Lorin Latarro on the universal themes in Waitress, coupling choreography with Sara Bareilles lyrics

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Lorin Latarro made theatre history when her name was announced as the choreographer for the new musical Waitress. Latarro, who served as choreographer for Broadway’s Waiting For Godot starring sir Ian McKellan and Patrick Stewart and associate choreographer for the Tony Award-winning play Curious Incident of Dog in the Nighttime, was the final creative named for Waitress‘s historic all-female leadership team.

Latarro leads the company with acclaimed book writer Jessie Nelson, Tony Award winning director Diane Paulus, and Grammy nominated songwriter Sara Bareilles. Tony Award winning actress Jessie Mueller leads the company onstage in the role of Jenna, a pie-maker and diner waitress.

Waitress will start previews on Friday, March 25, and has its opening night scheduled for April 24. In the middle of a busy time at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, as the cast and crew prepare for their first preview, Latarro took time to talk with Stage Door Dish about the musical’s historic team and the universal messages found in Waitress.

How did you first get involved with Waitress?

I had some meetings with Diane, and she just really wanted to get some magic into the choreography. I told her my ideas and she was on board with them.

For those of us who saw it in Boston, how has Waitress evolved?

The music is so exquisite, and many of the songs are the same. There might be one or two new songs, little surprises here and there. Physically, from a choreographic standpoint, when Jenna’s baking pies, instead of watching her bake pies, we’re watching what’s going on inside her head in a few moments. I was interested in choreographing what she was thinking about like running away, winning the pie contest, and that’s what we actually choreographed. There are a few moments where I took away the table and used pieces of bunraku and Japanese kabuki theatre with people shape-shifting and delivering ingredients to her in a magical way.

The choreography is really about Jenna. It’s not a big, flashy musical theatre production.

Exactly. It’s a lot of physical theatre, there’s a lot of work that’s very text-based, and it’s how Jenna would move and behave as opposed to how a dancer would move and behave. It’s what’s going on inside her head as a waitress in the south, a woman carrying a baby: what happens during delivery, what happens when she has her first contraction, what happens when the baby kicks. Taking the moments of realism and then abstracting them so they become a little bit more physical than normal, in a cool way. What I was interested in was making it feel like every woman in the world was having a contraction, not just one woman. I wanted to sort of get the every-man feel in there. Or every-woman feel, if you will.

I’d really like your opinion on which have been your favorite songs to work with in this production.

I love them all. I think ‘Soft Place to Land’ puts you in a trance. Ogie’s songs, ‘Never Getting Rid of Me’ and ‘I Love You Like a Table’, are so funny. To be able to write ‘Soft Place to Land’ and ‘Never Getting Rid of Me’ is pretty impressive.

Everybody talks about ‘She Used to be Mine’, which is such a moving song, but there’s something so exquisite about ‘A Soft Place to Land.’  As a choreographer, how much does it take out of you to choreograph something so simplistic?

It takes just as much preparation. I like it all. I love choreographing a big dance number like ‘Too Darn Hot’, but I also really love tiny, specific things that Jenna, as a character, would do. I love figuring out how to make that look like choreography. I’m very interested in all of it. It takes just as much time and effort to do this as it does a big dance number. It’s still figuring out how to build the number, how to make it feel magical, how to make it feel realistic at the same time, making sure it’s illuminating the text and building the number. It’s all the same rules, it’s just the content that’s different.

The three ladies [Jenna, Dawn, and Becky] are basically the pulse of the show. What makes people attached to the story are these three friends that work in the diner together. Can you talk about the movement and choreography that goes into establishing each of these three ladies as their own character?

First of all, there are two layers of choreography. Not only is there the numbers in the show, but there’s the choreography of how the diner behaves. I’m interested in pouring real coffee, and eating real pie, the construct that there’s patrons in the diner, and the boss is ringing the bell that the orders are up. That also becomes choreographed in the room. Diane and I are working closely on how to choreograph the scene on top of that. Dawn, Becky, and Jenna all behave differently. They move at a different pace, they walk at a different pace, they dance at a different pace. They’re different women, different archetypes.

Were you familiar with the movie before you started talking to Diane about this?

It’s funny, I loved the movie but I hadn’t seen it many years. I saw it when it first came out, and then when this all happened, I went back and re-watched it. It’s just so quirky and unique.

What has appealed to you most about the process of working on Waitress?

Just the idea that we can make it anything we want to. Diane allows me to make it my own. The source material is great but there were never songs before so we’re making it up. The sky’s the limit. Imagination is the limit.

I want to talk about the five of you [Paulus, Nelson, Bareilles, and Mueller]; the first all-female team. What’s it like being part of such a history-making team?

It’s pretty cool. Here’s more and more parity, I really believe in it. It happened organically, no one was looking for that. I got lucky that I was the person who got the job, and I happened to be a woman. It’s a really wonderful energy in the room with these women; it’s a really tight, open collaboration. They’re all at the top of their fields, respectively. I’m really proud and honored to be a part of it.

What have you learned from these ladies so far?

I’ve learned that there’s a thousand ways to answer a question. They’re always asking questions, they’re always open to rewrites, they’re always open to changing music. Staying open is the key to a new process.

I want to ask about the significance of Waitress. It’s such a timely, important message. When I talk about the show, I always say it’s a very feminist story. 

It’s about having a woman find the courage. It’s about her own personal courage. And there’s a larger conversation about physical abuse, what that is and how to get out of it. There’s also a larger story about the universal gift that women have to be able to have a child and all the fears and dreams and scary stuff and great stuff that goes along with it.

What has been the biggest challenge of working on Waitress?

Just prepping every day. I get to rehearsal at 8am, stay until 7pm, then go home and work until 9:30 or 10 at night and then start over. It’s just that every day we have to be prepared for a new number.

I wanted to draw on the kinship between Sara’s words, which are written as things people would actually say as opposed to lyrics that don’t really resonate, your choreography, and what people should be expecting to see.

I hope they find it magical. Sara and I have had some beautiful collaboration and her music basically choreographs itself. You know what to do with it because her lyrics are so specific.

Why should people see Waitress?

There are so many reasons. It’s a beautiful story, it’s a poignant story, it’s an important story, and it’s a funny story. All at the same time.

Who should see Waitress?

Everybody should see Waitress. It’s not just for women. It’s nice to see a female protagonist at the center of a show but it’s a show that everyone will enjoy. It’s universal.

If Jenna created a pie in your honor, what would it be called?

Chocolate Chocolate Push-Up pie.

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About Samantha S.

"I found the theatre and I found my home.” ― Audra McDonald

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