Arts & Culture · Theater

The New Musical ‘Waitress’— A Bittersweet Slice of Heaven

0830_150801_ARTWaitressDress-crop copyThe cast of “Waitress”: Keala Settle, Jessie Mueller, and Jeanna de Waal. (Photo: Evgenia Eliseeva, courtesy of A.R.T.)

A less media-savvy Hillary Clinton once made all kinds of headlines by responding to challenges about her professional career. She said, “I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies.” She could just as easily have said “pies.” Somehow, nothing denotes traditional American domesticity — whether you’re celebrating it or scoffing — like baking a pie.

In reality, pies predate the birth of our nation by thousands of years. The invention of baking was an early practical solution to preserve and transport food for armies. A 2000 B.C. Sumer tablet lists a recipe for chicken pie. Galettes, crusty pastries filled with honey, are mentioned in the carvings on the 1237 B.C. tomb walls of the Pharaoh Ramesses II in the Valley of the Kings. And, in the fifth century B.C., playwright Aristophanes wrote about sweetmeats and pastries filled with fruit.

Fast forward a couple of millennia and you’ll find variations throughout Northern Europe. The British Isles in particular still indulge their love affair with all variety of meat pies as well as fruit. Jane Austen once wrote “Good apple pies are a considerable part of our domestic happiness.” And Mary Poppins scolded the Banks children for their “Pie-crust promises: easily made, easily broken.”

Nevertheless, the modern concept of pie has become as American as … well … apple pie. Today, The American Pie Council promotes itself as the only organization committed to maintaining America’s pie heritage, passing on the tradition of pie-making and promoting America’s love affair with pie. It boasts thousands of members in amateur, professional and commercial categories and sponsors such events as the Pie Championships, the Great American Pie Festival, and National Pie Day.

Why am I suddenly so interested in pies? Because I’m absolutely inspired by my recent visit to the American Repertory Theater (A.R.T.) at Harvard and its world premiere production of the new musical Waitress.

It was her love of pies and her pregnancy that inspired actress Adrienne Shelly to write the movie Waitress, planning to star in it. By the time it was shot, her baby girl was a toddler and the lead role had been filled by Keri Russell, who had made a name for herself as the title character of the TV drama Felicity. Shelly took on a supporting role onscreen and ran the show behind the camera. An indie it-girl of the 1990s, it was her directorial debut and, tragically, her last project.

While she was waiting to hear if Waitress had been accepted at the Sundance Film Festival, Shelly was found dead in her Greenwich Village studio. It was initially ruled a suicide, but at her devastated husband’s insistence, additional investigation proved that she had been murdered by a construction worker. He’s currently serving 25 years without parole.

What makes Shelly’s story so poignant is not just that she was a young mother and a gifted actor, writer and director on the verge of her greatest success, but that her story in some ways provides a very real counterpoint to that of the heroine she created. Jenna the waitress is trapped in a loveless and increasingly dangerous marriage. Despite her loyal girlfriends, her good intentions and her hard work, she could easily wind up a headline. Unhappily pregnant Jenna is suffering from domestic abuse while Shelly was killed by a stranger. Yet, the theme of victimhood and violence against women shared by their stories is striking. In Waitress, Shelly was able to give Jenna a happy ending.

Next Page: The team behind ‘Waitress’

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