Near the end of the new musical Waitress, which debuted on Broadway in April and subsequently nabbed four Tony nominations, main character Jenna sings a climactic ballad about crafting a new self, one who will "[learn] how to toughen up when she's bruised."
It's this mantra, along with a few magical pies, that gives Jenna, played with rich depth and world-weary emotion by Tony-winning Jessie Mueller, the strength to find empowerment and start a new life.
But this fable, though dependably crowd-pleasing and beautifully sung, comes at the expense of a more significant theme: feminism.
Waitress is female-centric, but that doesn't make it feminist
Waitress is a homespun tale about a young woman who toils away at her local country diner while crafting delicious pies of every variety, the names of which are cheeky reflections of plot points — for instance, Jenna makes "betrayed by my own eggs" pie after she finds out she's pregnant. Jenna's dreams of life away from her abusive marriage are derailed by an unplanned pregnancy and an unplanned affair, all as a national bake-off contest looms. Throughout it all, the diner remains a magical safe haven away from the realities of Jenna's violent home life.
Critics have been quick to label Waitress a "feminist fable," "feminist tale," "feminist fairy tale," and "for the most part delightfully a feminist musical." It's easy to see why reviewers jump to this conclusion; the show is, astonishingly enough, the first musical in Broadway history to be captained and crewed by an all-female creative team. Led by director Diane Paulus, Waitress represents pop songwriter Sara Bareilles's move into musical theater as she follows in the footsteps of other successful songwriters like Duncan Sheik (Spring Awakening) before her.
It's also an adaptation of the 2007 film of the same name whose writer-director, Adrienne Shelly, was brutally murdered just before the film's debut at Sundance; the tragedy prompted her grieving husband to create the Adrienne Shelly Foundation, a nonprofit organization that supports women in film. Additionally, the Adrienne Shelly Award is given out annually by the Women Film Critics Circle to the film that "most passionately opposes violence against women."
The original, movie version of Waitress not only dealt with domestic violence but stands as a critically acclaimed emblem for how to tackle serious issues with levity for the films that have followed it. So the musical adaptation version of Waitress is standing on big shoulders.
Waitress is female-centered: It boasts a diverse cast, a complex female lead who doesn't instinctively yearn to put her own life aside to be a mother, and a heartwarming portrayal of female friendships. But while all of these elements could have passed for examples of enlightened feminism in the late '90s or early 2000s, they're very weak by 2016 standards. Waitress's statements on female empowerment are nice, but that's about all they are. What's more, they're crucially undermined by Waitress's failure to deal with its other major theme: domestic violence.
Waitress wants surprisingly little to do with the realities of domestic violence
Waitress is a wonderful musical in so many respects. The pacing and staging pair well with Bareilles's vibrant, lush score; her songs are polished, and she expertly conveys character evolution and transformation through her lyrics. Mueller, in a Tony-nominated performance, juggles her character's fatigue with warmth and frailty without ever letting Jenna feel like a cliché. The side characters are all quirky and endearing — especially Drew Gehling as the doctor with whom Jenna has an affair and Orange Is the New Black's Kimiko Glenn as Dawn, a deadpan Southern waitress who has mild OCD, geeks out over US history, and dreams of true love.
When it comes to Waitress's theme of toxic relationships, however, the musical falters, particularly in the central relationship between Jenna and her abusive husband, Earl. While Mueller is pitch-perfect in her portrayal of a woman battling emotional and physical abuse, Earl as acted by Nick Cordero comes off as a cartoonish, buffoonish stereotype — less Stanley Kowalski, more Gaston from Beauty and the Beast. The result is that scenes where his violence should feel real and menacing seem odd and off-kilter. Jenna's face tells audiences he can hurt her, but Earl's stilted nonchalance and the pains the show takes to downplay his controlling behavior contradict her.
Meanwhile, Dawn's dreams of true love, while presented by Waitress as "fulfilled," are achieved in an inherently problematic way. The character goes on an OkCupid date with a man named Ogie, who then turns up the next day at her job, refusing to leave and declaring his intent to love her forever in a number called "Never Ever Getting Rid of Me." In the hands of Broadway vet Christopher Fitzgerald, the moment becomes a crowd-pleasing showstopper (indeed, Fitzgerald earned a Tony nomination for the performance). But even though Ogie quickly wins over Dawn and the audience, it's not enough to erase the ickiness of seeing what clearly amounts to stalking passed off as mutual love.
These ideas come only partially from Waitress's source material. In Shelly's film, Earl's violence is more upfront, and when Jenna finally orders him out of her life, he doesn't go quietly. And while Dawn's stalker is portrayed as ultimately a good man, she directly acknowledges that he wore her down and stalked her into a relationship, admitting that she's only with him because she's settling.
But these important details remain firmly at the edges of an otherwise clear-sighted musical. When the show was still in previews, the world's most patronizing New York Post article alleged that its creative team was toning down the film's domestic violence in order to keep things light and happy. If true, it's deeply unfortunate. Waitress suffers tremendously from not being straightforward about the reality of Jenna's home environment. And audiences deserve more credit — this isn't the first time these themes have landed on Broadway.
Portrayals of domestic violence in musical theater aren't new
Domestic violence has never been an off-limits topic for musicals. In the iconic 1945 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Carousel, the main character, Billy, is a violent man whose abuse of his wife, Julie, is the troubling center of the story. In 1960's Oliver! — an adaptation of Charles Dickens's Oliver Twist whose film adaptation later went on to win the Academy Award for Best Picture — the villainy of antagonist Bill Sykes is made most evident through his battery of his longtime girlfriend, Nancy.
In each show, the abused woman gets a whole song excusing her lover's violence while justifying her decision to stay with him. In Carousel, Julie's justification is that "he's your feller and you love him." In Oliver!, Nancy runs through a litany of threadbare excuses: She's lonely, staying is a mark of faithfulness, to leave him would be to "betray his trust," he needs her. While many women do use justifications like these to convince themselves not to leave violent relationships, another, crucial reason that goes unvoiced in each song is that they may die trying. This eventually winds up being true for Nancy in Oliver!.
It wasn't until 2005's The Color Purple, which is currently enjoying a critically acclaimed hit Broadway revival, that a musical addressed domestic violence without also justifying a woman's choice to stay. Indeed, main character Celie doesn't initially have the freedom to make such a choice; she's forced from childhood into an abusive marriage with the much older, whip-wielding "Mister."
Unlike Waitress, whose diner mostly serves as a safe space away from her home life, The Color Purple maintains its awareness of the abuse its characters face in even the liveliest musical numbers. One character tells Celie bluntly, "You better learn how to fight back while you still alive." Even in the title song, ostensibly about God serving as a benevolent protector, Celie characterizes him as being "just another man, triflin' and lowdown."
Instead of having women justify staying in violent relationships, The Color Purple focuses on two male characters who have to learn to accept responsibility for their own violence. Mister gets a song devoted to his realization that his actions have left him hollow and friendless. After asking, "So tell me how a man do good when all he know is bad?" he resolves to try to "change people mind about me" by letting his good intentions show in his actions instead of his words.
The character of Harpo also struggles to deal with his own violence. Harpo feels societal pressure to violently dominate his household. But in the end, he comes to accept his wife Sofia's view of their marriage as a balanced, equal partnership.
This approach is a far cry from Carousel's famous "Soliloquy," in which Billy learns he's to be a father and proceeds to sing about change that is only superficial. Even while planning to be a better man, Billy brags about being able to beat up the other fathers and views his future daughter like a treasured possession — a shortsightedness that turns out to be his undoing.
In other words, if Carousel represents the notion that a man can't help how violent he is, The Color Purple represents the moment when Broadway acknowledged the concept that violent men are responsible for their own actions.
Waitress, by contrast, never lets its violent character, Earl, benefit from the self-awareness of The Color Purple's Harpo and Mister: He remains oblivious and obtuse throughout, and the burden of changing her situation is placed entirely on Jenna's shoulders.
Waitress conflates female empowerment with feminism, but doesn't actually achieve either
Both Waitress and The Color Purple frame their heroine's journey as a series of small choices on the road to ultimate empowerment. Both Jenna and Celie have their own late-second-act numbers in which they declare themselves ready to change. Both women arrive at this moment partly through personal endurance, partly through the power of community.
The Color Purple's rosy ending still reads largely as wish fulfillment. But If The Color Purple's message that women can walk away from violent situations mainly by believing in themselves is wishful thinking, Waitress's message that they can do all this and procure a happy ending is built on downright fantasy: Jenna's diner is essentially a magical reality where sugar, flour, and butter are homeopathic tools of self-reliance.
But if Waitress is a fairy tale, it's not, despite what critics have said, a feminist one. A sense of "empowered" feminism would have led the musical to be realistic about Jenna's situation. Instead, its willful naiveté is the opposite. It's a girlish dream where the casual date who shows up at your job turns out to be your soul mate instead of a creepy stalker; where the words "you are never, ever, ever getting rid of me" are whimsical and romantic instead of terrifying.
It's a fantasy in which your abusive husband is easily duped and perfectly willing to comply when you finally snap and insist that he get out of your life. In reality, women have to try leaving abusive relationships up to seven times before they are successful. And 75 percent of the women who die in domestic violence incidents are killed by their abusive partners somewhere between the first try and the last.
And ultimately, Waitress isn't even a fable of self-reliance, because Jenna's happy ending is gifted to her by a curmudgeonly old man.
It's especially ironic that this tale comes from the mind of Adrienne Shelly. If Waitress the musical were to apply for the Adrienne Shelly Award for its treatment of violence against women, I'm doubtful it would win.
Whatever Waitress might be, it's not feminist — and that's a shame, because in other respects it's a highly enjoyable musical. With more weight and serious treatment of its subject, it could have been a genre shifter and a game changer, a female-powered narrative that successfully mixed serious themes with fun, humor, and a too-rare story about female community.
As it is, it's a fun but nutritionless musical recipe — sweet, but mostly filler.
Correction: This article originally stated incorrectly that the Adrienne Shelly Award is given out annually by the Adrienne Shelly Foundation. It is given out by the Women Film Critics Circle.