Waitress is finally coming! Or, How much should you know about a show before seeing it?


With this morning's very exciting news that Waitress is finally coming to the West End in February next year, I started thinking about how much I actually know about this show, and why I'm excited. (I know that I am excited because when I stumbled across the news on Twitter, I let out a too-loud gasp and my stomach flipped over a little bit. Probably a bit of an overreaction, but we'll let it slide).

I think I'm excited for this show for a few reasons, including, but not limited to:

  • I really love the songs 'She Used To Be Mine' and 'When He Sees Me'
  • Sara Bareilles, the songwriter of Waitress, makes lovely songs
  • It has an all-female creative team, a first for a West End musical
  • It's got a lot of buzz from Broadway (or did a couple of years ago when it first opened)

The question is, why do I even know those songs? I'm not entirely sure how it came about, but I found myself listening to 'She Used To Me Mine' one day back in 2016, and ended up a crumpled sobbing mess on my bed at first listen (pretty inconveniently, actually, since I recall I was meant to be packing for a trip at the time). Not having had such a viceral reaction to a song maybe ever, I decided to check out the rest of the soundtrack. I've listened to the whole thing probably 5 or 6 times, and the songs mentioned above countless more times than that. I don't plan to listen again before the show next year, and I think that's a reasonably happy medium.

This is an issue I've stumbled across more and more over the last few years - striking a balance between enjoying the music of a show in your everyday life, and keeping enough mystery to fully appreciate the show in its truest form - live on stage. If you know every detail of every word and note in every song - the studio version, or a highly-produced live recording - it can be really tough for the cast to live up to that, no matter how impressive they are.

When I saw Hamilton for the first time, it was overwhelming. I had lived and breathed that show for years, and being in the room where it was going to happen was completely surreal. But - and this was actually kind of tough to admit for a while - it was also kind of... underwhelming. I tried to avoid seeing many production shots, hoping to keep the 'visuals' as a surprise because I'd heard all the songs already, but it wasn't enough. With each line of each song, I was like "yup, so that's that one". In the 2 years I'd been listening to it, I had numbed myself to the sheer brilliance of Lin-Manuel Miranda's writing.

I left the theatre feeling a bit jealous of people who had booked on a whim knowing nothing about it. I remember how amazing it was to hear those songs for the first time, just in my bedroom on my iPhone, and they got to hear them for the first time in that setting? How incredible! By loving the show from afar for too long, I basically 'listened my way out' of that feeling, permanently. I've made peace with it now because I realised that if I hadn't listened to the soundtrack in 2015, I probably wouldn't have fallen back in love with musical theatre, and could have missed out on so many precious experiences I've had over the last two years. The second time I saw it, I was able to enjoy it so much more. Turns out? Hamilton is actually a great show, have you heard?!

It's important to note that there is obviously a difference between sung-through shows and those with a lot of dialogue in them. You can listen to the soundtrack of Wicked in full and not really get a thorough understanding of the plot at all. I can personally attest to this, as can the dozens of audience members who had the misfortune to be sat nearby as I laughed, gasped and very audibly wept throughout my first viewing. When the dialogue allows you to hear the songs in a whole new light, it can be like you've never truly heard them before.

For me though, musicals live and die by their songs - if the songs lose their impact, the whole thing suffers. I saw Fun Home recently, another show I'd been eagerly anticipating for years, and it was similarly slightly underwhelming, despite having significant chunks of spoken dialogue that was new to me. This is not to say that these casts don't have every bit as much talent as the performers on the soundtracks (although clearly sometimes that can be the case), it's just that the songs inevitably lose their sheen, particularly if you're seeing largely the same staging/interpretation as the one recorded, as is the case with those productions.

So how do we solve this? With West End theatre prices being what they often are, it can be difficult to justify purchasing a ticket to a big show without knowing any of the music at all. For smaller shows without cast recordings you obviously have to do this, but the prices are often more reasonable, and anyway it's fun to take a chance on a director/writer/recommendation when the stakes are slightly lower. After what happened with Hamilton, I decided to stop listening to recordings of musicals I've never seen. I'm just trying to keep an ear to the ground, finding out which shows are coming, and maybe taking more risks in my ticket booking choices. For shows I have seen in the past, all bets are off - In The Heights, Fun Home and Les Mis√©rables etc. on repeat to my heart's content.

I do still think it can be really valuable to try out one or two songs from a show though. If I hadn't randomly clicked on the video of 'She Used To Be Mine' I wouldn't be writing this now, and if I hadn't watched that clip from Late Night with Seth Meyers, featuring a song from a new musical, there's every chance I wouldn't have ended up singing a song from that show onstage myself, with my choir, fulfilling a childhood dream.

Theatre is first and foremost a live storytelling medium, and it's a bit of a shame to miss out on the full emotional impact of a wonderful production because you're hearing the songs for the 800th time. But cast recordings are often the most accessible version of a show for many people, and the joy that can be found in listening to them, singing along, sharing them with friends and enjoying them together should be cherished too.

Maybe there is no solution? Either way, I'm very excited about Waitress, but that beautiful Broadway cast recording is going to be on lock down until early 2019.