There’s still a lot of pie for everybody at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre.
Back in 2016, I interviewed original stars Jessie Mueller and Christopher Fitzgerald, as well as Glee actress Jenna Ushkowitz, about bringing Waitress to life on Broadway. Now, three years later, Sara Bareilles’ glorious musical remains a smash hit and is led by a superstar cast that boasts the likes of Shoshana Bean, Noah Galvin, and Jeremy Jordan.
Last week, I checked into the diner to chat with this new cast about the show’s enduring importance, how they made their characters their own, the best parts of working with one another, their individual solo projects, and much more.
ALEX NAGORSKI: Though Waitress has been open for a few years now, your takes on your characters are very distinct and unique. How influential were previous cast members and/or the film when you were figuring out your interpretations of Jenna, Ogie and Dr. Pomatter?
SHOSHANA BEAN: I hadn’t seen or listened to the show until I got the offer. I saw the movie when it came out but that was many years ago. So for me, it wasn’t a character reinterpretation but rather it was like a first meeting. I’m grateful for that because there were no preconceived ideas as to how it should or had to be done. But that’s also a little bit terrifying, because I’m like, “I don’t know if I’m doing what they want. I’m just kind of taking shots in the dark.”
NOAH GALVIN: I think different actors will inherently bring different things to a role. I saw this musical three or four times before I got cast in it just because I love it. I got to see Eddie Jemison play Ogie. Most recently, I got to see Tyrone Davis, Jr. do it, and I also got to see Chris Fitzgerald do it a couple times. They all brought different, wonderful, and personal specificity to the role. I definitely stole little things from each of them but I think that me being a different actor, it’s naturally going to be a little bit different.
JEREMY JORDAN: I remember seeing the show a while back, and I haven’t seen the movie in ages, so I tried to just approach it from the text standpoint. I’ve done a lot of comedy stuff on film but not a lot on stage. Therefore, one of the things that really excited me about this character was the potential within this world that you can go a little bit over the top while still maintaining a little bit of a grounded reality to it – while at the same time being a little bit slapstick. It was a fun challenge for me to see how far I could push it.
The last show I did was a play called American Son in which I stripped all comedy from my instincts so that I could play the honesty and the reality of the moment. This show is the opposite in that I felt like I was allowed to just infuse all those little strange, fun things.
SB: (Director) Diane Paulus has really been lovely in catering certain things to my discoveries. One example is that the end of “She Used To Be Mine” is traditionally small. She was in one of my rehearsals and was like, “You get that discovery that she’s not mine anymore, but she usedto live in me, so maybe she’s still alive in me.” She was like, “I think you should end it powerfully.” I said, “But the music doesn’t do that.” She just told me, “I don’t care. Make it do that. There is a shift happening there, and I think we should honor that for you.” So gratefully, the team was really cool about letting me discover it on my own and make it new in that way.
JJ: As soon as you have an audience, you can sort of feel and take their energy. That pushes you to find new things and explore new varieties of a moment or whatever little things you do. There are a bunch of moments in the show that change every night. It all depends on whatever variations or variables are going on – whether it’s the audience, a prop, who I’m doing it with or how I feel. It allows for new discoveries every day.
SB: To me, this is just how I see Jenna and how I see myself in her. I’ve always been somebody who brings myself to the table because I have to be authentic and bring my own personal knowledge. Everybody’s got some part of Jenna in them. So I had to bring those broken, hidden, vulnerable, fragile, delicate, scared pieces of myself that Shoshana doesn’t lead with, but that definitely exist. The people who are nearest and dearest to me know that. It was kind of scary and challenging to lead with that instead of with my strength, if that makes sense.
JJ: The more that I’ve been with the show, the more interesting the comedic beats have become. At first, you’re sort of plotting about it very methodically, like, ” How could this be the most funny?” When you do it, and say one thing is successful and another thing isn’t, then you start finding things that work, combining them, and building them even farther. It’s a fun process.
What is something about yourself, either personally or professionally, that playing your character has taught you?
JJ: I would say more personally than professionally. It reminds me to continue to seek out joy and happiness in my life, and not live in the complacency of what our lives tend to fall into sometimes.
NG: I’m still learning from Ogie and figuring out who he is. I’ve only been here for less than a month, so I don’t know if I even really feel like I totally know who he is through and through yet. I’m still discovering him.
SB: Oh my god, what hasn’t Jenna taught me? I’ve always done roles that require a lot of energy with a lot of big singing. I feel like I have been celebrated for singing high and riffing a lot, so that has led me to believe that that’s what people appreciate me for and want from me. So coming into Jenna, the big joke at the beginning was like, “show everybody your riffs.” I was scared to be like, “I don’t want to disappoint you, but this isn’t a riff and it’s not going to be that.” I did eventually find little moments to decorate, but I was afraid that I was going to suck in this because I’m not doing the thing that I’m the strongest at. So this experience has been a lesson in simplicity and stillness.
Jenna has given me the space to be gentle, vulnerable and broken. I don’t have to psych myself up to play her. I just meet her everyday where I’m at. It’s been a lesson that doing less can actually be more effective. This is particularly true in my scenes with Jeremy. Jeremy has a way of making me feel really safe. Working with him has allowed me to have a level of vulnerability that has caused my heart to crack wide open in ways that I haven’t necessarily always been comfortable with.
What are the biggest rewards and challenges about singing Sara Bareilles’ score?
NG: It’s just fun to do and sing! Luckily, I don’t have to do any emotional or vocal heavy lifting in this show. I sort of just get to come in three quarters of the way through Act One and yuk it up for a while. So while I don’t really have any vocal challenges in terms of Sara Bareilles’ score, it’s such a joy to sing every night. It’s so much fun.
SB: I think Sara’s lyrics contain such beautiful nuggets of wisdom. If you come to this show, you see yourself somewhere or you hear something you need to hear somewhere. There are just so many beautiful little gifts and lessons everywhere in this music – like the things Becky says in her song, the things Dr. Pomatter and Jenna say to each other, Old Joe’s song, etc.
I also think it’s a feel-good show. It’s got so much heart. I think this cast we’ve got now is telling the story in a really simple, beautiful, honest way. I remember when I told my mom I got this show, she had just seen the tour and I still knew nothing about it. She was like, “Oh, it is such a feel-good show.” When I then saw it and heard it, I was like, “I get why she says that.” At the end, it’s just so nice to see something wrapped up with a bow like that. That final song just feels so good.
JJ: I just really love this music. I’m a big fan of Sara’s and this is just my kind of show. It combines comedy and heart really beautifully. I’m kind of a sucker for any sort of family dramas or stories. Something about this show and music always spoke to me really poignantly. I always thought it would be a great fit for my sort of sensibility as an actor.
Having seen the show many times before, I found it interesting that for the first time, Jenna’s line about not wanting to get an abortion but not judging those who do got such rapturous applause. Why do you think Waitress is such an important show to be on Broadway right now at a time when women’s rights are under attack in this country?
SB: I think it’s a reminder that you’re not alone and that other people don’t have to feel so far away. Sometimes you see a character and think, “Oh yeah, I wish it were that simple.” It’s a very different experience when you see someone as broken or as human as you are.
NG: Just the idea of choice makes it an important story. The idea of having total autonomy over your own body is something that is up for debate right now, and it should not be. It’s a beautiful thing that Jenna does have a choice. She chooses not to have an abortion, which is obviously a fine choice to make, but it’s a wonderful thing that she does have the choice in the first place.
JJ: To me, the obvious answer is that it’s a female driven show in which the female character rises up above the shitty hand that she’s been dealt, takes control of her own life and makes something amazing out of it. That’s something that’s always going to be a great message, especially today. The show is very centered upon female empowerment. It has a very specific point of view that says, “Men, treat women with respect. Women, take care of yourselves and know that you are worthy of whatever you want to do or be.”
SB: All of a sudden, we have this awareness. I think that it’s a responsibility in the hands of the creators, the writers and us as performers to be aware of that and be sensitive to it. For example, I recently went to see My Fair Lady, which is a show I love. But as I was sitting there, I was thinking, “Is anyone else cringing at the way he’s speaking to Eliza?” I didn’t know how they were going to redeem him. Then, they flipped the ending and she didn’t stay with him. It made me realize that I never thought twice about the way he spoke to her before. We were asleep to that for all these years!
NG: I also think that authentic stories about females need to be told. This is the story of a woman who has trials and tribulations and fucks up and remedies and all of those things. It’s a beautiful thing that we can tell a story like that every night. It’s not glossy or shiny. It’s actually a very fucked up story about cheating, abuse and unwanted pregnancy. It’s messy … but it’s kind.
I see what you did there.
NG: It’s messy but it’s a story that needs to be told.
JJ: I also think that it’s the universality of feeling stuck. We all sometimes feel like maybe things haven’t gone our way or that maybe we’ve allowed ourselves to be complacent or fall into a rhythm of life in which we don’t feel like we’re having any personal growth anymore. Watching these characters all find growth within that space makes us leave the theater feeling like something better is possible.
It’s an inspirational kind of a show. I think that some of the best theatrical experiences are the ones that subtly change you. Its beauty is in its soft message that is just strong enough to have us leave the theater with a sense of hope and maybe give us a little bit of the push we needed to make a change in our own lives.
SB: I think Waitress is important now because you’re seeing a woman who is not strong at the start. She is being controlled to an extent. She is not liberated emotionally, financially or in any way. Then she starts to find herself. I think it’s wonderful to show that even if you are in a position where you feel disempowered, abused, controlled or like you don’t have a voice, it’s possible to get through your struggles.
Obviously, it’s a fairytale ending in a lot of ways – although she does assert her independence from both of the guys. I find her journey to be beautiful because she’s human and broken like we all are. She struggles for a bit to find her strength. It comes bit by bit as the show goes on. It doesn’t all happen in one moment but instead is in a million little moments.
Shoshana and Jeremy, your chemistry is so electric and palpable. Noah, same goes for you and Caitlin Houlahan. What do you attribute to the fact that you and your scene partners make such magnetic and dynamic duos on stage?
JJ: We thought it was because we were somehow related, but we did DNA tests and it turns out we’re not! We had worked together for like two days a couple of years ago on a song for The Trevor Project. We had met once before but we didn’t really know each other. But we instantly were like, “Oh, I know you.”
SB: We just innately have a thing. We knew it from the moment we met. We met a few years back and had instant banter. Even back then, I said that he was like a little brother. We just immediately had a great rapport and clicked. Coming back together to do this show has been an experience I can’t even describe or explain. I have an amazing partner in adventure. He’s down for anything. I know that I have someone to hold me up when I’m struggling, both on stage and off – that might be the scale tipper.
JJ: When I was asked to do Waitress, I was hesitant because I had other things going on. Then they said Shoshana was doing it and something in me was just like, “You have to do this. You have to do this with her.”
We have a soul connection. We immediately synced our wavelengths and everything felt right. She is someone that belongs in my life and I’m grateful for the projects that brought us together. We recognize and embrace that so we can develop our friendship off stage, which I think has only helped on stage.
SB: I’m the only person he has scenes with in the whole show until the end. So when he joined the cast, it was important to him that we started having conversations and hanging out. We started getting to know more about each other in a vulnerable, authentic and personal ways. The more we did that, the more I found myself feeling safe on stage and feeling like I was exposing even more and more of my heart.
I’ve never been this vulnerable on stage before – well, except with Megan Hilty (in Wicked). But never with a guy, for sure. I can’t speak for anyone else, but for me, if I feel safe, seen, appreciated and taken care of in the ways that he has for me, then I’m fearless on stage with someone. I just don’t feel I have to protect myself. That truly gives me wings to fly.
I like to try to take one or two treasures away from each show that I do. My friendship with Jeremy is definitely a treasure from Waitress. I think we have a friendship that’s going to last.
NG: I first worked with Caitlin five years ago. We did a reading of a musical that our co-star Ben Thompson was also in. I think the world of her. She’s an expert performer and a consummate professional who’s also extremely talented. The opportunity to get to work with her every night is a total blessing. We have so much fun together.
Also, we both look like children. I get her pregnant at the end of the show and it’s a little bit like Teen Mom.
ONE-ON-ONE WITH SHOSHANA BEAN
Waitress marks your first Broadway show since Wicked in 2006. How do you think Broadway has changed in the years you’ve been away?
The biggest change is social media. When I was doing Wicked, it was at the beginning of YouTube. At that time, I was still trying to jockey for some kind of control – like privately messaging people and being like, “I’m sorry, can you take that video down?” Now everything and everyone is just super accessible. The open communication is really cool. Back then, we didn’t really have a way to communicate with fans unless they waited at the stage door. I didn’t have MySpace and Facebook hadn’t happened yet. So I think the main difference is social media and the ability to communicate with so many people who see the show.
I’m also just a different person so the experience is much more joyful. I’m much more present for it. No one prepares you to be a lead on Broadway. You kind of have to learn by trial and error. So to come back already knowing what works and what doesn’t is really awesome.
When I interviewed you in February to celebrate the release of the Songs For A New World recording, you mentioned that you were getting started working on the follow-up to your latest solo album, Spectrum. Where are you now in the process of this record and how has returning to Broadway influenced its development?
We had a meeting the other day to talk about direction and content but I haven’t done one single thing. Returning to Broadway has definitely influenced the writing of it. There have already been so many cool experiences being back that I would like to write stories about through song.
Sonically, we really love what we did with Spectrumand want to dovetail off of that. We’ll probably be adding strings and stuff this time. And it won’t be all covers; it’s going to be all originals this time.
Due to overwhelming demand and critical acclaim, you’ve extended your run in the show a couple of times, now wrapping up on July 7. What will you miss the most about Jenna after you hang up her apron for the last time?
When I’m not in a show, I always miss the fact that I get to show up and do it every day. In my life when I’m not in a show, singing is unfortunately such a small part of what I do in running the business that is being an independent artist. The biggest gift of theater is being around people. I’m just so used to being alone. The path of being an independent artist has been very solitary, so it’s nice to be around people every day. It’s so nice to get to suit up and be on stage under the lights singing music every day. That’s what I’ll miss the most about the show.
What will I miss about Jenna? Just having an excuse and a vehicle to peel another layer and melt another sheet of ice off my heart. She requires that I show up raw every day. I will miss what that’s taught me about myself and about relationships. I will miss heating through her every night.
ONE-ON-ONE WITH NOAH GALVIN
While Evan Hansen is the heart at the core of Dear Evan Hansen, he’s a rather serious character. Ogie, on the other hand, is undoubtedly the most comedic character in Waitress – full of unabashed humor and rousing physical antics. What made you decide to follow up playing Evan with such a drastically different character?
Generally, within my career, I strive for variety. The thing that excites me most is getting to play very different roles and stretch different muscles and different parts of myself. The transition from Evan Hansen to Ogie, though it may not seem the most natural to some, is really satisfying to get to do as an actor.
Congratulations on the success of Booksmart! What was your favorite part of making this movie?
Like Waitress, Booksmart is the tale of very real female characters. These stories of authentic female friendship need to get told. I think it’s important that it’s coming out now. For too long, old straight white men have decided what we as a society are ready for in terms of content and stories. That’s a large reason I think The Real O’Neals, my TV show, didn’t go on. Though it wasn’t the sole reason, a large element of the reason it did not go forth is because we as a society were unfortunately not ready for a story like that.
I love that Megan Ellison from Annapurna, Jessica Elbaum from Gloria Sanchez Productions, and Olivia Wilde and Katie Silberman, the director and writer, are taking the reins and saying, “fuck you” to the old white men. We are ready for this story! This story needs to get told and society’s going to love it – and they do! People are really liking it so far and I think that’s a testament to all these fierce-ass ladies.
Speaking of The Real O’Neals, have you stayed close with the cast?
Mary Hollis Inboden, who played my aunt on the show, just sent me a blanket that she had knitted for my birthday that I received today. We’re all still very close. Bebe Wood, who played my little sister, and I took a Euro-trip this past fall together. We went to London to visit Martha Plimpton. We stayed with her and saw her in the Donmar Warehouse production ofSweatthat is now moving to the West End. She was amazing in it. I love my TV family very much.
What attracted you to The Two Princes, the new scripted podcast that you’re starring in alongside Tony Award winners like Christine Baranski, Ari’el Stachel, and Laura Benanti, as well as Emmy Award winners like Matthew Rhys and Samira Wiley?
Like authentic female friendships, LGBT stories need to get told too. I thought The Two Princeswas really smart because it’s taking a formula that we all know, a fairytale-style adventure story, and it’s turning it on its head. It’s subverting it by making the two love interests – who would in a normal fairytale be a princess and a prince or a king and queen – be two teenage princes. That’s something that I’ve never seen before. That’s something I’d like to see a lot more of.
ONE-ON-ONE WITH JEREMY JORDAN
You became a father right around the time that you joined the cast. Congratulations! How did becoming a dad influence your approach to both your character and the show at large?
You know, oddly not a lot. Every time I’d watch the show before, I’d get really emotional towards the end thinking about having my own kid and all that it would entail.
I took about a week off when my daughter was born. The first day I came back, I was expecting it to be that much more impactful. Before, watching the show made me feel a sense of hope that really triggered emotions in me. It was like an anticipation of joy. But now, that anticipation and hope was kind of taken away because it had already happened. Suddenly, it was just a completely different experience for me. It was very strange.
That’s really interesting.
Yeah, I mean I still love it and it’s incredible, so don’t get me wrong. But that element of it suddenly was just not a factor in my experience of the show anymore. That was very strange.
What did it mean to you to be given the Broadway.com Audience Choice Award for Favorite Replacement (Male) for this performance?
It just sort of happened! I try to take that with a grain of salt, to be honest with you. I also won for Supporting Actor for American Son, and I know that I was not the best actor for that. I’m not saying that because I don’t think I was any good, just that sometimes those things can be a little bit of a popularity contest. While it’s cool to be popular – and strange because I was never in the consideration for prom king back in high school – I try to only take it with gratitude.
It’s great that people are excited about things that I do and appreciate them. But at the same time, if you let yourself lead with that and let it lead you, then you’re going down the wrong path as an artist. As soon as you get too much validation, that can be poisonous for artists because it can make growth stop. Validation is always good, especially from loved ones and at home. But I think we always have to feel flawed in order to be successful artists. That’s the only way that you’re going to get the best performances out of people.
Katharine McPhee and Megan Hilty regularly crack jokes on Twitter about making a third season of SMASH. If this were to ever come into fruition, what would be your dream story arc for Jimmy?
Well, I always joke that he starts a prison musical, since we leave him in jail at the end of season two. But that’s ridiculous! I would throw that script out the window if I ever got it!
Before we got canceled, we always talked that the next step would be a movie musical and having everybody collaborate on that. I think showing that element of the theatrical world would be really exciting because you don’t really see that. You never see behind the scenes of a movie musical. I think that would be super cool.
The thing that I always missed on SMASH, to be honest with you, was the camaraderie, love and support of the Broadway community. It was so much drama and intrigue. That’s more interesting to an extent for TV, but I haven’t experienced a lot of that in my six Broadway shows. My experience on Broadway has been 95% just love and support. There are harder days, for sure. But in terms of everybody involved in shows, it’s a very supportive and lovely community. I think it’d be nice to see a little bit more of that.
This November, you will have a cabaret residency at Feinstein’s/54 Below. What can your fans expect from these concerts?
I have no idea! It’s going to be something different. I’ve done two shows there already. The first one was a standard cabaret and the second was a little bit more avant garde. I think the third one is going to be something totally different. It’s not going to be a standard cabaret and it’s not going to be silly and frivolousness like the last one. I think it’s going to be something serious and honest. I’m not totally sure yet. I have ideas but I’ve still got time.
CLICK HERE to purchase tickets for Waitress, now playing at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre in New York City. Jeremy Jordan exits the show on June 2 and Shoshana Bean exits on July 7. An end date for Noah Galvin’s run has yet to be announced.
PHOTOS | MATTHEW MURPHY