The University Programs Council hosted Broadway Talks Back Saturday night, a program that invites stage veterans to the University to speak on their experience on Broadway. Fourth-year Commerce student Kristen Kelly runs Broadway Talks Back and invited “Waitress” alum Natasha Yvette Williams — who played the role of Becky, the second female lead — and Henry Gottfried — who acted as a swing, which is a performer whose job is to play one or more roles in the acting ensemble of a show when someone else is out.
“Waitress” is a musical with music and lyrics by Sara Bareilles, based on the 2007 film of the same name. It tells the story of Jenna Hunterson, a waitress trapped in an abusive relationship. When Jenna unexpectedly becomes pregnant, she begins an affair with her gynecologist, Dr. Jim Pomatter. Looking for ways out — with the help of her fellow waitresses, Becky and Dawn — she discovers a pie contest with a monetary grand prize as her chance.
To begin the discussion, Kelly prompted Williams and Gottfried to share valuable insights into the Broadway process. Kelly kept the discussion moving with thought-provoking questions for the guests during the program, which was split into sections discussing memories from production, favorite moments and the power of “Waitress.”
Both Williams and Gottfried auditioned three times before they were finally cast in “Waitress.” Gottfried was one of the last people to be cast in the show before it came to Broadway — the show’s producers offered him a final audition one week before previews began. He was in the show for a year and a half and played four different characters — including the male lead, Dr. Pomatter. When he heard the show was closing, he asked for any possible available role so he could be a part of the closing experience. Gottfried described swinging as challenging but emotionally fulfilling, saying that he loved playing different characters — even turning down a permanent role in the ensemble so that he could continue to swing.
Williams had a similarly lengthy audition process for “Waitress.” However, in between auditions, she worked with Bareilles for a different project. On set, Bareilles told Williams that some people “are good, but just not right” for certain Broadway roles. Williams took this comment personally and felt that Bareilles “hated her” and did not want her in the show. When it came time for her final audition for the show, Williams had to sing in front of Bareilles and was petrified. However, Williams knew that she was perfect for the role of Becky, and after one amazing final audition, she landed the part.
Williams then shared a touching personal memory — her mother passed away three days before the opening of the show. On opening night, the performance of the song “Everything Changes” — a pivotal number in the musical, sung when Jenna has her baby and finally accepts that she is a mother — felt especially poignant to Williams after losing her own mother. In the song, Jenna sings “Everything changes / I didn't know, but now I see / Sometimes what is, is meant to be / You saved me” — and with that song, she said she felt validation from the cast and the audience. Williams called the moment the “highlight of her career.”
Throughout the night, Williams and Gottfried shared more anecdotes, from their favorite lines in the play — William’s is “does your ass ever get jealous of the constant crap coming out of your mouth” — to an unfortunately comical night of the play, when Williams was feeling sick and wound up vomiting in her prop purse.
Both Gottfried and Williams spoke on how much the final show meant to them. The fanbase for the musical is incredibly dedicated and invested in the story, and the audience that night was very charged and powerful. There was immense pressure for each song to go perfectly, as no one wanted to mess up their last performance. Gottfried recounted that after an especially emotional performance of “When He Sees Me,” a number in the middle of Act I, the audience stood and clapped for almost a minute, reducing the ensemble cast to tears.
Williams made history by being a part of the first “Waitress” show to have three women of color in the three lead roles, with Jordin Sparks as Jenna and Jessie Hooker-Bailey as Dawn. This powerful casting took three and a half years to come to fruition. On the importance of representation in “Waitress,” Williams said it was important that “little brown girls can see themselves in roles with transformation, conviction and power.”
Both cast members also spoke on the certain X-factor of “Waitress,” crediting “empathy queen” Barielles’s music and storytelling as the main reason for the dedicated fanbase. By being personally connected to the show and its story, the cast and the audience experience the vulnerability of the characters and can all meld into the “humanness of the moment” presented on the stage.
To close the event, both Gottfried and Williams reflected on the power of theater. Gottfried noted that in the end people in musical theater are in musicals because they simply love them. They have always been fans of musical theater, and so they are incredibly passionate about musicals and performing. The highs are incredibly high, and the lows are very low. Williams emphasized the the ability to affect people and vice versa — an exchange of energy, which reminds her, in her words, “I am alive.”