The Power of a Woman’s Story | Waitress: A New Musical

Harmonies.  Laughter.  Pie.  What more could you ask for in a musical?

The weekend before last, I went to a Saturday matinee of the new Broadway musical, Waitress, at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre in New York City for my friend’s birthday.  I’ve been following the show since the announcement that the music and lyrics would be written by one of my favorite musicians of all time, Sara Bareilles.

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Last November, Sara Bareilles released an album called What’s Inside: Songs from Waitress, a selection of songs from the musical (though not in its completed stages) sung by Bareilles herself.  I immediately fell in love with the album; it’s the perfect blend of two of my favorite things: Sara Bareilles and show tunes.

I was eager to see the show right from the get-go, and my excitement increased with each performance I saw from it: Jessie Mueller singing the heart-wrenching anthem, She Used to Be Mine for Broadway.com, the medley of opening and closing numbers on Good Morning America, and the cast’s performance at the 70th annual Tony Awards, featuring Sara Bareilles, as well.  From what I could tell, the musical was going to blow me away.

And it did.

The show began with a sweet yet sassy recorded audio introduction by Sara Bareilles; to the tune of her song “Cassiopeia,” she sang about how not turning off your cell phone during the performance will basically make everybody there hate you.  I laughed at her cleverness but also agreed with her point.  Classic Sara move.

Oh, and did I mention that the theater smells like pie when you walk in, and you can buy little pies in a jar from the ushers?  We’ll get to that.

After the musical introduction, the show began.  Based on the 2007 film starring Keri Russell and Nathan Fillion, the story follows the life of waitress and expert pie-maker Jenna Hunterson, played by the inimitable Jessie Mueller, who won a Tony for her performance as Carole King in Beautiful in 2014.  Jenna is trapped in an unhappy marriage with an abusive husband and now is expecting a baby with him.  Her fellow waitresses, shy Dawn (Orange Is the New Black‘s Kimiko Glenn) and loud-mouthed Becky (the powerhouse Keala Settle) help Jenna throughout her pregnancy, while also battling their own romantic problems.  The three of them are a force to be reckoned with, a diverse version of the Andrews Sisters.  Or a Southern-diner-fied Destiny’s Child.

Jenna really gets into trouble when her new gynecologist turns out to be the attractive yet endearingly awkward Dr. Pomatter, played by the hilarious and talented Drew Gehling.  Their relationship quickly becomes romantic and… complicated.  As they sing to each other in “Bad Idea” (hands-down one of the best songs in the show), “You have a wife / You have a husband / You’re my doctor / You’ve got a baby coming / It’s a bad idea, me and you.”

Throughout the show, as new and strange things happen in Jenna’s life, the spotlight switches to her as she instantly thinks of a new pie recipe; think: the manual voice-overs and spotlights on Finch in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.  The pie motif reappears at defining moments in the show, especially in the lyrics “Sugar, butter, flour.”

I wish I could make this blog post an in-depth analysis of each of the delightful and beautiful songs from Waitress, but it would be 10,000 words long.  So I’ll keep it a bit shorter: each song is full of melodic and rhythmic twists, characteristic of Bareilles’ music.  The opening number, “Opening Up” is the perfect wake-up-in-the-morning-and-ring-in-the-new-day-song, and the harmonies fill you up like a warm cup of coffee.  The three waitresses shine in the funny-but-not-really “The Negative” about finally taking that pregnancy test and the gentle lullaby-esque “A Soft Place to Land”, while a different trio–this time of pregnant women–welcomes Jenna to the gynecologist’s office in “Club Knocked Up.”  Dawn and Becky both get their time in the spotlight; Dawn’s endearing and sincere “When He Sees Me” about being afraid of men and falling in love might be one of my favorite Broadway songs ever (I’ll have to update my list from last summer); and Becky sings her heart out about the struggles of decision-making in relationships in “I Didn’t Plan It.”

The men in the show shine, too; Dr. Pomatter wiggles his way into Jenna’s heart in the lighthearted “It Only Takes a Taste,” while Jenna’s wretched husband Earl keeps her heart for ransom in the rock-style”You Will Still Be Mine.”  The owner of the diner where Jenna works, played by Dakin Matthews (also known as Headmaster Charleston from Gilmore Girls) even has his own sweet song of advice to Jenna, “Take It From an Old Man”.  Not to mention Dawn’s new love interest, Ogie, belts out his love for her in the hysterical “Never Ever Getting Rid of Me” and “I Love You Like a Table,” which got Christopher Fitzgerald nominated for a Tony award this year.

What really made the show incredible for me was the second act.  Jenna and Dr. Pomatter sing a song called “You Matter to Me,” which is one of the most beautiful love songs I’ve ever heard, not only for it’s lyricism but also in the way it’s not made up of simple harmonies, but rather two unique melodies that flow together seamlessly.  From the first chord, I was crying already.

And when Jessie Mueller sang, “She Used to Be Mine,” a desperate plea to her past self and an apology to her not-yet-born baby, I was a complete mess.  Mueller does a perfect job of capturing that part of each audience member’s heart that knows the strains of loneliness and the pain of helplessness.

But not to worry, the musical has a happy ending, which left me in just as much a state of emotional disarray as the saddest parts.  Want to feel inspired?  Listen to “Everything Changes.”  It might spoil a bit of the plot, but trust me, it’s worth it.  You kind of know it’s coming anyway.

Overall, the music is phenomenal; the script is poignant, serious, and funny all rolled into one; and the actors– the actors!!!  All are fantastic singers and capture their characters fully and realistically.  I even saw the understudy for Cal, the owner of the diner (Thay Floyd), and he was just as funny and honest as every other cast member.  I saw Dakin Matthews and Kimiko Glenn after the show at the stage door, and they were positively delightful.

I think the main thing I left Waitress with was an understanding of the power of telling a woman’s story.  Waitress is the first Broadway musical to have an all-female creative team: choreographer Lorin Lattaro, book writer Jessie Nelson, director Diane Paulus, and of course, composer Sara Bareilles.  These women came together to tell a story about women–about what they struggle with behind the scenes, the complications of relationships (marital or otherwise), and the strength that comes with becoming a mother.  It’s a story only women could tell, and it comes across as touching and truthful.  The success of Waitress has shown me the power women can find in creating things and the beautiful and amazing results of women working together.

If you ever get the chance to see Waitress, do it.  Or listen to the cast album.  Or Sara Bareilles’ album.  Because I truly think that had the revolutionary Hamilton: An American Musical not been considered in this Broadway season, Waitress would have taken home the Tony for Best Musical.  The Founding Fathers can rap, but these women sure can tell a good story.

Have you seen Waitress?  What did you think of it?  What other good musicals have you seen?  Let me know in the comments!

As always, thanks for reading!

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