‘Waitress’: Broadway Musical’s Sweet Ingredients Pack Powerful Message
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.”
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