yet it’s gritty and real. It’s whimsical and quirky, but it’s also got this gut punch to it.”
To match the quirky, “indie-film vibe,” Paulus wanted to look beyond theater composers. Bareilles, who had worked exclusively in the world of pop songwriting until she met with Paulus, was their first choice.
“I had a lunch with Diane, and I hadn’t seen the movie at that point, so I didn’t have a relationship with the material,” Bareilles says. “I went home and watched, and it has totally changed my life, to be honest. This is the happiest decision I’ve ever made.”
Paulus was correct in believing Bareilles’ style would help maintain the vibe of the film, and the songs work as both musical theater ballads and standalone pop tracks. “I wanted to write music that I love the same way I wanted to approach any record of mine,” Bareilles says of her approach. Treating it like any of her albums, she released a preview of the show’s music last year — titled What’s Inside — with her own performances of the tracks with help from Jason Mraz, filling in as the romantic male lead. “I want to be proud of the material itself first and foremost, and I didn’t know that on top of that I was going to get such a big pleasure from watching other people interpret my material.”
Bareilles’ involvement with Waitress also came at a perfect time for the singer-songwriter, who had moved to New York City in 2012 to find her way into the theater world after spending her childhood listening to musical soundtracks and performing in community theater productions in Northern California, where she grew up. She auditioned for a production of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods after discussing the possibilities with her agent. “Oh my gosh, my audition was beyond embarrassing,” she says, with a laugh. “Oddly enough, the role ended up going to Jessie Mueller, who is now the lead in our show. It was a cosmic hug, I think.”
The emotional connections continued to grow tighter over the next few years. In early 2014, the pair were connected by Carole King. Mueller played King in the musical Beautiful based off the singer-songwriter’s legendary career, and she won the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical for the role. Just a week after it opened on Broadway, Bareilles and King performed their respective songs, “Brave” and “Beautiful,” together at the Grammy Awards. “I saw her on opening night in Beautiful,” Bareilles says, “And I left just so moved by her performance that I went back to the creative team of Waitress and said, ‘You guys have to see this woman. She is just stunning.'” Mueller was interested in portraying Jenna and became the first member of the cast, which also includes Kimiko Glenn of Orange Is the New Black, Keala Settle, Drew Gehling and Dakin Matthews.
The most important creative component and member of the cast, however, is the baking. Mueller’s Jenna is not only an artist when it comes to pie creation, but she also uses them as an escape, turning her unique confections into extensions of both her aspirations and her nightmares. “We talked about wanting to begin the play with her baking a pie,” Nelson says of the initial discussion on how to integrate baking into the DNA of the musical. “We discussed that Jenna had something going on inside her and doesn’t really want to face it, and it’s so amazing where Sara went with that, [creating] the ‘Sugar, butter, flour’ repetitive motif that goes through the whole piece.”
The cathartic repetition of the central ingredients to Jenna’s pies is heard from beginning to end, helping transition into the important moments when she’s baking with her loved ones, including the ghost of her mother. Latarro also wanted the kitchen connection to factor into the choreography as well, turning the movements of piecing together a pie into delicate, emotional dances. “I was interested in what she was thinking about while she was ignoring her family and friends and baking those pies,” she says. “I wanted to visualize and choreograph the daydreams.”
For a musical about escape, the show, much like Shelly’s film, is warm and inviting, with the smell of sugar and cinnamon wafting through the lobby and jars of dessert served during intermission. Even after all the years of pie talk while creating the musical, the creative team says none of them are quite sick of it yet. “I was more of a cake person than a pie person prior to doing this,” Nelson admits. “Now I have such reverence for the pie. I have a new respect for pie.”