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Interview: Katharine McPhee

BY Simon Button

24th Apr 2019 Art & Theatre

Interview: Katharine McPhee
The singer and actress talks about starring in Waitress in the West End and the lessons she learned from American Idol

RD: What made you say yes to Waitress as your Broadway debut?

It was the music that drew me in originally. I’m a huge fan of Sara Bareilles [who wrote the score] and I was curious about her venturing into a musical, then I saw it and loved it. And I love the character of Jenna and her unique ability to avoid things. She keeps a pretty positive outlook on life but that’s only because she’s able to immerse herself in her work when all the while she’s in a marriage that’s kind of miserable. She goes into these reveries and that’s what gets her through.

RD: Can you relate to her in any way?

I try to relate to every character I play. [Laughs] Obviously I haven’t played a murderer yet and that might be a challenge in trying to relate but with Jenna I can relate to being in a relationship that wasn’t the most healthy, feeling like you’re dependent on someone and your history with them. In my early twenties I used to feel alone a lot and the idea of living alone was terrifying for me. 
I had to work through that, figure out why it was such a huge fear for me and why I felt unsettled in the world. Eventually, through relationships and my failed marriage [to Nick Cokas], I found my own sort of footing in the world but it took a long time. It’s not exactly the same for Jenna but there are some similarities where she doesn’t feel she can do this thing called “life” on her own without her husband.  

RD: Did you have any nerves, with it being your first big stage musical?

Oh yeah, of course, but it’s quite random for me. I might be doing a private gig for 200 people and I’m nervous but then I’ll walk into a huge stadium with Andrea Bocelli and I have no nerves at all. I’m in such a routine now with the show that when the curtain goes up I’m pretty relaxed but every now and then I get random butterflies. If something doesn’t go right, like a prop falls over, it puts you on edge but I see it as a good thing because with live theatre you can’t expect it to be the same every night.

RD: Have you ever been a waitress for real?

When I was 18 or 19 I worked at a friend of my dad’s restaurant in downtown Los Angeles and I’d take the train there four or five times a week over the summer. I really enjoyed it because it was a little tiny place where when it got busy I’d take orders and plate up the food.

RD: How are your baking skills? Can you rustle up a tasty cake?

I sure can, at least when it comes to those cake-in-a-box mixtures where you just add the oil and the eggs. And during the holidays I love to follow a pie recipe. There’s a piecrust I do that’s usually a big hit during Thanksgiving and Christmas and I love to make the occasional banana bread.

RD: You came second on American Idol in 2006. What’s the biggest lesson you learned from doing the show?

Contrary to what I portrayed on the show, which was that I was some seasoned professional who’d been singing in nightclubs every night, I was actually just a girl who wanted to be an actress and studied theatre in college for a couple of semesters. I had very little performance experience so what I learned was that to be a great performer you’ve just got to do it—you’ve got to find spaces to experience and learn and keep trying. I also learned that preparation is the most important thing. I pride myself on being as prepared as possible now because that’s what gives you confidence. 

RD: Have you met any of your own idols since then?

Celine Dion takes the cake for me. I’d be intimidated to perform a song with her or do a show with her, but meeting her as a human wasn’t intimidating—it was just an honour. I met her backstage at her show in Las Vegas eight years ago and every now and then I’ve seen her at an event. She probably doesn’t know who I am but she’s always so gracious and nice to everybody, and I love the whole rejuvenation she’s going through.

RD: How has it been performing in the West End?

It’s been amazing. I enjoy exploring the city and going to nice restaurants but I’m here for the work so I love going to the theatre every night. I’ve found audiences to be pretty similar to how they are in America. I haven’t found that they’re way more reserved, which is what people told me they might be before I came here. With some audiences I tell myself, “They’re just the smiley type” because they’re not as vocal and maybe they don’t hop to their feet as quickly but I’m not displeased at all with the reaction to the show.

RD: What’s next for you once you’ve finished your run in Waitress?

I don’t know exactly. We’re having conversations about different opportunities. I’m open to maybe doing a new Broadway show or a new TV show, to doing whatever sparks my fancy. But I’m going to take a bunch of time off, basically the whole summer, to spend with friends. We’re travelling by boat and plane to the South of France and around Greece. I’ve been in Europe this whole time but haven’t been able to go anywhere because of the intense schedule so my plan is just to travel and enjoy the summer.

RD: When it comes to musical theatre, do you have any wish-list roles?

I did a regional production of Annie Get Your Gun when I was 19 and it’d be fun to revisit that. It’d also be something of a challenge because in this age a man singing a song about “The girl that I’ll marry will have this, that and the other” is sort of old-fashioned. It’s definitely an empowering musical for a woman but you’d have to be sure not to bring out the old stereotypes.
Katharine McPhee stars in Waitress at the Adelphi Theatre, London, until June 15 and the show is currently booking until October.