Jennifer Nettles sang “She Was Mine”. But not by crying.
Sara Bareilles and Jennifer Nettles have been friends for over a decade, and Nettles had long been eager to get into Bareilles’ musical “Waitress”.
âFor years we kept trying to get there, but it never worked on the logistics side,â she said on a recent video call.
It all finally fell into place this fall, and Wednesday Nettles, who is best known as half of Grammy-winning country duo Sugarland, completed a five-week run playing Jenna, a pie magician. taken with an unexpected pregnancy, in the show, as he returned with Broadway himself.
âIt’s a beautiful and sacred space, and Broadway is such a community,â Nettles, 47, said of finally being able to tie Jenna’s apron. “It was very poignant to be in this salon for this reopening.”
Bareilles was happy to see Nettles also tune in to her show and the song “She Used to Be Mine”.
âJennifer knows so clearly who Jenna really is,â she said via email. âI watch my friend disappear on stage and I only see the complexity of Jenna. His last moments in “She Used to Be Mine” are some of my all-time favorites. She digs deep and doesn’t go up for air, connecting the musical phrases as her character finds her strength.
Seeing Nettles thrive on Broadway may surprise those who only know the Sugarland singer-songwriter or his flourishing solo career. But “Waitress” was not Nettles’ first rodeo. She played Roxie Hart in “Chicago” in 2015 and Donna Sheridan in “Mamma Mia!” at the Hollywood Bowl two years later. In June, she released a collection of musical theater numbers called “Always Like New”.
She also has a thriving on-screen career with roles in the movie “Harriet” and as the matriarch of a family of televangelists in the HBO comedy “The Righteous Gemstones”.
The effervescent Nettles opened up about becoming a mom, sane shoes and, uh, her dressing room poison at the Ethel Barrymore Theater, shortly before one of her last performances on “Waitress.” These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
You have loved musicals since your childhood. Why did you choose country music?
Throughout my high school and college education, I was able to do both because there were programs and community theater. I started to get traction in music in college and I had that fork moment, and I was like, “Music has some momentum, I’m going to go.” But I always dreamed of being able to do both, and I was just one person [laughs].
When did you start planting the seeds for a shift to musical theater?
About 12 years ago, I was going to do Elphaba in “Wicked” on tour, then hit Broadway. But I was facing a ton of acid reflux back then, before we really knew it was a thing for singers. I was really, really stressed and pulled out because I didn’t know what was going on with my instrument. The right thing always comes at the right time, you know, and in 2015 I got to enjoy the Broadway scene in “Chicago.”
Between the new album and the reopening of Broadway, did you feel like a happy coincidence in musical theater?
I had recorded “Always Like New” during 2019 and we recorded the last note of the last song on March 12, 2020. I walked out of the vocal booth and our phones started to turn on, saying Broadway was shutting down . I released the record in June and it was kind of like waving that âOK, we’re coming backâ flag, because we knew the plans for a hopeful reopening in September. So, going from an album that I’ve always wanted to make to get into the very stages that inspired it – artistically, that was how it’s supposed to be.
What do you think of Jenna?
The journey of motherhood, for me and some women, was such a confluence – I jokingly called it identity hype. I was never one of those women who thought she always wanted to have children. I was open to it and love children, but I already had another goal. The loss that happens to everyone, but especially to mothers who have a pre-existing employment goal outside of the family – the loss was extreme. The gains were beautiful too, don’t get me wrong, but both of your hands are full in motherhood: there is sacrifice, loss and death, and there is birth, beauty, and wholeness. I identify with Jenna as a woman, as being from the South, but this transformation where she’s just like, “Wow, what’s going on in my life?” Who am I? What I want? âIs so accessible to me.
You did Jenna’s showstopper, “She was mine” in concert. What was it like singing him on the show?
It is so different. In concert, you do it just like a piece of music. To do it in character and in the arc, and that being his 11 o’clock moment. Playing while crying is its own animal.
Did you look forward to the number or were you dreading it?
Once I figured out how to sing it, play it, cry it, and scream it all at the same time, I couldn’t wait to be there. There has been so much tension for her during this time that allowing this release is very cathartic every time I do it.
At least you have to do it with reasonable shoes.
Thank you Lord! I’m glad she’s a waitress and can wear these shoes for sure.
What goes through your mind as you finish the series?
I wish it was longer, but in some ways it’s just the right size, you know? I’d rather leave a little hungry than too full and I’m like “Get me out of here!” “
You’re writing the score for a new musical inspired by Giulia Tofana. What can you tell us about her?
She was a slow poisoner in the 17th century. She is credited with what they call the first Italian divorce, where she helped women out of their marriage by killing their husbands [laughs]. Which just makes it fun.
It’s definitely a different career path than pie or country music.
And to be able to tell the story of a woman who is not this 20-year-old ingenuous! I entered much darker transformative caves as a woman in her forties than I ever did in her twenties. The stakes are higher. This is not the journey of a budding hero – it is the journey of a soaring warrior. Very different. It is also a warning that we still have a long way to go when it comes to women. The sexism has been so delicately woven that many times we just don’t see it and we think, like, âOh, we’ve come this far. ” Have we? So I’m delighted to tell this story – to celebrate it, to offer a conversation, a provocation.