Waitress director Diane Paulus: ‘Doing a new musical is not brain surgery, but it feels close to it’
Diane Paulus, only the third female director to win a Tony, is bringing smash Broadway musical Waitress to the West End. She tells Mark Shenton about the differences between British and American audiences, how she loves audience interruptions, and why the hardest thing in the business is getting a new musical right
On the first day of rehearsals for the West End transfer of hit Broadway musical Waitress, director Diane Paulus quickly realised she wasn’t in New York anymore. “There was a little jar of instant coffee and a giant bag of 450 tea bags,” she laughs, “and I knew I was in London.”
That cultural division aside, the director has been impressed with how the UK performers have taken to this adaptation of Adrienne Shelly’s 2007 film set in an all-American diner. “I’ve been delighted with the British cast’s enthusiasm for this musical. They’re so committed to the depth of the show, which has been so rewarding and encouraging to me.”
A native New Yorker, Paulus is a hugely respected theatre and opera director in the US and is the artistic director of the American Repertory Theater at Harvard University. In 2013, she became only the third woman to win a best director Tony, for her revival of Pippin, and a year later was named on the Time 100 list of influential people.
She has worked on a string of musical theatre productions that have proved hits with audiences and critics. “The reason I do musicals is not just because they’re entertaining, but because they reach a broad audience through music and pop culture. They tackle important subject matters at the same time, and they’re emotional.” She adds: “The depth of Waitress is really why I’m in it and committed to the show.”
It is a show where all the leads are women – “There’s usually a leading-man slot, but in this musical all the men are supporting the female protagonist and the other female leads” – and the same can be said of the creative team of director, the writers and the choreographer, though members of the design team are male.
“When we put the team together, it wasn’t a casting agenda to put only women in all those creative roles,” Paulus says. “It was really about finding the best person for the job – starting with the best composer out there, who maybe isn’t from the musical theatre world but from the pop one, who could catch the tone of this quirky, indie film.
“Sara [Bareilles] is at the top of her game both as a composer and a lyricist. It was also that way for the book writing, for choreography, and for musical direction. It just so happens that we have women at the top of their game in all these areas.”
It was producer Barry Weissler who got the ball rolling when he sent Paulus a stack of films with potential to be adapted and she chose Waitress – perhaps thinking back to one of her first jobs during high school in a cafe on the East Side. She then set about putting the creatives together.
Diane Paulus’ tips for aspiring directorS
• See a lot of work. Go out and see theatre; see what’s possible. There’s a lot of different kinds of theatre, and you need to see a lot to find what inspires and moves you.
• Live your life fully. The more you grow as a person, the more experiences you have in the world, the more your work will grow.
• Know that downtimes are necessary. Life in the theatre is a pendulum, and you need to know that sometimes when it swings really hard in a place you’re not feeling good about, it will be the stimulus to swing you back in another direction. You have to trust that all the experiences are part of the journey, and the bad ones are there for a reason.
Starting the writing process
Grammy-nominated Bareilles interested Paulus – she had an “intuition” the singer might be right for Waitress despite her never having written a musical theatre score – so arranged a meeting to find out if she had an interest in theatre, “and lo and behold, she did”.
Given Bareilles hadn’t written a musical, she suggested starting the process at the ART – just across the Charles river from Boston – where she has been artistic director since 2008. “It was a safe place that would give her room to try it out. For someone who was composing for the theatre for the first time, you need that space.”
She told the singer to watch the film “and to go inside her heart and soul and write the first song that came to her. I told her not to worry about the plot, or think about a treatment or outline of how it would be adapted. I told her to simply respond to the film.”
A couple of weeks later, an MP3 file arrived in Paulus’ inbox. It was Bareilles singing She Used to Be Mine. “I listened to it, with that feeling: ‘Here we go, cross my fingers.’ And when I heard it, I knew we had a show. It was clear from that one song she understood the character of Jenna so deeply, and that her lyrical ability was sophisticated and deeply moving. And it’s still the signature song of the show, it’s the show-stopper. And now it gets sung by everybody from 12-year-old boys to a cappella groups. It’s a phenomenon.”
Paulus was impressed that Bareilles not only understood Jenna, but could get into the mindset of the other characters. “Sometimes as a pop writer, you’re pressurised by your label: ‘This is who you are, this is what you should sound like.’ By writing a musical, she was liberated to write different songs, different styles and points of view. She relished that opportunity.”
It is a story of female empowerment, as a woman finds liberation from a loveless marriage and low prospects through baking elaborate pies in the diner she works in. But more than that, it’s a human story, Paulus says. “In my experience on Broadway, and it has now happened in London in the same way during previews, people are tapping me on the shoulder and thanking me for doing this show because it changed their lives. And there are more men than women telling me that it helped them get out of a dark place or an abusive relationship.
“That isn’t to say there aren’t a lot of women seeing the show. It’s affirming to me that we have a female protagonist, but actually it’s a human story about what happens to us when we’re made to feel less than we are, and how we have to fight to gain our sense of self – and the resilience we find from unusual places.”
The next project
Paulus is currently steering another new musical, Jagged Little Pill – based on Alanis Morissette’s 1995 album – to Broadway. It opens this autumn after she directed it at the ART last year. “Doing a new musical is never easy. It’s not brain surgery, but sometimes it feels close to it,” she says. “In the business it is known as the hardest thing to get a new musical right. There are so many rules and yet in a way you have to break all the rules.
“There are things you rest on in making good musical theatre. Obviously there’s: what’s the journey of the show? Who are you following? How are you rooting for them? And where are the songs landing and why are they singing? But I believe the best musicals take off because of something else. Some magical thing that happens, when all the ingredients – to use a baking metaphor – hit correctly. There’s an alchemical thing that happens, when the vision for the show matches the music, the choreography and the story, and then it ignites an audience.”
And it’s the audience that provides the most important reaction of all. “That’s why I love the theatre. It’s all about whether it connects. We are not a form that exists where you can click ‘go’ on your laptop and watch it alone in your living room… The art, especially of the musical, is the energy and transmission to an audience. You can argue in a play that the audience is more invisible, that there’s a fourth wall and you’re just a voyeur watching drama happen. In a musical, you’re applauding every number. It’s like an opera, you’re stopping the action to say you love that, you recognise that. I love those interruptions. For me, the whole point of the theatre is the partnership with the audience.”
When She Used to Be Mine stopped the action for 35 seconds during a preview in London, the resident director turned to Paulus and asked what was to be done – was this just allowed to happen? “I replied: ‘Yes, it’s actually an affirmation of the story.’ The audience is saying to the character: ‘I see you, I recognise you, I am rooting for you.’”
Part of a director’s craft is to make a show land just so. Paulus has done just that with a number of revivals, including Hair, which went from the Public Theater’s Delacorte summer season to Broadway and then the West End. She also staged Porgy and Bess and Pippin, with both going from ART to Broadway. But she says that doing a new show “is 100% harder”.
“When you do a revival, you’re mainly focused on how you are interpreting the story and what is the production you are envisioning. With a new musical, you have all those pressures – what’s your set design, what’s your choreography, how does the show look, what are your production ideas? – and simultaneously, especially when you’re premiering it, is the story correct? Do we have the right song order? Is the structure working?”
It’s a constantly evolving process. Taking Waitress from ART to Broadway saw the show go through “hundreds of changes”, including changing where She Used to Be Mine landed. “There are things you can only see once you have it in front of an audience. And when you do it again, you find new things every time,” Paulus says. And there are still improvements made now. “I just scheduled a rehearsal on Broadway for next week, as I want to input one of the changes we’ve done for London. I asked my Broadway stage manager if three years in I was allowed to change it again, because I think we’ve made it better.”
Apart from the preference for tea over coffee, how else is the process different when working in the West End versus Broadway? “The work in the rehearsal hall is universal. It’s always about work between the director and the actor to gain a sense of trust and unlock the actor into their most creative zone. That doesn’t really change,” she says.
Q&A: Diane Paulus
What was your first non-theatre job?
During high school, I was a waitress – in a little cafe on the East Side, and I was in charge of the desserts. I don’t think we had pies, but I would cut and serve the cakes.
What was your first professional theatre job?
I was paid $150 to direct for Music Theatre Group. I was a superfan – it had launched the careers of Julie Taymor and Anne Bogart – and they took a risk on me.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
To trust your unconscious. As a young artist, especially a young director, you think you need to have everything figured out. Feed and inspire yourself. Let the other side of your brain take over and trust the ideas will come. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t prepare, but creative moments come when you least expect them.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
When I was a kid I danced as a little girl with New York City Ballet, and George Balanchine was still alive. He created story ballets like The Nutcracker, Coppelia and Harlequinade, and the idea that you could tell story in movement with no words imprinted on me. My father was an actor who took me to theatre my whole life. My mother was patient and calm, and I took that from her. She erased herself and provided for her children. That is what you have to do as a director, you have to be a parent to the project, collaborators and actors. You also have to lead without ego – make other people feel they’re the leader.
What’s your best advice for auditions?
Be prepared. It makes an impression when an actor has studied the sides, learned the lines and made choices. Even if you’re not right for the role, or are taking a different approach, if you’re prepared it makes such an impression.
If you hadn’t been a director, what would you have been?
I would have gone into politics, that was my interest.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
To never stage the curtain call too early – I save it for the last possible moment.
From London to New York
The biggest difference is systemic, not artistic – how the show is organised. “In the West End you have a resident director who I’m currently training, a stage manager who is in charge of the production technically, and a company manager who is doing the schedule. We don’t do any of it like that in the US. We don’t traditionally work with resident directors. On Broadway, the production stage manager handles everything: the schedule, the rehearsals, the tech and the maintenance of the show.”
The audiences are also different. She fondly recalls the first time she worked in London in 2000, when her immersive disco production The Donkey Show transferred from the Edinburgh Fringe to a venue called the Hanover Grand near Oxford Circus. “Every time I walk by it – the venue itself is no longer there – I get very nostalgic,” she says. “I was a young director and I made that show with my now husband Randy Weiner. It was a dream come true when we came to London. And one of the things I was struck by is how different the audience was here.
“Maybe I’m being naive, but the way I feel about the British audience – which is also an international one in London – is that they are listening to the story in a way that I don’t always feel they do in America. I called Randy after the first preview of Waitress, and said it was just like we experienced with The Donkey Show: people would watch the story points of it with such intensity in a way that they didn’t so much in America.”
And there’s also a cultural and social difference about how the evening is treated. “The audience is happy to be there. It’s a social thing, every theatre in London has all these little rooms where people have drinks, they come in groups and on dates and are happy to be at the theatre. Broadway is doing great, but sometimes I feel the culture inside a Broadway theatre is to get you in and get you out. If the show is short that’s good, you aren’t there to drink and enjoy it.”
After graduating in directing at Columbia University School of the Arts, she and Weiner were part of theatre group Project 400, which updated classic texts from The Tempest to Phaedra in unusual ways, before directing The Donkey Show, which ran Off-Broadway from 1999 to 2005.
Doing that work in London, which was based on a Midsummer Night’s Dream and which she revived as her first show as ART artistic director in 2009, had another bonus: “It worked even better here, because you know your Shakespeare in London, so audiences were tracking the adaptation. When we played Don’t Leave Me This Way, audiences knew that was the moment when Demetrius is spurning Helena. People got another layer of it.”
Paulus’ work is often about layering. For Pippin, a musical with a score by Stephen Schwartz that was originally directed in 1972 by Bob Fosse, Paulus did something revolutionary when she brought it back to Broadway in 2013. She added real circus elements, working with Gypsy Snider, one of the founders of the contemporary Canadian circus collective The 7 Fingers and choreographer Chet Walker to create something new. “We wanted to pay homage to Fosse but take it to the next level.”
Pippin is one of the most powerful musical theatre works about the experience of living with depression, but Paulus had a different way in. “I was nine years old when I first saw it on Broadway with Ben Vereen. I didn’t really understand it, but I remember it – and I grew up with the soundtrack. I would sing Corner of the Sky on the piano all through my teenage years.”
Today, she understands the show in a different way: “It’s about how you get out of bed when you look at your life. It’s an everyman tale of going through the fire and coming out the other side and discovering what matters to you in life.”
Paulus is enjoying where she is. “Not only do I have an incredible staff and team, but we have a great audience in Boston who have come to love the ART as a home for boundary-breaking musicals and theatre. The opportunity to give Sara Bareilles her first shot at a musical is why we’re there – to take risks. Now it’s easy to look at Waitress and say, that wasn’t a risk: it’s a Broadway hit. But when you start, you don’t know what you have, you don’t know if it’s going to work and you need a place where you have the room to take a risk. That’s the role of our theatre.”
CV: Diane Paulus
Born: New York (1966)
Training: Harvard Radcliffe for undergraduate degree (social studies); Columbia University School of the Arts (master’s in directing)
• The Donkey Show, Off-Broadway (1999)
• Hair, Central Park (2007); Broadway (2009)
• Porgy and Bess, American Repertory Theater (2011); Broadway (2012)
• Pippin, ART (2012); Broadway (2013)
• Cirque du Soleil’s Amaluna (2012)
• Finding Neverland, ART (2014); Broadway (2015)
• Waitress, ART (2015); Broadway (2016)
• Jagged Little Pill, ART (2017)
Tony award and Drama Desk award for best director (2013)
Agent: Joe Machota at CAA
Waitress is at the Adelphi Theatre, London until October 19
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