Sore feet, long hours, demanding customers: Anyone who’s ever been a server in a restaurant can attest that it’s arduous work. Playing one onstage, it turns out, is even harder.
Actress Bailey McCall found this out firsthand last November when she took over as the lead in the North American tour of the musical “Waitress”—a role previously held by the likes of Jessie Mueller, Katharine McPhee, Jordin Sparks, and pop singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles, who wrote the show.
McCall goes deep into the emotional well as Jenna, a newly-pregnant waitress trapped in an abusive marriage. When opportunity comes knocking—first through the crafting of pies, which she gives quirky names such as “The Key (Lime) to Happiness Pie” and “Betrayed By My Eggs Pie,” and later via an unexpected encounter with her male OB/GYN—Jenna must find her inner voice and lift herself out of her dire circumstances. Based on the 2007 indie film of the same name, and set in the American South, “Waitress” opened on Broadway in 2016 and earned over $168 million before closing earlier this year. It comes to the Wilson Center February 4-6.
A native of Knoxville, TN, McCall has just the right mixture of Southern charm and wide-eyed vulnerability to play Jenna. She also has the requisite experience: before landing the role of Sally Bowles on the national tour of “Cabaret”—a gig that saw her following in the footsteps of Liza Minnelli, Judi Dench, Natasha Richardson and Brooke Shields—McCall worked as a waitress in a busy New York City restaurant.
“Oh my gosh, it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done,” she says. “You had to take a personality and math test just to get hired, and then there were a couple seven-day weeks of training. It was just so intense.”
Acting in “Waitress,” she says, is a different if equally grueling kind of work—owing partly to the fact that Jenna rarely leaves the stage. “Other than going off and coming right back on, it’s pretty much constant.”
McCall worked extensively with a vocal coach to prepare for the role, which demands she use the full range of her voice. Bareilles is a dynamic pop singer who grew up performing in musical theatre, and it shows in the songs. “What Baking Can Do” is a jaunty, midtempo piano number that wouldn’t be out of place on one of Bareilles’ albums. “Bad Idea” is a rollicking, comic song, in which Jenna spars playfully with her aforementioned gynecologist Dr. Pomatter (David Socolar).
But the real showstopper is “She Used to Be Mine,” a second-act ballad that transcends Broadway melodrama into something wrenching and raw (the song was a brief radio hit for Bareilles in 2015). It comes just as Jenna is breaking down, and serves as a lament for the life she left behind.
“It’s helped me through a lot of dark days,” states McCall, who listened to the ballad on repeat long before landing the role of Jenna. The actress says the song’s subject matter and message of empowerment should resonate with many audience members. “Especially in these types of abusive and manipulative relationships, the person is often so broken down and so made to feel so small, [they] truly lose sight of [they] are.” It’s a poignant moment, and one that takes a physical and emotional toll. “In that moment, it’s like I’m naked in front of the audience,” McCall says.
Of course, a touring production comes with its own set of challenges. The stop in Wilmington comes in the midst of a run of 231 shows in 8 months. When encore spoke with McCall, she had just finished a particularly grueling stretch of performances that included back-to-back two-show days in Ottawa, followed by a one-night stop in Kitchener, some 300 miles away. The company often travels with up to 30 people on a single bus, an arrangement that can make getting a good night’s sleep a challenge.
“It’s a wild life!” McCall says. “People have dog beds on the floor they sleep on, or are curled up on their little bus row, or have their legs propped up on the window. We’re just trying to get rest as much as possible, but you can only do so much on a coach bus.”
Still, she says, it’s worth it to partake in such a groundbreaking show. “Waitress” made history when it opened by becoming the first Broadway show to have its top four creative positions filled by women. In addition to Bareilles, who wrote the music and lyrics, Jessie Nelson wrote the book, Diane Paulus directed, and Lorin Lattaro served as choreographer. This ethos extends to the touring version, as McCall is joined on the road by director Susanna Wolk, choreographer Abbey O’Brien and music supervisor Nadia DiGiallonardo. “Waitress” is, at its heart, a story made by and about women—a fact that isn’t lost on its star.
“It’s something we do not take lightly,” McCall says. “Gabby [Marzetta] and Kennedy [Salters], who play Dawn and Becky, we talk a lot about that, and to have a show with three women in the lead is super rare. Also, to have a woman [character] who isn’t just some guy’s counterpart—this is her story, and this is her fighting and getting her life back.”
Since the show has closed on Broadway, that responsibility is felt even more deeply. McCall and her castmates had returned from a Christmas break and were just getting their footing when the Broadway version took its final bow—leaving them the only North American production still running. It’s something McCall thinks about each night when she takes the stage.
“There are people all over the United States who maybe didn’t get to go to New York and see it, and we have the incredible opportunity to take the show to them,” she says. “It definitely is a big responsibility but it’s really exciting, and is [a chance] to tell the whole ‘Waitress’ community that, you know, this is not the end.”
As with “Cabaret,” McCall is focused on creating her own legacy while recognizing the privilege of carrying on the show. ”I think it’s important to remember I’m not here to be Jessie Mueller or to replicate Sara [Bareilles’] version of Jenna. It’s my job to find who Jenna is for me.”