What’s Inside: the songs of Waitress the Musical

One of the things we teach on the undergraduate Creative Writing module at Cardiff University is that, to be a writer, you should read far and wide. You should soak up the words of others, digest them, and begin again.

Something that doesn’t always come up in the conversation, however, is the fact that the words don’t have to be printed, and that there are other ways for writing to reach us.

In December 2019, before the pandemic madness hit, I went with my husband to see Waitress: the Musical on the West End. I had seen Adrienne Shelly’s original film, with Keri Russell and Nathan Fillion, and loved it. A friend recommended the musical. Why not? I thought. I don’t know exactly what I expected, but the reality of the show was far better than that. For those who don’t know Waitress, this is the storyline: Jenna Hunterson is a waitress in an unhappy marriage who suddenly finds herself pregnant. When she visits her new gynaecologist, Dr Jim Pomatter, the two form an unexpected connection and begin an affair. Jenna, a skilled baker, decides to enter a pie contest, planning to use the prize money to leave her husband and begin a new life elsewhere – but nothing goes according to plan.

The London cast was fabulous (a special mention here to the Welsh actress and singer Lucie Jones, who made an amazing Jenna) and the songs made a deep impression on me. Immediately after, my husband and I bought the soundtrack, and we’ve been listening to it since. It’s not unusual for us to play the Waitress music in the car when we’re going somewhere, and we listen to the whole thing – there isn’t one song we skip. Sara Bareilles wrote the music for Waitress, and while I like her (I had bought a few of her songs before) I think she really outdid herself here. The songs are funny, sad, full of heart and of unexpected rhymes (I mean, ‘A pot and a piss/Here we go, sis’’?). There are three songs – three stanzas, really – which always get to me, as a writer, and this is what I wanted to write about.

Sometimes I still see her

My mother, the dreamer

She’d say ‘Nothing’s impossible, child’

‘A Soft Place to Land’ (Music and Lyrics by Sara Bareilles)

This is from the song ‘A Soft Place to Land,’ where Jenna reflects back on her relationship with her mother, whom she lost. Her mother taught Jenna to bake, and the tender bond between them comes across clearly throughout the musical. The music also contributes to getting me choked up when I hear this song – but it’s the simplicity of this line that does it. ‘Sometimes I still see her.’ The fact that the people we love never really leave us, that it is so difficult to say goodbye, to accept that we might never see them again, talk to them again. That’s what this line is about for me, the raw tug of grief, even years after the fact.

I can’t help

but wonder how your hands must have felt

creating such a masterful thing

‘It Only Takes A Taste’ (Music and Lyrics by Sara Bareilles)

The song ‘It Only Takes a Taste’ stages the first connection between Jenna and Dr Pomatter, as they’re waiting at the bus stop. Jenna brought a pie she baked to the doctor’s office, and the lines above are sung by Dr Pomatter, who tasted her pie and found it delicious. I think what also gets me about these particular lines is the choice of the word ‘masterful’. It is so important here because Jenna is someone who has been beaten down by life, a waitress in a café; her husband takes her for granted and she feels she has no way out. For Pomatter – a man, a doctor – to describe her baking as ‘masterful’ (not delicious, not delightful, not amazing, but masterful, a word which involves mastery, which is more often, in my opinion, associated with men than women) is significant. It is empowering.

You matter to me

simple and plain, and not much to ask from somebody

‘You Matter To Me’ (Music and Lyrics by Sara Bareilles)

It’s difficult to pick a favourite song from this musical – I love them all so much – but I think, perhaps, ‘You Matter to Me’ might be it. These lines are a little ironic, I think, because it is a lot to ask of someone – for them to see you as you are, and accept you without trying to change you. I love the fact that the words Dr Pomatter chooses to use are not ‘I love you’ – which begin with the ‘I’, and can feel somewhat egotistical, because they’re all about the speaker and their feelings – but rather ‘you matter to me,’ which focus on the ‘you’ as the subject of the sentence, and the choice of this word, ‘matter.’ You’re important. I care what happens to you. These are the things that Dr Pomatter is saying, even though he’s married, even though he’s not a shining-armoured hero and cannot rescue her.

Ultimately, the story of Waitress is about love – unexpected love, love that blossoms in places it shouldn’t, but also self-love, loving yourself enough to care. To pull yourself out of the darkness. As a writer, I find it incredibly inspiring.