'Waitress' writer Jessie Nelson has a tip: Tip your waitress

Waitress. Charity Angel Dawson, Desi Oakley and Lenne Klingaman. Waitress. Photy by Joan Marcus

From left: Charity Angel Dawson, Desi Oakley and Lenne Klingaman of the first national touring production of ‘Waitress,’ coming to Denver from Dec. 19-31. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Telling a story about a woman doesn’t make it a woman’s story, says the veteran scribe. ‘It makes it a human story.’

By John Moore
Senior Arts Journalist

If you saw the recent episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm where caustic comedian Larry David hilariously stalks an Uber driver who repaid his trademark rudeness with a poor customer rating, it will come as no surprise that the director of that episode also wrote the breakout underdog Broadway musical hit Waitress.

Jessie Nelson knows what it’s like to be mistreated in a service industry. Long before she hit in big as a writer in TV and film (I am Sam), Nelson hoofed it for years as a waitress while she pursued her dreams.

Waitress. Jessie Nelson “I always called waitressing my Hollywood Finishing School, because I learned everything I know about writing from waitressing,” Nelson told the DCPA NewsCenter. “You can know everything you need to know about a person by how they treat their waitress. You can size up a person’s character in two brushstrokes. There is something profound in that.”

While Nelson was pulling hundreds of invisible and anonymous double shifts, she came across both amazing real-life characters — “people with really generous, open hearts,” she said — “and those people who think they are entitled to treat you like you are not a human being.”

The Denver-bound national touring production of Waitress was Nelson’s first foray into musical theatre. The stage adaptation of the late Adrienne Shelly’s breakout indie film of the same name is about a pregnant, unhappily married waitress named Jenna who falls into an unlikely relationship as a last attempt at happiness.

“We call Jenna ‘The Queen of Kindness and Goodness,’ ” said Nelson. “She knows how to take care of everybody but herself. She presents this sunny exterior, and she bakes these extraordinary pies, and she’s the only one who can handle the curmudgeonly customers. But she’s also living this very dark secret — this relationship she’s in that is really destroying her self-esteem, her hopes and her dreams.”  

“What’s so beautiful about this story that Adrienne created is the whole restaurant — the customers, her fellow waitresses, the cook, the owner — they all rally around Jenna to support her in this huge next step she is taking.”

Waitress made history in 2015 as the first-ever Broadway musical with a female director (Diane Paulus), writer (Nelson), composer (pop star Sara Bareilles), choreographer (Lorin Latarro) and orchestrator (Nadia DiGiallonardo). Nelson considers collaborating with Bareilles, a six-time Grammy nominee, to be “the greatest gift of this experience” — especially given this was the first piece either of them had ever written for the theatre.

“We both have a background in the musical theatre from when we were younger, but our careers took in very different directions,” Nelson said. “So because neither of us had ever done this before, there were a lot of 2 a.m. emails that said things like” ‘Hey, how about we try this?’ or, ‘Hey, how about a song right there that talks about how much she loves baking?’ ” 

Our interview with Lenne Klingaman of Waitress

It can come as a shock to some first-time book writers just how collaborative making a musical can and ultimately must be. “You will write a scene that you are so proud of and someone will say, ‘Hey it might be better to turn that scene into a song,’ ” Nelson said. “I felt it was one of the greatest compliments to watch Sara Bareilles take a scene I had written and turn it into a beautiful song. It was an amazing thing to witness, because Sara can really capture characters and story with her music in such a beautiful way. Eventually you get to this point where there’s no divide between you and your writing partner. You’re birthing it together.”

Waitress is a uniquely female story in that its protagonist is a woman who was brought to the stage by women. But Nelson doesn’t think of Waitress as a uniquely female story. “I think of it as a uniquely human story,” she said. “I think everybody can relate to the overriding themes in the story. There’s the theme of daring yourself to pull a long-forgotten dream off a shelf and to just go for it. The theme of getting out of a relationship where you’ve had to shrink yourself to fit into it just to survive the relationship. I think everyone can relate to the liberation you feel when you dare to step out a toxic relationship. Men understand that. The themes are really universal, and I am pleased that men seem to respond to the piece as much as women.”

Waitress. Photo by Joan Marcus

Photo above by Joan Marcus.

Here’s more from our conversation with Jessie Nelson about Waitress being the first Broadway musical to be led by an all-female creative team, her connection to Colorado’s own Supergirl, Melissa Benoist (who grew up in Littleton), and much more:

John Moore: OK, so you produced Danny Collins, the movie that put Melissa Benoist in a scene with Al Pacino on one side of her, and Annette Bening on the other.

Jessie Nelson: And she completely held her own. She’s such a nice person to boot.

John Moore: And at the time of this interview, we’ve just learned that Lenne Klingaman, who just played a female Hamlet for the Colorado Shakespeare Festival, has been cast to play Jenna’s waitress friend Dawn on the tour that is coming to Denver. What can you tell us about her?

Jessie Nelson: That she’s just so good in the part. She’s got such a natural funnybone, and she is just bringing so much to the role. I’m thrilled we cast her.

John Moore: Much has been made that Waitress made Broadway history as the first musical to be led by an all-female creative team. What does that milestone mean to you?

Jessie Nelson: The funny thing is, none of us even noticed until a man pointed it out to us. At the time, we were so knee-deep in the work and finding people who were really in sync with the vision that was forming that no one even thought about gender. It was about a creative connection. When it got pointed out to us, that was just an extraordinary thing to observe because honestly, people were only chosen because they were right for their creative role in the team. It means more to me as time passes.

John Moore: What should we glean from that?

Jessie Nelson: That when you throw women into the mix in hiring, they bring a lot to the table.

John Moore: Studies show 68 percent of the Broadway audience are made up of women. So why are not more women writing the material that the primary Broadway audience is watching?

Jessie Nelson: I think that is the most important question. I see it in film, too. Women choose the movies you go to, and they think it’s an anomaly when there is a successful female movie. It’s been shown time and time again that when you have a woman at the center of musicals, people — all people — want to see those stories. And people want to see stories where women are kind to each other and support each other, like they do in our piece. That was very important to us. I do think this is a time where more and more female voices are emerging, so I have great hope for this next chapter, and for the world.

More Colorado theatre coverage on the DCPA NewsCenter

John Moore: How is creating a Broadway musical not unlike being part of a team of waitresses getting through the dinner rush?

Jessie Nelson: Both experiences are really team sports. When you are waitressing, it’s like this: ‘You get the menus. I’ll get the water. I’ll bus that table for you. You bring that pie over there.’ You are all working together to get through those very intense few hours when there is a lot of demand on you. And that’s a lot like the creative process on a musical, which goes a little like this: I’ll say, ‘I’ll write this scene that will express this.’ And then the composer will go, ‘Oh, hey, can I take those five lines of yours out of the scene and turn them into a song?’ And the director will go, ‘Well, if you give me five more bars of music here, we can make a beautiful transition here.’ And then the choreographer will say, ‘Actually, if you add just a little more room here, I can create this really beautiful visual moment that will kick us off into the next scene.’ In both examples, you are only as good as the trust and the intimacy that develops between you and the rest of the team.”

Bryan Fenkart and Desi Oakley in the National Tour of WAITRESS Credit Joan Marcus
Bryan Fenkart and Desi Oakley in the National Tour of ‘Waitress.’ Photo by Joan Marcus.

John Moore: Before you go, what do you want us to know about the next person who greets us when we walk into a diner?

Jessie Nelson: That saying something as simple as, ‘Hi, what’s your name?’ to your server can change the entire interaction. I love that. It’s so important for us to think about what they might be going through that you cannot be aware of. This person is living a whole life that’s completely separate from taking your order.

John Moore: And lastly: What do you think Waitress is ultimately about?

Jessie Nelson: For me, Waitress is about daring to find your authentic self, or your voice or your talent, and finding some way to express that. I also think it is about community and these unexpected families we form with the people we work with. Sometimes you can be closer to them than you are to your own families because you spend so much time together, and they see you for who you really are.

John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S. by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist.

Jessie Nelson/At a glance
Jessie Nelson wrote, directed, and produced Corrina, Corrina with Whoopi Goldberg and I Am Sam with Sean Penn, who received an Academy Award nomination for his performance. Recently she directed Love the Coopers with Diane Keaton and John Goodman. She also co-wrote Step Mom and The Story of Us, and produced both Danny Collins with Al Pacino and Annette Bening, and Fred Claus with Vince Vaughn. She co-wrote Alice By Heart with Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik (creators of Spring Awakening), which was developed at The National Theatre. Nelson began her career in the theater working with Mabou Mines and The New York Shakespeare Festival. And she co-wrote the children’s book Labracadabra. Nelson has been the Artistic Director of the Sundance Institute’s Writers Lab.

waitressWaitress in Denver: Ticket information
Inspired by Adrienne Shelly’s beloved film, Waitress tells the story of Jenna — a waitress and expert pie-maker who dreams of a way out of her small town and loveless marriage. A baking contest in a nearby county and the town’s new doctor may offer her a chance at a fresh start, while her fellow waitresses offer their own recipes for happiness. But Jenna must summon the strength and courage to rebuild her own life. This is an uplifting musical celebrating friendship, motherhood, and the magic of a well-made pie.

  • National touring production
  • Performances Dec. 19-31
  • Buell Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex
  • Tickets start at $25
  • Call 303-893-4100 or BUY ONLINE
  • Sales to groups of 10 or more click here

    Selected NewsCenter coverage of Waitress:

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