Cambridge gets another taste of Hollywood this summer—just one year after Harvey Weinstein steered Finding Neverland to Broadway—as the lovely, multi-talented Jessie Nelson joins forces with Sara Bareilles, Diane Paulus, and the American Repertory Theater for Waitress, a new musical making its world premiere right here in the Hub.
Serving as book writer for Waitress, Nelson is perhaps best known for writing, directing, and producing I Am Sam; other film credits include Stepmom, Because I Said So, and Corrina, Corrina. I got a chance to speak with her about process, bringing a new production to life, and the show’s potential for Broadway.
Your body of work is so impressive and diverse. There are so many different genres of film and so many different capacities that you’ve worked in that it feels, in many ways, that theatre was a logical next endeavor.
I actually began in the theatre, and then fate kind of led me into film. So for me this was very much a logical next step in that it had been my initial passion.
When you first saw the movie, did you think it would make a good musical?
I wasn’t really in that headspace at the time, I was just really appreciating it as an independent movie and as a really fresh female voice. I just really admired the writing and the directing and the casting and the performances. When I heard that it was being done as a musical, I immediately thought “oh, that’s such a wonderful idea” but at the time I wasn’t looking at movies in that way.
Thematically, what made Waitress something that you had to be a part of?
Well, it’s an unexpected love story about falling back in love with yourself and…what your initial dreams were. I do think we all can identify with being in relationships where we have to kind of shrink to fit in order to survive them, whether it’s a love affair or a partnership or business…where you’re shrinking yourself in order to survive that relationship and then that wonderful feeling of breaking out of that and becoming your full self. I think it’s such a powerful theme.
And rediscovering that you have value.
Were you familiar with Diane’s work? Is she someone you had been watching over the last several years? How did you feel when you found out that she was connected?
When my daughter was young I wanted to expose her to musical theatre, so I took her to see Hair which Diane had directed and I remember sitting in the audience going “wow, this is so beautifully directed” and the same thing with Pippin…I was just so impressed with the vision and the direction… so I had a sense of the boldness of her vision.
I think you’re right, you get a good sense of the way she thinks about things when you’ve seen one of her shows and I feel that strongly every time I’ve left one of her productions.
Yeah, I really agree with you. She’s just a really fresh, alive voice on the theatre scene and she has this tremendous ability to be so in the moment…I feel like its a very special collaboration between she, Sara, and I.
What has the process been like with Sara? A book writer and a lyricist have to collaborate incredibly closely. What has it been like trying to put both of your work together?
It’s always interesting when you embark on working with a new person, because so much collaboration is about establishing trust and I feel lucky in that I think Sara and I very quickly were able to establish that trust, and it’s deepened over time. I think we both try to not be precious with each other and just kind of honestly express our ideas. She is really an amazing writer and I think she only made my writing better. I’m just so amazed by songwriting, you know, how one day there isn’t a song and the next day there’s this unbelievably beautiful song. It’s such a gift to be able to do that.
I don’t know if you feel this way at all, but considering the kind of work that’s been coming out of the ART lately it feels like almost like the eyes of the national theatre community are one Diane and ART to see what’s coming next. Does that ever cross your mind? Do you feel that there’s any kind of pressure in that way?
Of course those thoughts enter your mind and I think what I try to do is channel all of that into the work. I think if you start thinking too much about those other things you can get derailed a little bit.
And in many ways do you think it’s easier to create in a place like Cambridge? The fact that this show is being created and rehearsed in this cradle of intelligence and creativity, I’m sure that only helps to keep you really focused on the work.
I feel very blessed to have encountered everyone from The ART and to kind of get a sense of the spirit there. They really foster new work and have a real infrastructure to support developing new musicals and I feel incredibly blessed to have encountered that at this point in my writing process. I feel very, very lucky.
And I think it’s obvious, as an audience member, no matter what the work is. There’s really no place like it.
My background was working at The Public Theatre when Joe Papp was still there, so for me, it harkens back to some of that spirit where you’re really fostering new work and you’re really trying to create a space so creative people can do their best work.
What are some works that inspire you? Who are some writers and creators that you just marvel over?
Gosh, so many. I was always a huge Sondheim fan, early on in my life being exposed to West Side Story and Sunday in the Park with George. I was very excited by Spring Awakening and bringing new voices in to the theatre world. That was partially what excited me so much about Sara was having such a fresh voice in this. But, I appreciate Fiddler on the Roof as much as I appreciate American Idiot. It’s a really interesting time in the theatre. Things that used to be considered avant-garde when I was younger are now part of mainstream theatre, like Once and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Those would have been downtown shows and now they’re on Broadway, which is really wonderful.
And there are also so many wonderful revivals happening every year that are so important. I feel like there’s been, over the last several years, a much better balance between really groundbreaking, riveting stuff and solid revivals that are going to influence an entire new generation of theatre fans, actors, writers, directors…everything.
I couldn’t agree more. It’s so thrilling. That’s the beauty of theatre. In film, typically, only one director interprets a screenplay. What fascinates me about theatre is that ultimately many directors will interpret a work…many generations will see it and interpret it. That’s an amazing thing.
Are you talking about a future beyond ART for this show?
Yeah, there has been a lot of talk about moving it to Broadway, and we shall see. I don’t know that world the best, but yes, there has been a lot of talk.
What are you hoping that audiences will walk away with?
I know this sounds corny, but I ultimately think that our journey as people is to learn how to love more openly and open our hearts more. I respond to pieces that leave you more openhearted than when you entered the theatre, whether that’s returning to your own values or about loving more purely the people in your life. I hope the piece, ultimately, is a work on that level.
WAITRESS. OPENS 8.2 AT LOEB DRAMA CENTER, 64 BRATTLE ST., CAMBRIDGE. FOR MORE INFORMATION, VISIT AMERICANREPERTORYTHEATER.ORG/WAITRESS
THIS IS THE FIRST IN A MULTI-PART SERIES ABOUT BRINGING A NEW PRODUCTION TO LIFE IN BOSTON.
Theater critic for TheaterMania & WBUR’s TheArtery | Theater Editor for DigBoston | film and music critic for EDGE Media | Boston Theater Critics Association.