Waitress writer Jessie Nelson honed her writing skills serving in restaurants

Bailey McCall stars as Jenna in the touring company of Waitress. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.

Jessie Nelson was a waitress for some 10 years during which time she was honing her skills as an actor and writer.

With that kind of life experience, it’s fitting she was asked to take the film script for the movie Waitress and help turn it into a Broadway musical. Ottawa will get a chance to see the musical at the National Arts Centre, starting Dec. 31.

Nelson has an impressive CV as a screenwriter and director including credits as the writer, director and producer of the films Corrina, Corrina and I Am Sam. She has directed episodes of the HBO comedy Curb Your Enthusiasm. The star and creator of the show, Larry David, is an old friend of Nelson’s and he had asked her to direct for many years before she finally agreed. 

Jessie Nelson wrote the book for the musical Waitress.

“He wanted a woman to direct it. I didn’t want to for awhile because I had never done anything like that. At the point when he asked again I was ready. I thought I should just jump in — take a leap. It was a wonderful experience.”

Nelson has also written the script for the films Stepmom and The Story of Us along with the children’s book Labracadabra. She is the co-writer of the musical Alice by Heart with Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik.

Waitress is an adaption of the 2007 film written and directed by the late Adrienne Shelly, who died in 2006 after the film was entered in the Sundance Film Festival but before it was released into theatres.

The story centres on a young woman named Jenna, who is a waitress and expert baker. She lives in a small town and is stuck in an abusive marriage. Her way out is through her pie-making expertise. (In fact, in order to play the lead character, the actor cracks eggs, sifts flour and rolls out some dough on stage).

On the day she spoke to ARTSFILE, Nelson was in the middle of editing an episode of a new TV project she is directing called Little Voice about a young singer who finds her own voice. Nelson is working on this project with her partner on Waitress, Sara Bareilles, who is a seven-time Grammy winner. Little Voice is based on Bareilles’ own musical journey.

As far as Nelson is concerned working as a server in a restaurant is a pretty useful job for an aspiring actor or writer.

“If you like people, it’s the kind of job where you aren’t in a room by yourself all day. You are interacting with characters and it can be inspiring and can give you a lot of ideas.

“It’s hard work. That makes you take you hat off to the people who do it. And the customers aren’t always kind. They say you can tell everything about a person by the way they treat their waiter. Some treat you like you are their servant.”

But taking a movie script and turning it into a musical is no easy task. Nelson added, however, “when it’s a wonderful script, it is really a joy.

“I would say Adrienne Shelly was the original architect and I came in to do the renovation. You bang down a wall to connect two scenes, move the bathroom over there so you can get to it more easily.

“You are taking all these beautiful puzzle pieces you have been given and playing with them. You are also adding nuances to the characters that will lead them to song and distinguish them on stage. It is really that you are kind of collaborating with the original writer in your mind.”

In this case, the original writer had passed away. Nelson said she wanted to pay a proper tribute to Shelly with her work.

“But you don’t want to be so beholden to it that you can’t turn it into a musical which is a very different beast. You have to be inspired but have to let scenes lead to song.”

Nelson began as an actor but over time the life was getting to her. She spent most of her time auditioning. She wanted to fill her time being creative, she said.

“You can write all day, you don’t have to audition to write.”

But when she made the move into film and into Hollywood, “you quickly learn how little power the writer has. A writer has more of a voice in theatre. So I taught myself how to direct in order to protect what I had written.”

That has worked — “sometimes.”

Neither Bareilles nor Nelson had done a musical before Waitress.

“We didn’t know the rules. That allowed us to follow our gut, our instincts. We had (the director) Diane Paulus at the helm. She had done several musicals. So it was a dance between us coming up with things that were inspiring us and then Diane helped sculpt that into a musical.” That was after draft after draft.

“You’ll have done 60 drafts by the time you have a Broadway show.”

In a music, she said, the songs offer insight in a character. They serve the purpose of a close up. “They are a way into the interior life of the character.”

There is also a rhythm to a musical, she said. You have to ask yourself such things as “How many ballads can you have in a row? When do you need an up-tempo song? When do you need to release the tension with humour, when do you need to move into a deeper place emotionally to craft an emotional ride for the audience.”

Before she got the job of writing the book for Waitress, Nelson had seen the film some 20 times. The reason: “My daughter had watched it and fallen in love with it when she was a young girl. She watched it at a bunch of her slumber parties.”

So when she interviewed for the writing job, she knew it well. (Her daughter, Molly Gordon, is a successful actor, best known for her work in the TV series Animal Kingdom. She too waitressed but only for a short period of time, Nelson said.)

Waitress, the musical, debuted on Broadway four years ago just ahead of the massive change caused by the #metoo movement.

“We got very lucky. I have seen some beautiful musicals that did not reach an audience.

“A lot of it depends on what is going on in the culture. We were presenting a piece about a woman who was finally speaking up about the abuse in her marriage, extricating herself from that relationship and raising a child on her own.

“It was a timely subject and there was a hunger to look at that dynamic. On that level, we collided with what was going on in society. I think there was finally a hunger to pull back the curtain on that a little bit.”

The fact that she was part of the first all female creative team — Adrienne Shelly, Nelson, Bareilles (music/lyrics), Paulus (director) and Lorin Latarro (choreographer) — in Broadway history was also important.

“All this allowed the piece to have a longer life,” Nelson said.

The musical is touring North American and there are tours in England and in Australia.

“As a writer, always pull from your own experiences and feelings and try to find what connects you to your characters. When it then connects to an audience it’s a beautiful feeling.”

Broadway Across Canada presents Waitress
Where: Southam Hall, NAC
When: Dec. 31 to Jan. 5
Tickets and information: broadway.com

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.