Waitress, the new Broadway musical based on the 2007 movie of the same name, is as feminist as it is feminine. The show has received criticism asserting exactly the opposite, citing its pervasive femininity as something the show’s much-discussed all-female creative team should have managed to transcend. The show centers on Jenna (Jessie Mueller), a woman in an abusive marriage who escapes her reality by baking pies at the diner where she works as a waitress, concocting new recipes as metaphors for her life (for example, “Getting Out of the Mud Pie”). She is also pregnant, and hopes to use her baking talent to win a pie contest, the financial reward from which would allow her to leave her husband. Pies dominate the space—they frame the proscenium in spinning display towers; they’re sold at concessions in miniature; the smell of baking pies is pumped into the lobby pre-show; even the curtain is a pie.
Obviously, femininity does not automatically equate to feminism, and Waitress, like any other piece of creative work, raises some questions. But it overwhelmingly puts forth portrayals of women who, to paraphrase the eleven o'clock number, are by turns messy, kind, lonely, reckless, scared, and strong—giving audiences a more satisfying and well-rounded experience than they normally get from female characters in musical theatre.
The original film paints a bleak picture of deeply unhappy people working blue-collar jobs and passively hoping for, rather than actively seeking a way out of their circumstances. The musical gives the source material a bright coat of Broadway paint with an upbeat and gorgeous pop score by Sara Bareilles and lively direction by Diane Paulus that die-hard fans of the movie may feel cheapens the work by making light of a serious topic. However, the show does not gloss over the abuse Jenna suffers from her jealous and controlling husband Earl (Nick Cordero), an emotionally stunted man who she married as a teenager after her own father passed away. Their relationship follows a classic narrative of domestic abuse, familiar and accessible to audiences. Earl is an easy to hate villain, and Jenna easy to sympathize with, even as she has an affair with her gynecologist Dr. Pomatter (played by Drew Gehling). Although we never see physical abuse happen on stage, it is both threatened and suggested, and we do witness intense displays of verbal and emotional abuse. Earl takes every dollar that Jenna earns for himself, doesn’t allow her to have a car, and makes her promise him she won’t love her baby more than she loves him. Some have criticized this depiction of abuse as sanitized “caricature,” and seem to believe the audience would be more affected if they experienced a grittier reality, but I believe leaving it to the imagination affects audiences more than any stage combat choreography ever could.
Abuse features elsewhere in the musical, as Joe (Dakin Matthews), the diner’s owner, is overly demanding and bullies the waitresses enough that they argue over who will be forced to serve his table. Later in the show, he is revealed to be a big softie; always partial to Jenna, perceptive to her situation, and giving her advice throughout the show, Joe leaves the diner to her in his will when he passes away from surgical complications. Another relationship plays out with eyebrow-raising behavior between Jenna’s fellow waitress Dawn (Kimiko Glenn), and her suitor, Ogie (Christopher Fitzgerald), who she met online. Dawn approaches dating with extreme caution, so when Ogie shows up at the diner after their first date and refuses to leave until Dawn agrees to see him again, the audience cringes. Until, that is, Ogie sings the catchy and frustratingly funny “Never Ever Getting Rid of Me,” where Christopher Fitzgerald’s charm and comedic timing encourages the audience to disregard his disturbing behavior. Once Dawn gives in to Ogie, she discovers they have a lot in common and falls for him too. What message(s) are these relationships sending? Is abuse—however mild—erased or forgiven if it becomes a love story, or if the abuser in question seems non-threatening? In this way, Waitress establishes a confounding double standard about a serious issue that millions of women deal with daily.
In Waitress, themes of motherhood loom large. Jenna’s beloved mother—the one who taught her how to bake—died when she was young. Now pregnant herself, Jenna fears raising the baby not only because of Earl, but because she doesn’t believe she would be the kind of mother she was lucky enough to have had. In one of the most emotionally raw scenes in the show, Jenna sings a song both to her late mother and about the influence she had. Some critics have suggested that the fear and lack of excitement Jenna expresses throughout her pregnancy indicate she vehemently does not want to have this baby. Going with this reading, it makes the scene when Jenna gives birth and finds herself instantly transformed by motherhood—enough to spontaneously leave her husband—feel inauthentic. I would argue, however, that Jenna, though scared, never waivers in her commitment to her child. Her desperation to find a way to leave Earl is further proof of her desire to protect and care for the baby. What is true is that Jenna has become so beaten down by Earl that she no longer sees herself as having any value or being good enough to be a mother. Jenna’s transformation after giving birth does not represent a drastic reversal, but rather presents a woman finding strength she forgot she had and a reason to use it.
What makes Waitress feminist by most contemporary barometers (Bechdel Test, anyone?) is the undeniably positive representation of its female characters. Jenna and her coworkers Becky and Dawn form a trio of close female friends who support each other in all decisions, good and bad. The first scene after the opening number features the three women talking in the diner’s restroom, where Becky and Dawn are trying to convince Jenna to take a pregnancy test— there’s even a song about waiting for the pregnancy test results. Each woman gets involved with a romantic (or at least sexual) plot—Dawn with Ogie, Becky with their boss at the diner—but more importantly, each woman is still fully defined, separately from a man. Each woman exercises her freedom to make good and bad choices, to get called out, and to prioritize her female friendships over fleeting romantic interests—this is powerful.
What’s more, the creators of Waitress have made a deliberate choice to invert traditional musical theatre norms to craft a more wholly feminist show. Audiences have been conditioned to expect a male protagonist with female characters, defined by their relationship to the protagonist, primarily relegated to the periphery. With three strong female characters at its center, Waitress pushes the men to the fringes. Reviews, while never identifying this switch in specific terms, have criticized the male characters—primarily Earl—as one-note, thankless, standard-issue, even inane. Some have suggested the show could have been improved if only we had been able to “see deeper into [Earl’s] anger and depression,” or have come to the conclusion that because Earl reads transparently as a villain, he “isn’t even abusive.” In a New York Times conversation piece between Alexis Soloski and Laura Collins-Hughes, Soloski says, “That the show is popular with female audiences mystifies me.” In a world filled with female characters who exist only in relation to the men on stage, I’m shocked more critics have not found that a musical in which the men exist only in relation to the women does not constitute a failure, but a subversive and exciting choice.
The production’s casting earns Waitress high marks too. Dawn and Becky, Jenna’s confidants and co-workers, are played by Kimiko Glenn and Keala Settle, respectively, both of whom are of Asian/Pacific Islander descent. Each has at least one solo number and significant parts in other songs, and each plays a character that feels like a whole person, not a cliché sidekick. In addition, the show’s ensemble is only 50 percent white. When other new musicals this season shamelessly cast exclusively white actors, the casting in Waitress feels significant, particularly when coupled with the excellent female representation overall.
While the different ways that Waitress addresses abuse raises valid questions, the value for female audiences in seeing domestic abuse portrayed truthfully on stage at all, let alone the strong female friendships, overwhelmingly outweighs the negatives. I hesitate to think the response to Waitress would have been the same had its creative team been primarily male; why are we harder on female creators, especially when it comes to a feminist reading of their work? If women were given the same freedom to fail—or if we stopped giving men pats on the back for effort—I am confident we would end up with a more feminist theatre.