SALT LAKE CITY — When “Waitress” the movie premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on Jan. 21, 2007, the audience responded with mixed emotions.
“(Director and writer) Adrienne Shelly's ‘Waitress’ opened to both cheers and weeping Sunday as its producers and the audience reflected on the grim circumstances surrounding the project,” reported a CBS News article published the day after the film opened.
The “grim” circumstance was the shadow cast by Shelly’s tragic murder in November 2006, just a few months before her indie film made its debut at the Utah-based film festival.
“Shelly would never learn that ‘Waitress’ became one of the top films of the prestigious festival — or that it became a success when it hit theaters in May 2007 and now … (a) Tony-nominated hit musical on Broadway,” a People article stated.
Shelly’s tale about a pie-making waitress named Jenna is about to get a homecoming, in a sense, when the four-time Tony-nominated musical based on her film makes its way back to Utah to Salt Lake’s Eccles Theater Sept. 25-30.
“It’s her work — it’s her piece of art that we are celebrating — so it really is a special film and that’s what made this musical so special,” said actress Desi Oakley, who concludes her run as Jenna in “Waitress,” on Sept. 27, partway through the musical’s run in Salt Lake City.
“Waitress” the musical came to life in 2016 at the hand of an acclaimed all-female creative team: singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles, Tony Award-winning director Diane Paulus and book writer Jessie Nelson. According to Christine Dwyer, who will be taking over the role of Jenna on Sept. 28, the musical honors Shelly’s original film and even has many lines that are either verbatim or similar to the film’s script.
“(The musical) does the thing that a lot of movie musicals have a hard time doing, which is it pays homage to the script and to Adrienne Shelly’s writing while also becoming its own entity,” Dwyer said. “It feels much more like a play with a music, and the movie really lends itself to that musical element.”
Both the movie and the musical follow Jenna, a waitress in a small Southern town who feels trapped in her own life and unhappy marriage, especially when she discovers she is unexpectedly pregnant. Jenna bakes pies to express her feelings, and Dwyer said parts when Jenna gets into her “piemaking brain” were natural moments to musicalize Shelly’s story. For Oakley, it’s moments like these that highlight what makes Bareilles’ score so great.
“Sara with her witty, kind of tongue in cheek, smart lyrics, it’s the perfect kind of bridge to make these moments that Adrienne carved out in film a little bit more alive,” Oakley said. “If you smiled or giggled in the film, you’ll be laughing out loud because of what Sara has done with it musically.”
Aside from the catchy music and humor, both Dwyer and Oakley believe “Waitress's" success has come largely because, instead of relying on spectacle, the show is a slice of life.
“We see somebody afraid to love, we see somebody who makes a mistake, we see somebody who’s forgotten their dreams,” Oakley said. “It’s talking about hope and acceptance of reality, and fighting for yourself and your dreams, making mistakes, being messy, not always knowing what to do, feeling afraid, these are real themes that we are telling every night.”
There's a good reason why people relate so well to "Waitress's" story — it's based on Shelley's own life. According to the musical’s website, Shelly came up with the idea for “Waitress” when she was pregnant with her own daughter, Sophie, and wrote the movie in just two weeks.Comment on this story
“Like many expectant mothers, Adrienne wondered how motherhood would change her life and impact her career,” the website states. “But just like her main character Jenna, once she saw her baby, she immediately fell in love! And she soon realized that she could in fact have it all. In many ways ‘Waitress,’ and Jenna's story, is Adrienne's story as well.”
If you go …
What: The national tour of “Waitress”
When: Sept. 25-30, times vary
Where: Eccles Theater, 131 S. Main, Salt Lake City
How much: $35-$150