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Inside the Broadway musical's imaginative style
The musical Waitress takes place in a diner, and also inside a woman's lively mind.
Now at Broadway's Brooks Atkinson Theatre, the show follows Jenna, a server at a pie shop who escapes her unhappy marriage by devising recipes from her hopes and fears. When she finds out she's pregnant, for instance, with a baby she doesn't necessarily want, the daily special is Betrayed By My Eggs pie, but when her fellow waitresses lift her spirits, she whips up something sweeter.
As she bakes, Jenna (Jessie Mueller) slips into a magical-realist world. The people inspiring her recipes swirl around her, and the customers eating her food occasionally dance to the music in her head. We know we're seeing her inner life as much as her daily goings on.
The book (by Jessie Nelson) and the score (by pop star Sara Bareilles) move easily between these realms, creating a story where thoughts and feelings change how the world behaves.
The set follows the same rules. Thanks to designer Scott Pask, it uses both realistic details – edible pies, cans with real labels – and metaphorical touches, like tables and countertops that stay on stage, even when Jenna's at a bus station.
"The space is really her mixing bowl," Pask says. "We start in a blank space, and then those elements all come together. They're all ingredients, in a way, of her life."
It matters that those ingredients are always present – that we can see the diner's booths when Jenna's outside or the big blue sky when she's in the kitchen. No matter where she goes, her experiences and passions and anxieties come with her.
To that end, the stage is flanked by columns of pies, each one resting in a clear plastic serving box. These towers of dessert suggest that something crucial about Jenna – some key ingredient – remains forever steady. Some part of her is always there, even when her husband treats her badly or her secret affair gets remarkably intense or her friends push her to make choices she's not ready for.
Sometimes, though, those ingredients disappear. When she goes home to her husband, Jenna's world literally shrinks. Walls fly in to close off the stage, blotting out everything that helps her feel free. "It's taking the air out of the room," Pask says. "The sky and the landscape are ever-present, but they're obliterated by this airless place of hers. That corner of her home is heavy-hearted, so we had to reflect that."
That explanation underlines why Pask designed the set this way, instead of just building a realistic pie shop. "This could have easily been a diner with things zipping in front of it, just very literal," he says. "But we wanted to keep that magic realism. Because her imagination is vivid. She creates these things in her imagination, and we have to stay with her. We have to make sure that we can reflect an emotional moment she's having. We need to see the mental landscape as well as the physical."
To read about a student's experience at Waitress, check out this post on TDF's sister site SEEN.
Photos by Joan Marcus. Top photo (L to R): Keala Settle, Jessie Mueller, and Kimiko Glenn.