'Waitress' Serves Dark, Funny Fare With A Musical Twist (And A Side Of Pie) The musical was adapted from a 2007 indie film starring Keri Russell. It follows a diner waitress who pours her churning emotions about her abusive marriage into creatively named pies.

'Waitress' Serves Dark, Funny Fare With A Musical Twist (And A Side Of Pie)

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Now a journey from screen to stage. Diane Paulus has a knack for getting her plays to Broadway. She premiered "Finding Neverland," "Pippin," and the Gershwins' "Porgy And Bess" at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass. Each went to Manhattan. Now she has another potential hit on her hands, a musical adaptation of the 2007 indie film, "Waitress." It's in previews in Cambridge and will head to Broadway next spring. Andrea Shea of member station WBUR has this story.

ANDREA SHEA, BYLINE: Director Diane Paulus didn't see "Waitress" when it came out, but a few years ago, a couple of big-deal Broadway producers told her the movie could be great on stage.

DIANE PAULUS: Full confession - the DVD sat on my desk for about a year before I found the time to watch it. And as soon as I did, I knew this show had the heartbeat of a musical.

SHEA: "Waitress" tells the story of Jenna, who waits tables at a diner, is stuck in a stifling, abusive marriage and yearns for a better life. Then she learns she's pregnant.

PAULUS: What's riveting to me is this is the story of a waitress struggling with these issues, and yet when I saw the film, I thought of all kinds of people I know - girlfriends of mine who have struggled with the same kinds of issues that this character struggles with.

SHEA: In the movie, Jenna - played by actress Keri Russell - pours her churning emotions into creatively-named pies she bakes each day for the diner.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) Hon, you OK?

KERI RUSSELL: (As Jenna) I'm inventing a new pie in my head, tomorrow's blue plate special.

SHEA: Her pies are a form of therapy and escape from her controlling husband, Earl.


RUSSELL: (As Jenna) I'm calling it, I don't want Earl's baby pie.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) I don't think we can write that on the menu board, hon.

RUSSELL: (As Jenna) Then I'll just call it, bad baby pie.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) What's in it, honey?

SHEA: The film is dark and funny, says theater director Diane Paulus. She calls Jenna's character endearing and complicated.

PAULUS: For me that translated into, you know, who the heck can write this score?

SHEA: Paulus found her composer and lyricist outside of the musical theater world in Grammy-nominated singer and songwriter, Sara Bareilles. You might remember her 2007 hit, "Love Song."


SARA BAREILLES: (Singing) Head underwater, and you tell me to breathe easy for a while.

SHEA: The theater director asked Bareilles to watch "Waitress" hoping she'd connect. And Paulus offered this advice.

PAULUS: Don't worry about, how should this be adapted, what is the outline for the musical? Just go with your heart, your inspiration. See where it takes you.

BAREILLES: The door felt like it opened. I felt like I really began a relationship with this character.

SHEA: Sara Bareilles stands at an upright piano in a rehearsal room at the A.R.T and sings the first song she wrote after watching the movie.

BAREILLES: (Singing) It's not simple to say that most days I don't recognize me. These shoes and this apron, that place and its patrons have taken more than I gave them.

SHEA: Now the song is a centerpiece in American Repertory Theater's new musical.


JESSIE MUELLER: (As Jenna, singing) It's not what I asked for. Sometimes life just slips in through the back door and carves out a person and makes you believe it's all true. And now I got you, and you're not what I asked for.

SHEA: Jessie Mueller plays the main character in the new production.

MUELLER: Poor Jenna Hunterson never had therapy. If she had, it would be a very different play.

SHEA: In the movie, Mueller says Jenna's inner turmoil is captured through intimate camerawork.

MUELLER: And you get, you know, a beautiful close-up on Keri Russell's eyes, and you know what's going on in her head. Well, you can't do that on stage, but you can have a character sing their inner thoughts.


MUELLER: (As Jenna, singing) Sometimes I still see her, my mother, the dreamer. She'd say, nothing's impossible, child.

SHEA: The "Waitress" screen-to-stage recipe has been tweaked over the past two years. Jessie Nelson wrote the dialogue, or book, and says she worked hard to stay true to the film's spirit and also to its creator, Adrienne Shelly. In 2006, Shelly, who wrote, directed and had a role in the film, was murdered soon after finishing "Waitress." Eventually, her husband reached out to Nelson, asking her to look at some of his late wife's unfinished scripts. Nelson became close to the family and says she felt close to Shelly too while adapting the screenplay to the stage.

JESSIE NELSON: And when I was writing, I really carefully went through it and tried to bring her voice into it whenever I could as if she was another collaborator in the room.

SHEA: One of the collaborators on the film, producer Michael Roiff, was good friends with Adrienne Shelly and retained the stage rights for "Waitress."

MICHAEL ROIFF: The hardest thing on this journey, for me, has been knowing that she's not sitting there next to me. And there's a bittersweet quality to all of this, but, you know, I just hope that somehow she kind of knows and is happy about all of it.

SHEA: The musical's director, Diane Paulus, feels like Adrienne Shelly's been looking over their shoulders throughout the process.

PAULUS: We always talk about Adrienne's amazing lines and those amazing character - quirky things she put in the screenplay, and we always have a copy of the screenplay right on the desk in front of us in rehearsal and we're constantly going back. So I feel like she's in the room with us through her words.

SHEA: Diane Paulus hopes the musical adaptation of "Waitress" is a fitting and fun homage. For NPR News, I'm Andrea Shea in Boston.

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