“I’m always playing a waitress,” muses Katharine McPhee. The American Idol alumna notes that Karen Cartwright, her breakout role on the NBC series Smash, “starts out as a waitress, as many actors do.” Paige Dineen, whom she currently plays on CBS’s Scorpion, “was a waitress in the pilot.”
McPhee, however, has never actually had a job waiting tables herself, though she briefly worked in a restaurant. “I was a hostess, and they upgraded me to doing takeout, but I was horrible at it. I couldn’t handle all the stuff happening, the phone ringing and bagging food. So that lasted a very short time.”
Happily, McPhee’s professional life has blossomed since then, even if her latest part finds her once again slinging plates. On April 10, McPhee will begin performances in the hit Broadway musical titled, yes, Waitress. Adapted from the acclaimed 2007 film starring Keri Russell, the show, featuring a score by singer/songwriter Sara Bareilles, follows Jenna, a master piemaker working at a small-town diner who discovers she is pregnant by her abusive husband.
Jenna was introduced on stage by Tony Award winner Jessie Mueller (appearing this season in a revival of Carousel), and has since been played by fellow theater vet Betsy Wolfe, and by Bareilles herself.
“I always thought it could be easily transferred to Broadway, in a modern way,” says McPhee, elegant in a tastefully low-cut black top and flowing red pants, before recalling that the production wanted her to take on the role during a hiatus between seasons three and four of Scorpion. However, Bareilles decided to join the production for a while, “which makes total sense. And then last December, they asked if I wanted to step in later, and I was honored -- because I’d been obsessed with the music for two years.”
Though Waitress marks McPhee’s Broadway debut, she is hardly a musical-theater neophyte, having studied it during three semesters at Boston Conservatory. As a high school freshman, she was the only member of her class chosen for the annual musical -- “I felt really cool,” she recalls -- nabbing an ensemble role in Once Upon a Mattress; the following year she played Little Red Riding Hood in Into the Woods. At 20, McPhee beat out an Equity actress for the lead role in a professional production of Annie Get Your Gun in California.
Of Jenna, McPhee says, “I feel like I have lived this part. Not to dive too far into my personal life, but I can tell this story in a really honest way.” Though she hasn’t suffered domestic physical abuse, “I’ve been in dysfunctional relationships, and I can definitely relate to having someone not treat you kindly, and yet there’s something about that person that makes you not want to leave.”
She adds, “I know good people can make big mistakes. I’ve made huge mistakes, and the issue is how do you learn to move forward and try to redeem yourself, and make better choices in the future?”
Offscreen, the performer has generated headlines for her rumored romance with the longtime musician and producer David Foster. She and Foster have been spotted out together, looking very much a couple, though McPhee chooses not to define their relationship. Asked if he will see her in Waitress, though, McPhee says, “I hope so…” before breaking into a wide smile. “Of course he’ll come. But I don’t know which night, because he’s doing his own tour dates.”
Despite his many years in the music industry, Foster has not been helping McPhee prepare vocally for Waitress. “He’s not a voice coach,” she notes, adding: “He always says, ‘You don’t need a coach, you can sing; you either have it or you don’t.’”
And when it comes to Waitress, she has the singing down, as she does with the acting. But the Broadway stage is a whole new experience. “The only thing making me nervous is that things don’t yet come automatically,” McPhee says. “I’m not there yet, but I will be. It’s just a matter of trusting the process.”