Waitress opens in the West End this week and I grabbed a rare, brief opportunity to chat with the musical’s Tony-winning director Diane Paulus about the show.
With Waitress now such a Broadway success, what was it that drew you to the story being translated from screen to stage?
Well, when I watched the film, the Adrienne Shelly film, I was struck by, first of all, how theatrical it is. It’s almost like a unit set in the way it’s filmed, it’s just in the diner. It’s in a doctors office, it’s at Jenna’s house. Adrienne purposefully didn’t really get into, you know, what town are we in? What does it look like on main street?
It’s really almost like a fairy tale and it’s very quirky and the characters have a lot of personality, and then you get this like sock to the gut, emotional punch of this woman’s crisis of her life. And when I watched it, I saw that character and I thought, I know who that woman is because I know people who go through that.
And what struck me was quite a personal experience. One of my dearest friends growing up, is not a working class person. She’s actually a woman of enormous privilege, but she had been in a terrible relationship where she had been made to feel small and made to feel like she didn’t deserve: her feelings or her self.
And so I thought this thing of what happens when we lose our sense of self with really wrong things happening, like having an affair with your gynaecologist. Like, let’s just say that’s sort of wrong! But life is messy and that’s what the show is also about.
You know, the other thing that I loved about the story was, so she gets pregnant and she is not excited about being pregnant. So I’m a mum with two kids and I really related to that. However, I had read when Adrienne Shelly wrote the movie’s screenplay, she was pregnant and she was terrified, like terrified. Like: “What if I don’t love the baby?” Every other mother is going crazy, like on cloud nine pregnant. And so this feeling again, that’s not quite politically correct to say: “I’m pregnant and I’m like, you know, not as happy as I should be.” But, this idea of the journey of what it means to become a mother and the journey of learning to love yourself. So it’s a universal story. So it was that character, the complexity of that character that interests me.
Jenna is a strong, well-fleshed out character, however the three key guys in the story’s arc are, by comparison, quite thinly sketched. One, her abusive husband, is a bastard; another, her doctor, has really questionable professional ethics; and the third one’s a guy who’s 100% heart and yet 100% geek. So why are Waitress’ men such caricatures?
I’m going to push back on that question because this is a story about Jenna as the central character and the next most important people around her are her sister-waitress friends.
You need to understand that the men are simply the supporting roles in this show. And when you’re a supporting role, you’re not given as much real estate and time as your protagonists. So we should just say that first. Right?
Now I think Sara (Bareilles) and Jessie (Nelson) and I always felt we never wanted the men to be caricatures. So you know, when you look at the film and you see Earl and you understand the decline of Earl and the humiliation he suffered by being fired and how he breaks down.
And as for the doctor’s questionable ethics, when you study the show, and we were very deliberate about this, it is Jenna who makes every first move on that doctor. That really was also quite deliberate.
JB: Finally I want to ask you about Pippin, which I saw on Broadway and loved. When will you bring your production of Pippin over here?
Diane: Thank you. I’ll go tap Barry Weissler (producer of Waitress and Pippin) and say come on now!
Waitress is currently in previews and opens at the Adelphi Theatre on 7th March
Photo credit (London cast): Johan Persson