Katharine McPhee Recalls Saying an 'Elated Yes' to Her Broadway Debut in 'Waitress'

Katharine McPhee
Matt Murphy

Katharine McPhee in "Waitress"

"There isn’t a song I don’t like in the show," the "American Idol" alum says of Sara Bareilles' score.

Since ending American Idol's fifth season in 2006 as runner-up, Katharine McPhee has built an eclectic career, including starring roles on television -- currently in the CBS drama Scorpion, in addition to her memorable turn as Broadway hopeful Karen Cartwright on the cult 2012 hit Smash -- as well as a recording career that most recently produced 2017's Don Was-produced collection of standards, I Fall in Love Too Easily.

Incredibly, McPhee hasn't made the leap to Broadway until now: She's about to debut in the leading role of Jenna in Sara Bareilles' hit Waitress. In the weeks leading up to her Tuesday bow, Billboard caught up with McPhee to hear about the process of transitioning from merely portraying a Broadway actress on Smash to actually becoming one.

You're starting to learn this show as you're finishing up some Scorpion filming. How are you handling that?

I’ve just been doing my own voice rehearsals before I even get to New York. Being on a TV show every day working long hours, you’re not necessarily protecting your voice or in good vocal health. So I’ve been wanting to get my vocal stamina up on my own. I’ll only have two and half weeks of rehearsal, which is a tough thing. My friend asked me, "Oh, do you want us to come a couple days after your opening so you’ll be more comfortable?" And I said, "No, come on day one!" My first day is not a preview -- that’s the opening, and I need to be at my best. The show’s up and running, so I don’t have the luxury of working out the kinks onstage. That’s the way I’m approaching it, especially because I’ve never done Broadway before and I want to be as comfortable as I possibly can. When I go in there, all I’ll have to learn is where I need to stand and move.

Let’s back up a bit. How did you get involved in the show?

They called my manager a year ago this past December and inquired about my interest. Since I’m in LA and not able to get to New York that much, I’m very out of touch with what’s going on on Broadway. At the time, I remembered the one number Jessie Mueller and Sara Bareilles did at the Tonys ["She Used to Be Mine"] and I got really excited. I downloaded the music and looked at some stuff on YouTube, and it looked like I was going to do this on my hiatus last year. And then they [withdrew] because Sara, who wrote the show, was going to step in and make her Broadway debut, which made total sense. So I said, "OK, that’s fair. That’s a good person to lose it out to." Literally almost a year later they said, "Listen, we want to make Kat the offer, does she want to do this on her hiatus?" I can’t tell you how excited I was. There wasn’t even like a "Hmmm, let me think about it." It was just an elated yes. 

You said you loved the cast recording. Which songs stood out to you? 

“Everything Changes,” which is the the last song of the show, is absolutely beautiful. Vocally it takes such range, so it’s this sort of vocal gymnastics I just love. I think a lot of singers love this, but I’ve always loved how when you’re listening to the radio in the car you typically don’t sing the main parts of the song, you sing the harmonies. In college, I had an ensemble class where you sang a bunch of musical theater numbers and learned all the harmonies. There’s a number called “Soft Place to Land,” which is between Don, Becky and Jenna, and it’s them talking about their dreams. The harmonies are so beautiful, so I’m really looking forward to doing that as well. There isn’t a song I don’t like in the show, as far as my character goes. It’s a beautiful score.

Have you asked friends who’ve done Broadway for advice on your big debut?

I asked Megan Hilty, who I did Smash with, what the 411 was. Like, what’s a "put in rehearsal"? I remembered that terminology from doing Smash. Also, Sara told me about some special vocal elixir that she learned from someone that has ginger in it.

Are you ready for all of the Broadway rituals, like coming out of the stage door and signing Playbills?

Yeah! I’ve thought about that. What’s it going to be like after every show meeting people and hearing what they say? It’s already all playing out in my mind. I’m pretty excited.


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