‘Waitress’ writer Jessie Nelson embodies the low-key feminism of her latest work

Jessie Nelson with John Goodman on the set of the film "Love the Coopers."

Jessie Nelson with John Goodman on the set of the film “Love the Coopers.”

(Suzanne Tenner / Associated Press)

Like so many people with showbiz hopes, Jessie Nelson worked as a waitress when she first came to Hollywood. At the defunct Roy’s Chinese restaurant on Sunset, she would hustle for tips and tick off specials, plotting a film career during breaks.

Nelson would eventually graduate to more creative realms. She co-wrote the screenplay for “Stepmom” and directed movie dramas such as “Corrina, Corrina” and “I Am Sam.”

But recently Nelson has returned to the world of servers and swing shifts, albeit in a very different capacity — as the book writer for the new Broadway musical “Waitress.”


‎"It’s been interesting to go back to that floppy disk in the brain where you store all those memories,” Nelson said. “The bonds you form. The people you meet you’d never otherwise be friends with. The team-sport aspect. Waitressing really is like playing basketball.”

Certainly there’s a pass-the-ball-around quality to “Waitress.” Based on the late Adrienne Shelly’s hit 2007 film about baking and sisterhood in a small-town diner, “Waitress” features a likable group of down-but-not-out characters, along with other elements that make for promising entertainment.

There is a relatable struggle, hummable if darkly comic tunes, and — this should not be underestimated — a food-based conceit. When it begins previews this week at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, “Waitress” will showcase a bevy of awards favorites, including its composer (Sara Bareilles, five Grammy nominations), director Diane Paulus (a Tony winner) and star Jessie Mueller (ditto).

There’s also the poignant back story of Shelly, who was killed in 2006 and didn’t live to see her movie become a Sundance and box-office breakout. In a Broadway musical season when everyone is fighting for second-place‎ behind “Hamilton,” “Waitress” is at the top of the list.

Maybe most critical, as it tells the story of Jenna (Mueller) suffocating in a bad marriage,
the show examines feminist themes — at least stealthily. Yes, “Waitress” is a pop musical about the power of pie. But it’s also far from a tale of passive housewifery. Affairs are undertaken. Complex friendships are formed. And when it comes to fairy-tale endings, entrepreneurship trumps romance.

“What I love about this story is it takes these traditional things like motherhood and baking and says they can be as much about empowerment as anything else,” Nelson said. “"Sure, you have a waitress making pies, but it’s really about feminism, not about ending up with the guy.”

Those themes have quietly been explored — and embodied —by Nelson over a long Hollywood career. At a moment when the question of female creative representation has come to a head, Nelson offers a template for how some of those issues could be solved -- if also furnishing a less-than-overt interest in being a poster child for that cause.

Arriving in Los Angeles in the 1980s by way of the downtown New York theater scene, Nelson initially sought to make it as an actor before moving on to writing and directing.

But the ceiling, glass or otherwise, was solid. She spent seven years trying to get a greenlight for “Corrina” — a semi-autobiographical tale about a black housekeeper to a white family — that few wanted to make, and even fewer wanted to make with Whoopi Goldberg. She eventually succeeded in 1994.

Meanwhile, it took more than a decade for the mentally disabled father-daughter tale “I Am Sam” to get financed — a challenge she said may have had to do with the material, but certainly wasn’t made any easier by the fact that she was a woman. The filmmaker was intent on casting Sean Penn, but he was seen as non grata by many because of his feud at the time with Rupert Murdoch.

“Would a male director have been able to make a choice perceived as risky, like Sean, and executives would have felt more secure about it? It’s hard to say. You could argue it would,” Nelson said.

Yet she adds she’s not sure how much any particular development difficulty related to gender. Eating an early dinner at a restaurant a few doors down from the theater, (“I might have handled that a little differently if I was waitressing,” she quipped about the odd behavior of one waiter), she threaded a fine line on her own career politics.

“I think sexism is something much subtler and more insidious than some people believe,” she said. “The glass ceiling is very subtle. It’s like holding mercury.”

Indeed, even as Nelson has become one of a still-small group of female directors who regularly get work in commercial Hollywood (her most recent movie was the holiday dramedy “Love the Coopers” in November), she remains a low-key ideological presence. She has not led petitions or made social-media call for overhauls in the manner of, say, an Ava DuVernay.

But Nelson’s career has nonetheless stood for the sort of equity that many say remains in short supply.

The year “Stepmom” came out it was one of only two live-action movies in the box office top 20 to feature a woman writer. (The other was “You’ve Got Mail,” written by Nora and Delia Ephron; Nora was a Nelson role model and, later, a good friend.) There has been progress--slightly--since that time: 2015 counted four movies that fit these criteria.

Meanwhile, Nelson directed Penn to an Oscar nomination in 2001’s “I Am Sam,” despite the fact that women in Hollywood can still face the perception they should primarily direct female-centric films. Among the last 30 movies to be nominated for lead actor, not a single one was directed by a woman.

After “Corrina,” Nelson said she had to contend with a kind of casual industry bias; her gender-neutral name and movie’s subject matter led some in the industry to believe she was of a different background. They would do a small double take, she recalled, when she walked into a meeting room, telling her somewhat indelicately they expected her to be a black man.

She said these reactions come with the territory, and that she has tried not to let them bother her. Still, there are sensitivities. She declined, for instance, to provide her age for this story, citing a double standard within some quarters of the industry regarding male and female ages.

Nelson said she has spent much of her career trying to dispel the idea of a female filmmaker as containing any kind of special status.

“Nora used to say, ‘We didn’t set out to become women directors — we set out to become directors, period,’” Nelson said. “It’s always strange when Vanity Fair does their women directors issue — they’d never say, ‘This is the issue of male directors.’”

Throughout her career, she added, she has also sought to negate the notion of gender-specific material.

“I think the idea of a male and female sensibility is a myth. There are a lot of women I know who would love to make a superhero movie and would make a very good superhero movie,” Nelson said. “And there are a lot of men who could make a beautiful story that people would say is more ‘female’ in sensibility. It drives me bananas when people say a story has a male or female sensibility.”

Her interest in directing a movie about a single dad speaks to this issue; so too do pieces such as “Coopers,” which though falling into what might be described commercially as a female-filmgoer niche also contain richer male characters such as an underachieving photographer and a gay policeman.

That post-gender idea is embedded in her new work. Though there is sexism, of the casual and other varieties, all around Jenna, “Waitress” aims for a universal feel. Even an affair is not meant to judge the character on the one hand or celebrate her on the other; it’s less about a specific gender dynamic than a humanity that affects us all.

Paulus said this was an idea she was striving for, and why she wanted Nelson to articulate it.

“‘Waitress’ is a show about complicated emotions and messy people,” the director said. “Whether you’re a man or a woman, we want you to be able to look on the stage and say, ‘I know that person, or I am that person.’ And I feel like all the movie work Jessie has done shows how interested she is in that.”

Crossing from screen to stage is hardly an easy transition, and even as many movies have made their way to Broadway in the last few years — “School of Rock,” “Rocky,” “Finding Neverland,” to name just three — they have mainly employed creators from the world of theater.

Nelson said she has had to make all the expected adjustments since arriving from Hollywood, including coming to terms with the full-on collaborative aspect of stage work and the fact that lines of dialogue in a musical’s book often exist to set up numbers. (Temporarily relocating to New York for the show, Nelson lives in Los Angeles with husband, the TV director Bryan Gordon. Their daughter’s obsession with the ‘Waitress” film helped introduce Nelson to the world Shelly created, the writer said.)

Although film audiences will instantly recognize many of the basics in the “Waitress” musical, there are some changes. The story for instance, starts at an earlier, less resolute point in Jenna’s arc. There are also different uses of the central pie metaphor, including via a song titled “What’s Inside” that Nelson worked on with Bareilles after Nelson came aboard.

“Waitress” has attracted some added attention because for the first time in Broadway history a musical’s top four creative slots — director, book writer, composer and choreographer — are occupied by women.

Nelson downplays how much this means.

“We didn’t set out to become the first show to do that; in fact, we didn’t even know this was a first until people started telling us,” she said. “We didn’t set out to have ‘Waitress’ told only by women. I honestly feel like it could have been told just as well by men.”

She paused. “I thought what Lilly Wachowski just said was interesting,” referring to the “The Matrix” co-director who recently revealed herself to be transgender. “She was talking about this notion of having a woman inside her. Women lie within men and men lie within women. With this show we’re just trying to tell a story about a person, someone who’s trying to become captain of their ship. I hope young women see it, and it makes them want to become writers and directors. But I also just want people to come watch an interesting character on a complicated journey.”

Twitter: @ZeitchikLAT

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