The Doctor Is In: Waitress leading man Drew Gehling discusses the musical’s female narrative, his real-life medical history, and the perfect pie

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There’s something sweet being served up at Waitress: The Musical.

As the alluring and endearing Dr. Jim Pomatter, Drew Gehling creates a character the audience connects with while remaining true to playing a supporting role in the story led by Tony Award winner and current nominee Jessie Mueller as Jenna, a pie-baker and waitress stuck in a loveless marriage and dead-end job.

As Jenna and Pomatter fall in love on stage, the audience is swept up in their courtship. Gehling’s three songs in the production are sung as duets with Mueller and document the progress from curious flirtation (“It Only Takes A Taste”), indulging in infidelity (“Bad Idea”) to discovering an even deeper, soulful connection (“You Matter to Me”).

Gehling compared Waitress – which received four Tony nominations and carries the distinction as the only musical nominated for every Best Musical award of the season – to lightning in a bottle. And, on the heels of a record-breaking million dollar box office week, it’s difficult to argue with that comparison.

The highly-anticipated Broadway cast recording, which features all of the music and lyrics by Grammy nominated composer and lyricist Sara Bareilles, recently had its release date bumped up from June 10 to tomorrow, June 3.

Gehling spoke with Stage Door Dish as he was settling into his new home at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre to discuss working with the history-making all-female creative team, sharing the stage with Jessie Mueller for the second time, and how his history in medicine gave him a special insight into his character.

We know I’ve seen the show a few times but how do you describe it to someone walking in blindly?

Waitress is an amazing show about empowerment and knowing yourself and fulfilling your wants and desires that you didn’t necessarily know you had. It’s a really lovely show to be a part of, in that respect. It speaks to a lot of aspects of everybody’s personality. Everybody wishes that they had something that makes them very special, and that’s what this show tries to capture.

When did you get involved with it?

I joined this cast for the Cambridge production this past summer. I met everybody last June at the American Repertory Theatre.

This is your third Broadway show, right?

Yeah. My first Broadway show was Jersey Boys in 2009 and I was there until 2010. I did On a Clear Day You Can See Forever in 2010, and then I went back to Jersey Boys in 2012 and I stayed there for almost 3 years. I did some other plays and some various regional work and some off-Broadway stuff, and now I’m here.

This role is especially different because you’re playing the ‘romatic un-hero’. Pomatter’s not necessarily a hero.

Yeah, not necessarily. That’s kind of what attracted me to the part.He’s not necessarily your ideal guy. Anyone that commits an act of infidelity on his spouse has unusual morals or reasons for doing things. It’s not something that’s traditional musical fare. What attracted me to this show is that it’s an entire show of characters that don’t make the best and right decision all the time. It’s actually more human. We don’t make the right decision all the time. You follow your heart and you do things based on what will make you happy, and to think characters and people make decisions that are entirely based on the black-and-white rules out a massive part of what makes us human. This show explores that grey area.

How similar or different is Pomatter from you?

Oh God, enormously different. Pomatter is a blue-blooded doctor from Connecticut and I’m a southern boy from North Carolina who went to acting school. But, in a lot of other ways we are really similar. I went back to Columbia University’s post-bac pre-med program to study to be a physician for almost 3 years, so I have a lot of medical background, which helped me research this character and find what made him tick. Some characters are easier or harder to step into, and this was a nice fit. It was a really easy way in to figure out the kind of person that he was and how he operates.

How much say did you have in creating this character, since you joined during the workshop?

This team is fantastic. They were really generous with me and with all of us in allowing us to figure out exactly the way in which we wanted to play the characters. Within the confines of the script and the storytelling, there’s a lot of wiggle room to figure out what the best move for any character in any moment is. I got to have a lot of say in the way that developed through the lens of Jenna. This is one of those shows where everything that happens in the play happens to this main character, so all of us serve to forward her story. It was really liberating to figure out what serves my character the best and what serves Jenna’s character the best. That was always the answer.

Is there something you created in the show that people would notice?

I don’t know, you’d have to ask them. I’m really happy with the relationship that Pomatter and Jenna have. It’s not specific to any one particular person. It has a lot of elements to it that people can’t necessarily pin down why it works or why it doesn’t, and I appreciate that. Jessie and I can take a lot of the credit for figuring out that there wasn’t necessarily going to be ‘What’s the specific thing that she likes that he does?’ and ‘What’s the specific thing that he likes that she does?’ Rather, we’re able to feel what works best for the play.

I did want to talk about your chemistry with Jessie Mueller.

She’s the best scene partner ever. Certain people have the ability to be so present in the moment, and the two of us have a history because we’ve worked together a couple times before. We’re able to have a language and a way of working that’s simultaneously respectful and generous. She’s such a generous actress, especially considering the amount of heavy lifting she has to do in this play. I’m so lucky that I got to be a scene partner to a person who gives back immediately and also is thinking about what tells your character’s story as well as hers.

Did you discuss the characters before you started?

The longer you work on a play together, the more you speak the same language about where the characters are and what they want and what they need and what happens in any given moment. She and I and the rest of the cast would go for a glass of wine after the show. The thing about doing a show out of town is that it becomes like camp. You think about the show all the time. You work on the show during the day and then you talk about it at night and sleep on it and wake up the next day and go right back to rehearsal. It’s a continuous cycle of work on something that becomes entirely all-consuming. She and I would sit down and have a glass of wine, and through talking to each other and running scenes at home, over dinner, or whatever, you’re able to develop a rapport with a person that gives you instincts as to what is a good and bad move in a scene.

Diane Paulus is an incredible director. Is there a note or specific thing she told you that you think of every night or try to emulate in your performance?

We’ve been talking a lot these past couple of days about what makes a character’s relationship to another character kinetic. I had never really heard that from a director before, and I love the word and what suggests, and everything about it suggests forward motion and action, whether that’s emotional journeys or physical journeys or conversations that happen between characters. If things are in a constant state of motion, even if there’s complete and total stillness physically, you’re able to further a story that much better. I love Diane because she is a wonderful editor and a wonderful director. She has this uncanny ability to get all off the best minds in the room on the same expedition to the top of the mountain. She’ll say, ‘This is where we’re going,’ and we’re all going there together, and once we’re all walking the same direction, Diane has an uncanny ability to steer you in the proper direction. I have never worked with someone who can captain a ship so effectively that way.

I want to talk about the changes in the show since Boston. The current show is really so different.

It is pretty different, isn’t it? The bones of the show are the same, there’s just been a couple of shifts, like moments that used to happen one place happen later.

Is there something you’re much happier with or something that stands out as a great improvement?

I’m really glad that we’ve clarified a bit of the way in which the rest of the play revolves around Jenna specifically. Whether that’s through the movement that out brilliant choreographer, Lorin Latarro, has invented and fostered and workshopped over the course of the past several months, to Sara‘s score that adapted and changed songs in the show to be more appropriate for the moments in which they were written. I’m thrilled at all the changes, and I hope that they’re effective in telling the story better.

Sara is an amazing lyricist and composer. Out of your three songs, which would you say resonates most closely with you?

They’re all so fun to sing. Singing ‘Bad Idea’ is such a rush because it’s a moment in which our two characters finally decide that they’re going to do something about their feelings and not just sit on them anymore. It’s a really exciting, dramatic moment, and Sara had this great way of capturing that moment in that song. Something else that she does really well is write lyrics that are inherently integral to a character. You can read any lyric from this show on a page and almost immediately identify what character says it without being intimately familiar with the score or the text. You can understand that each different character has a very distinct voice. They speak differently, they speak differently, and she and Jessie Nelson have done a great job of being on the same page. They’ve been able to isolate the characters in such a great way that it makes it very playable from an actor’s standpoint.

You said before that you don’t really think about Pomatter’s life after Jenna. Is that still true? More of his personality comes out in the Broadway version of the show.

Yeah, he’s a lot more fleshed out. This was all stuff that I, as an actor, was already working on figuring out because we have to do that homework anyway. The fact that it’s in the show now serves the play, in that you understand why this person makes the kind of decisions that he makes because of what he is missing in this life. It’s not just my character; every character in this show is missing something or looking for something that they didn’t have that they desperately needed. In his particular case, not being on sugar is just the way in. For him to have tasted the pie that Jenna made right out of the gate starts him on a path of self-discovery that eventually leads to him reconciling with his spouse. Everyone always asks, ‘What do you think goes on with him afterwards?’ I think he actually finds a way to be happy. We all struggle with that, especially in our 20s and 30s. What is it that you want to be doing with your life? What is the happiest part of what you do, and how do you preserve that? One of the things that Jenna does for him is put him on this path of self-discovery and learning that he can be happy.

Nathan Fillion, who originated it in the movie, came to the show in Boston and was using Twitter to promote the show. Have you created a relationship with him or discussed the character?

Not so much. We met at opening night in Cambridge. I’m a huge fan of his and have been since Firefly, but that’s because I’m a big sci-fi geek. He was very complimentary and really excited about the show, and I’m really glad that everyone that was a part of the film, and now the people that are part of the show, are excited to tell the story. It’s so awesome that he’s been such a champion of it.

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What’s your favorite bonding memory with the cast, because you’ve been together for quite a while at this point?

We really have. It’s become a real Waitress family. This is a group of people at the top of their game, and they couldn’t be a nicer batch. Being in Boston together for an entire summer, we spent the Fourth of July together, we spent Labor Day together, we were all very much a team. We’ve done everything together, like taking cooking classes, going apple picking as a cast, and going to the beach as a cast. We’ve spent an inordinate amount of time together, but even the coolest things we’ve done up until this point are going to pale in comparison to the things that are to come. Everyone is a wonderful soul and extraordinarily talented.

Have you learned anything specific from people in the cast and crew?

I like to think that every show you do, you’re wasting your time if you’re not learning something from every actor you work with. It’s not just actors, but directors and designers.  

Not only is this a great cast and team, but our design team is beyond comparison. Scott Pask is an unbelievable scenic designer, Suttirat Anne Larlarb is a world-renowned costume designer, Chris Akerlind, our lighting designer is a frickin’ genius. I saw Light in the Piazza when I first moved here and it moved me to tears. Visually speaking, he’s ridiculous. Jonathan Deans, in my opinion, is the best sound designer on Broadway. He’s a total innovator and no one can design a show the way he can put together a soundscape and aural language.

I would be remiss if I didn’t try to absorb something from every single person that we’ve worked with so far, whether it’s learning about Chris Fitzgerald‘s process or Nick Cordero‘s process or the fact that Dakin Matthews is a world-renowned Shakespeare scholar or the fact that Jessie is able to adapt her vocal instrument for whatever kind of show that she’s in to the fact that Keala Settle has bigger balls than anybody that I have ever met to Kimiko [Glenn]‘s total immersion into her character work.

Every single person here is brilliant and not a day goes by where I don’t pick up something that I’ll take with me forever.

How has this show informed you as a father?

It makes it a lot easier to access because being aware of the fact that I have a two year old makes doing this show that much more touching and real. It’s about realizing that you are enough and what you have to offer your child and your legacy has value and worth, and no matter what happens, she’s the next step and she carries on what you teach her in the course of your life. I’ve found it to be enormously rewarding. To just work as an actor in the city is a treat, but to be able to do something that I care about and that I’m excited about is the kind of thing that I want my daughter to see me do. I want her to see me be happy to be a part of something. I’m also excited that she knows I’m in a play called Waitress, which she can say now.

What has being a dad changed in your life?

It changes everything. They say that everything changes, and it’s actually true. Your entire worldview shifts and it becomes much more long-term. You’re aware of what’s important and what’s not.

Are you a baker or a cook?

I cook, I don’t bake. Baking is such a science. I guess I cook like a baker, but I’m not very good at baking.

What are you good at making?

I can make a mean frittata and a mean baked ziti.

What is your favorite sweet?

I really like birthday cake. Yellow cake, chocolate frosting from a Betty Crocker box. I don’t know why I love it so much. That and M&M cookies.

Which character do you identify with the most in this show?

Cal, because he’s just going with it. I think we all could take a page out of his book and just go with what happens.

We could all take a page from Eric [Anderson], too. What a cool dude.

That’s part of it.

If Jenna created a pie for you, what would be in it?

I’d want to make a chicken pot pie, because it’s so hearty with a flaky crust on top. I know this is going to be totally inside the box, but I’d want a chicken noodle soup pie. Super runny in the middle but thick puff pastry on the top and bottom that’s crispy on the outside, but you open it up and there’s chicken and vegetables and noodles falling out.

Is that your personality?

No, I don’t know how I’d describe my personality as a dessert. Maybe fluffy yet delicious.

If you were not an actor, what would you do?

I would be an airline pilot. I flew a plane once when I was a kid, and I have always wanted to be a pilot. I feel like I’ll retire to a place where I can fly people places.

How did you fly as a kid?

A guy that lived near our beach house had a plane and took me out on it. I loved it. Being an actor is great because you can do a little bit of everything. Depending on what you’re playing, you throw yourself into it and learn everything there is to know about it. I’m playing a physician and I studied to be a physician for years.

Why did you go down that route and go back to acting?

I was fascinated by the fact that there were very few people in the medical field that had previously been artists. It’s such a heavily science-based trade, and most people that are in it come from a bio-chemistry background or a hard science background, and very few people come from the arts. Having worked with and met a lot of physicians and doctors, I became really intrigued by the prospect of taking care of singers, specifically. I wrote a couple of papers that explored vocal fatigue in Broadway performers that were published in the New England Journal of Voice a couple years ago. Columbia approached me and asked me to study there, and I said, ‘absolutely’. I was going down that path for a while before I realized it would be about 12 years before I could be a physician, and at that point I had a baby, and I didn’t want to spent the next 12 years not around for her, so I did plays instead and could be around during the day.

Did you start that while you were still acting?

Yeah. I was doing On a Clear Day at night and class during the day. I was really busy but it was fun.

This is such a feminist show. As a guy, specifically, why would you recommend people come see it?

We should all be feminists. I don’t understand a world where one is greater than the other. I just don’t think we live in that time anymore.

A lot of people think, ‘That show is for girls’, specifically because of the all-female team. 

So what? Come anyway, and I defy you to not have a good time. People are coming, they’re bringing their boyfriends and husbands, and they’re loving it too. You can’t go wrong. There’s something for everyone in this show, whether you identify with Cal, or you identify with Dr. Pomatter, or you dated Earl, or you dated Ogie, everyone is seen in this show and made human, not just marginalized and made into a caricature. That’s why this show is special. It strikes a chord with people. Whether you’re a gruff guy or a big softy, you feel things. I feel so lucky to be part of something that’s so historic, especially from the entire female creative team standpoint, but when that press release came out, I didn’t even think of it. When I was looking at a table that was Sara, Jessie Nelson, Diane, Lorin, Lorin’s associate, Diane’s assistant, Jessie’s assistant, Nadia, Suttirat, just going down the line, all I was thinking about was that this was a group of people who are at the top of their game and happen to be working on the same show, and it’s all the right ingredients at the right time. Thank God they all got to work together on something because it’s lightning in a bottle.

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About Samantha S.

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

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