It’s been a busy season for Bernie Telsey, founder of the casting office Telsey + Company. His company reps five Broadway musicals and one Broadway play—all opening in the next two months. But through it all, Telsey feels relaxed. “It's a great office that I have here,” he enthuses. And in the midst of these openings, Telsey is also responsible for replacing the leads for the musical Waitress. Original leads Jessie Mueller and Drew Gehling, along with replacement William Popp, will leave the show at the end of this month.
That’s presented a particular challenge for the veteran casting director, who casts the show alongside casting director Patrick Goodwin. “If everyone’s leaving at the same time, that's tricky, because you need a bunch of people at the same time,” Telsey explains. “It's easier to line up one person at a time.”
Luckily, Telsey had some help. Sara Bareilles, who composed the music and lyrics for Waitress, wanted to make her Broadway debut and replace Mueller in the role of Jenna. That was a no-brainer for Telsey. Though Bareilles doesn’t have much acting experience, she’s a natural fit for the role. “God knows all of us listened to Sara sing even before she wrote Waitress,” he says of the four-time Grammy nominee. “I think as a singer, she exudes emotions and she exudes storytelling…. All of her songs are so emotional and do tell a story and in some ways, she's already acting through song.” (Not to mention her album What’s Inside: Songs From Waitress released prior to the show’s Broadway bow.)
In fact, when casting for Jenna previously, the main priority is someone whose voice is reminiscent of Bareilles’s. “It’s so specific to Sara's kind of voice that it needs someone who can break away from that normal musical theatre sound,” he explains. “And in this particular show, you need a little bit of that pop sound, a little bit of that folk sound — a unique sound.” It’s also someone who has stamina because the character is in almost every scene of the show. “She's really there the whole time,” he says, “It's a big role to fill.”
Telsey wasn’t responsible for casting Bareilles, but he did cast the two men who will be playing opposite her: Chris Diamantopoulos (Silicon Valley) and Will Swenson (Hair). Neither of the two men are new to the show: Diamantopoulos did an early reading of Waitress while Swenson was a contender for the role of Earl. Both were unavailable during the initial runs. Now, the three leads all start Waitress on the same day, March 31. “It almost feels like a brand-new show, which is exciting,” enthuses Telsey, “All three people are stars in their own right that normally, you’d want to see start in a show.”
That’s because for Waitress, the focus isn’t on character types and who can fit into a certain mold. For example, Diamantopoulos will take over as Dr. Pomatter who, on the page, is basically, “a leading man who's really funny,” says Telsey. “Drew's amazing but he's different than when Chris did the reading. You really get to bring yourself to it.” The casting director describes the characters in the show as “character-full”—they can be played “any which way” and can be any race. The role of Dawn, currently played by white actor Caitlin Houlahan, was originated by Asian-American actor Kimiko Glenn, and later played by Asian-American actor Jenna Ushkowitz. Keale Settle originated the role of Becky, now played by black actor Charity Angel Dawson. Telsey affirms any new actor who steps into the roles can bring a fresh new take to the character. “It's not like in some shows where you're locked into a way, because you're telling a specific story,” Telsey says. “Here it's really about a diner of personalities and people, and their situation is the story. There's a lot of freedom to how it can be cast.” And that kind of freedom, he explains, “makes the casting for us really fun, because we're not locked into types.”