Waitress (Show) and A Star Is Born (Film): “the tension inherent in live performance”

Listening to: She Used to Be Mine, Sara Bareilles—Waitress

It is because of Gretchen Rubin that I found myself in the second row at Waitress on a recent weekend watching Sara Bareilles belt “She Used to Be Mine.”

I love Gretchen Rubin’s Happier podcast. I liked the book years ago, but my life was messier then—I was in the midst of packing up everything to move to another country and some of her suggestions fell flat at that particular time. These days, there’s much more room in my life for things like contemplating what brings me joy and figuring out how to make life go more smoothly. I welcome advice from a researcher who’s spent some time figuring some of this stuff out, and the Happier podcast serves that up in a sweet conversational format.

That said—I don’t listen religiously (I have too many podcasts on rotation to catch every episode) but I did happen to hear her recap of her 18 for 2018 list. Gretchen and her sister (and thousands of listeners) made lists of 18 things they wanted to accomplish in 2018. They ranged from the general/basic (get more sleep, call my sister more often, buy 1 pair of pants in a color other than black) to the specific/complex (complete a marathon in under 4 hours, read 30 books, watch 50 movies from the Criterion Collection) and everything in between. There’s no penalty for not crossing an item off your list—it simply rolls over into the next year or just doesn’t get done. Maybe the idea was too complex or too easy or just didn’t jive with the rest of your values and kept getting punted which could be a sign that your aspirations are not aligned with reality. Maybe you had crazy, unanticipated things happen during this particular year that rendered your list one of those laughable “Life is what happens while you’re making other plans” situations. Regardless, your list should ultimately contain things that, in some way, bring you joy or get you from where you are closer to where you want to be.

As I do with most things, I corralled a group of friends to put together our “19 for 2019” lists. I spent some time thinking about what brings me joy that has fallen by the wayside as of late. At the very top of that list: see more live performance.

I love live performance. I especially love musical theater. It is an lifelong joy for me—but one I, for some reason, rarely indulge in as an adult. So, one of the first things I wrote down for 2019 was “see more live theater.” And then I thought of the place where there is lots and lots of live theater—New York. And I thought of a show I’ve wanted to see—Waitress. And I called up a bestie who was not only fully game for this experience (and graciously willing to host me for the weekend), she managed to wrangle us some tickets. Tickets for, we later found out, one of the shows in which Sara Bareilles herself was reprising the role of Jenna.

Seeing a favorite artist perform is one of those spiritual experiences that roots your feet to the ground and wakes up something dormant inside of you. On a Saturday night in a packed theater, I watched Sara Bareilles open her mouth and the notes to the song I’ve been playing ad nauseum since last spring came tumbling out, smooth and sweet as honey. In She Used to Be Mine, Jenna is coming to terms with a handful of loose ends in her life—an abusive husband, an unwanted pregnancy that is barreling closer and closer to a due date of an actual baby, an ill-advised relationship with her (also married) OBGYN. She’s speaking, presumably, to the unborn child inside of her but she’s also reminding herself that she was a different person at some point before things got so off-track. It’s a reminder that she used to be hopeful, a little more daring, and it’s also a call to be a little kinder to herself. That things have happened that were out of her control and that, really, she’s just fucking doing the best she can on a day to day basis which is all any of us can hope for anyway. It’s an absolutely gorgeous song, the 11 o’clock number of the show.

The moment was so suspended in reality, so incredible, I didn’t want the song to end. I wanted her to keep on singing, for there to be yet another chorus, another refrain. I wanted to keep the little shifts in inflection that naturally occur between a recording and a live performance; to pocket them away like smooth little seashells.

In that moment, she held every one of us captive. No one could blink or breathe—and no one wanted to.

To top off the weekend, we managed to get in to see A Star Is Born which, while not live performance, spends a lot of time capitalizing on the tension inherent in the craft.

See: The buildup as Jackson Main strums the opening chords of Ally’s song while she’s waiting in the wings, teasing her out onto stage because he knows she’ll never leave a stanza hanging.

See: Every time Jackson stumbles out on stage, drunk and strung out, and those painful moments before his fingers pluck out the correct chords on his guitar and you see that he is so seasoned as both a performer and a raging alcoholic that he can be both at the same time—brilliantly.

See: The awful, irreversible moment when Jackson completely hijacks Ally’s Grammy win by tripping drunk up the piano-gloss stairs and pissing himself on live TV while she desperately tries to shield his midsection from view with her voluminous gown, her Grammy trophy still clutched precariously in her hand.

See: The hitch in Ally’s breath when she finally faces the public again at a memorial benefit to sing the love song Jackson wrote for her.

It was absolute magic to see a Broadway show starring a favorite singer on a Saturday and then to watch a movie on Sunday that’s built on the very same thing that makes theater so fucking great. Tension and the deliverance from that tension is why theater is best served live, piping hot—not cold and filmed—but A Star is Born crosses the divide and does it well.

When there are tiny hitches in performance, an actor who breaks character for a second or loses her balance in a dance sequence, the audience feels nothing less than the cold clutch of death. When that actor regains control and slides professionally into the next beat, the next moment, the next laugh, the audience gets to have a moment of immortality. We’ve escaped sure death again. Rhythm and balance somehow always win.

Waitress is brilliant, and brilliantly scored. I loved the movie when I saw it a decade ago and was so excited to see that not only was there a musical written on the fantastic premise of a lonely, knocked-up Southern diner waitress married to a piece of shit manchild and in lust with her obstetrician, it was written by the talented Sara Bareilles. I missed its run in DC and then lots of life happened and because Gretchen Rubin inspired me to seek out things that bring me joy in 2019, I reached out to a friend and we made this moment happen. And it was fucking magical.

Now, on to the other 18 things on my list for 2019. Which includes: blogging again. Check and check.

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