Last Saturday, I had the privilege of seeing the matinee of Waitress at the Brooks Atkinson Theater. It is a wonderful show, and it is the perfect show to see with a girl friend or two. I had a longtime friend visiting from out of town. This was her first Broadway musical, and she loved it.
Going into the show, I had a number of things on my mind. First, where do I get those mini pies that everyone is sharing on Facebook? Second, is the show really a feminist Broadway dream-come-true, or does it have more problematic elements, as at least one writer has suggested? Third, how does it fit into the larger conversation that has been going on in the past few years about diversity in the New York City theatre community? I got answers on all fronts, and it wasn’t entirely what I expected.
Answering the first question, there were three kinds of pie: apple, key lime, and cookie cream. They are sold at the concession stand and by wandering vendors in blue dresses and white aprons. (Concessions accepts credit cards, but the waitresses are strictly cash-only.) I tried the key lime, which was delicious, and compared to the usually inflated concessions prices, the pie wasn’t insanely expensive at $10. The specialty drinks on the other hand were rather ridiculous at $20+. I recommend trying the pie and saving the drink for after the show.
As for the feminism question, Aja Romano of Vox made the argument that Waitress wasn’t feminist. She makes some excellent points about domestic abuse on-stage with The Color Purple and Carousel, but there are several points she makes about Waitress that I thought were off-base. For example, she writes that, “Jenna’s happy ending is gifted to her by a curmudgeonly old man.” I completely disagree. Jenna leaves Earl before she knows about Joe gifting her the diner, and the staging makes it clear that she goes on to win many blue-ribbon contests, which have huge cash prizes. Also, Dawn and Ogie invite her to stay with them until she can get on her feet. Jenna didn’t need the diner, and besides that, she wasn’t given the diner because of her situation with Earl. Joe gave her the diner because knew he would be leaving it in good hands. She earned it.
Ogie’s romance with Dawn is also brought up as problematic in her piece. I re-watched Waitress shortly before seeing the show, and I see her point in regards to the original film. Dawn does say at one point that Ogie wore her down, and the writing implies that she is settling for him because no one else wants her. However, I think the musical handles it better and smartly re-frames their relationship. Instead of having low self-esteem, Dawn is emotionally guarded. Her song “When He Sees Me” lays this out pretty clearly.
What happens then
If when he holds me
My heart is set in motion
I’m not prepared for that
I’m scared of breaking open
But I still can’t help from hoping
To find someone to talk to
Who likes the way I am
Someone who when he sees me
Wants to again
Dawn discounts Ogie initially because he isn’t what she pictured as the love of her life. He is kind of goofy with his clog dancing and love of opera, but their love story is not him wearing her down or her settling for him. She falls for him. He falls for her. They fall for each other, and they inspire the people around them to believe in true love again.
Speaking of love, indulge me for a minute while I rave about the sex positivity in Waitress. Dawn, Becky, and Jenna all look completely different, and all three of them have very active sex lives in the show. The poster for Waitress is Jessie Mueller standing in a kitchen, offering a slice of pie. It suggests sweetness and wholesomeness, and maybe that having good values and an active sex life are not mutually exclusive. To make it even better, the sex scenes are staged to show the woman’s pleasure. Becky is getting spanked, Ogie is up to something under Dawn’s Betsy Ross skirt, and then there is Jenna and Dr. Pomatter with that well-placed pie. It is revolutionary, seeing women of different sizes and colors, in a mainstream Broadway show no less, portraying positive sexual experiences. That is feminism, and that represents huge progress.
Unfortunately, in one major aspect, Waitress represents disconnect between creatives who are pushing for progress and an establishment that is often tone deaf about these issues. I am talking about the management of the Brooks Atkinson Theater and the mismanagement of their restrooms. According to the management, there is only one women’s restroom, one men’s restroom, and one single-stall unisex handicap restroom. Between both the men’s and women’s bathrooms combined, there are about a dozen stall toilets and a wall of urinals. To put that in perspective, the Brooks Atkinson Theatre’s capacity is 1,069.
Making matters worse, the bathrooms are on opposite ends of the mezzanine lobby, where the concessions and bar are located. This means that the crowds for the bathrooms are shoved in with the crowds for drinks and the very popular pie. At intermission, the line for the women’s room wrapped down to the men’s room, doubled back along the bar, and wrapped up the stairs and back into the theater. Patrons asked if they could use stalls in the men’s room, and ushers refused, saying that they needed approval from a manager. When asked if intermission would be extended, the ushers said that the manager would extend it for as long as possible but also said that they wouldn’t necessarily extend it until everyone got through the line. One usher offered unhelpfully that a patron could use the restroom at a neighboring restaurant. “It’s okay,” the usher said, “they’re used to it. We do it every day.”
This response is infuriating. It is irresponsible for the theater managers to expect other businesses to handle their patrons’ bathroom needs, especially when management plans on sticking closely to their 15-20 minute intermission. It doesn’t look good when Waitress is publicly pitching itself as a show by women, about women, and for women. This whole situation looks even worse when the audience is overwhelmingly women, and they are being barred from using an empty men’s restroom.
Waitress put much thought and creative energy into making the Brooks Atkinson Theater smell like pie. They went as far as installing a convection oven and baking fresh pies daily. I was impressed until I realized they should have put some of that time, effort, and money into renovating their restrooms.
A couple of years ago, restroom usage might not have seemed like a big issue (or an issue at all), but this isn’t only about women. Look at North Carolina. For trans men and women, having access to a public restroom with stall toilets is imperative, not to mention for families with small children and the physically handicapped. To quote another great Broadway musical, it is currently a privilege to pee at the Brooks Atkinson Theater, and we shouldn’t be satisfied with that.
Waitress is an admirable musical and I would argue a feminist musical, but the theatre institutions are stuck in the past. If Broadway wants to call itself truly feminist, theater management needs to think seriously about the needs of their female patrons and make it a priority.