Starting August 2, Boston audiences will once again be the first to enjoy a hotly anticipated new musical, Waitress, courtesy of the American Repertory Theater. ART artistic director and Waitress director Diane Paulus is one of the most sought after directors in theatre, and to anyone lucky enough to have seen one of her productions, the reasons are clear.
Her first three outings on Broadway, revivals of Hair, The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, and Pippin all took home Tony Awards for Best Revival of a Musical and all netted Paulus nominations for Best Direction of a Musical, winning for Pippin. She is currently represented on Broadway with Finding Neverland, which broke records last summer at ART prior to its Broadway transfer. Her Pippin is touring the country – returning to Boston next year – and she will be bringing Invisible Thread to New York, which premiered at ART in 2014 as Witness Uganda.
I talked to Diane about how she chooses her projects, collaborating with Sara Bareilles, and the thrill of creating in Cambridge.
Your work has meant a lot to me over the years; the first thing of yours that I saw was Hair, and it was one of those things where I felt that it was so special there should be a production of it in every major city. And then after that there was Pippin and Porgy and Bess, and of course until your productions came along, there really hadn’t been major revivals of them; they were shows that were crying out for really solid productions. It seems that maybe you gravitate towards thematically similar work. For example, there aren’t so many differences between someone like Pippin and (Finding Neverland’s) James Barrie, who are kind of lost and searching to find their place. In Waitress, Jenna is crying out to be transformed and transported out of her life. What would you say that you gravitate towards in terms of choosing your projects?
The visceral emotional impact of a piece is really important to me and I will choose the pieces that I want to work on if I feel that there’s something in it that I can bring out. Everyone loves the music of Hair and Pippin, but it was the emotion behind it that I wanted to resonate, and I just saw that it was there, I saw that both of those pieces had potential to be really deeply moving experiences. Porgy has that incredible score, and that was a different kind of a challenge of “how do we live that piece in 2013?”, and I think the reason why I really gravitated to it was the emotions behind it; there’s a real journey for the characters. In the case of Waitress, it’s got this remarkable tone which is quirky and filled with humor and humanity, and it’s got this raw emotion and the deepest soul searching of this character Jenna, that Jessie Mueller plays, of learning to love herself again and considering herself worthy to have a dream. That’s pretty juicy emotional territory.
I think it’s especially poignant because you also see in Jenna that she almost doesn’t dare to dream…it’s not only that she is finding herself but that she doesn’t think she deserves to find herself.
Was the idea the musicalize Waitress yours?
The idea of adapting the film was brought to me and then I started working on who should be part of that task; the first person to become part of the family was Sara Bareilles, so we worked on it for a while off of Adrienne Shelly’s screenplay, and then we found Jessie Nelson, who’s been an amazing addition to the team, to really take the project and shift it from the film to a musical theatre piece that follows musical theatre rules.
There was something about the film that was almost musical. Although it was serious, it was whimsical in the sense that you could almost picture the musical numbers…it had a little bit of musicality to it, it seemed.
And there was a sense of wonderment in it which I think that you so perfectly put into each show that you’ve done. It seems very much like a natural fit. And Sara Bareilles, she can tell a story in 2 minutes, and that’s incredibly difficult to do. What has it been like creating a new musical with Sara?
She’s such a gift to musical theatre because she’s such an amazing songwriter, but she has such great instincts and a very strong intuition for what makes a great musical theatre song. I think it’s because she identifies with characters, she writes story, and her lyrics are smart and clever. When I first met her she said “I’ve never done this before, just tell me when I screw it up” and I haven’t had to tell her that often! Frankly the reason why I wanted a writer that wasn’t from the traditional musical theatre world was to actually push the form a little, so the songs do have a different feeling, which is exactly what we wanted for this piece. But she’s been a dream to work with. She’s so intelligent and she’s so insightful about character and about the book; she’s not just interested in the music, sort of dropping in the do the music moments, she’s really looking and helping to architect and kind of birth the whole production with me, which is great.
It must be really special to create in a location like Cambridge where you can find inspiration just from walking down the streets. What role does Cambridge play in your creative process?
I feel there’s just an interest that’s palpable – people are interested and engaged – our audiences are engaged; the students that hub in this city, not just Cambridge but all of Boston. The young people that are the future of the theatre are buzzing around us, which I love. And then we have Harvard University which is an extraordinary resource; what’s been the most fulfilling thing is to start the partnership with Harvard at an earlier moment in the process, not to think about “we’re the artist over here, and we make a show, and then we get the experts at Harvard to do the post-performance talk back” – that’s actually not what we’re interested in. We’re interested in getting the conversation, the dialogue, and the interaction with Harvard faculty and students to be at the beginning of the process so that it’s informing and catalyzing how we’re thinking in the creative process. And there are just so many resources here that are at your fingertips, and what’s I’ve discovered, which is so delightful, is that Harvard faculty really want to be involved. It’s not like you have to go sort of knocking down someone’s door; the people who work in academia, to my experience, are delighted at the invitation to be creative and to apply their expertise in a new way.
But you’re right, that’s not always the case. Sometimes, particularly with the arts, you’ve got to kind of say “hello, we’re over here!”
Yeah, (laughs) exactly!
I think it’s obvious, too, when you go to any of the ART productions, and I think that’s a testament to what you’ve built up over your tenure here. We appreciate it, we love your work!
Good, thank you!
WAITRESS. OPENS 8.2 AT LOEB DRAMA CENTER, 64 BRATTLE ST., CAMBRIDGE. FOR MORE INFORMATION, VISIT AMERICANREPERTORYTHEATER.ORG/WAITRESS