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BWW Interview: Larry Marshall of WAITRESS at the Orpheum


I can't wait for Waitress to hit Omaha! Based on Adrienne Shelly's 2007 movie by the same name, the musical production was built by an all-female creative team. With music by 6 time Grammy nominee Sara Bareilles, book by Jessie Nelson (I Am Sam) and direction by Tony Award winner Diane Paulus (FINDING NEVERLAND, PIPPIN) the national tour will serve you a slice of awesome at the Orpheum Theatre from December 12 through the 17th.

WAITRESS tells the story of Jenna, a waitress, expert pie maker, and abused wife. When offered an opportunity to escape, Jenna reaches deep inside to find the strength to rebuild her own life. She is encouraged by her doctor, her quirky coworkers and the crotchety owner of the diner, Joe.

I recently spoke with Larry Marshall who plays Joe. Marshall is a long time veteran of the theatre with more than 50 years of experience. He was nominated for a Helen Hayes and Jeff award for PULLMAN PORTER BLUES, and a Tony Award and Drama Desk Award for his role as Sportin' Life in PORGY AND BESS. Also, Marshall appeared as Simon Zealotes in the movie Jesus Christ Superstar.

Mr. Marshall, this is your 16th show. What has been your most satisfying role?

Well, they are all so different. I love this character (Joe). He's a great guy. I get the chance to do humor, and I've got a wonderful song to sing. I'm very satisfied with this. I just finished doing a straight play, "Between Riverside and Crazy," and that was very satisfying and a different character all together. They all have good points. I don't think I can really pick out a favorite. The one that is completely different, Sportin' Life in PORGY AND BESS, was a wonderful role for me, but now we're going towards opera. So, they all have a different appeal. It's very hard to pick out just one. But I love this character!

What is it about Joe that makes him such a great character?

He slowly reveals his protectiveness of Jenna. He's kind of crotchety. He has this sort of curmudgeon thing about him. But he slowly opens up and becomes the protector of her, you know. That I like a lot.

Are you like Joe at all in real life?

Am I like Joe? Well, I mean I'm a parent. I think I have some tendencies to be protective. And I can be kinda racy in a way, you know the way Joe talks about his past experiences...I guess what you'd call his love interests. Not really like Joe. (laughs) But I can find myself in Joe.

You mentioned in a televised interview that you feel like a father figure to the cast.

I have a lot of young actors who have asked me for information, guidance, and coaching, especially those that are pursuing, let's say, PORGY AND BESS. I've also directed the piece a number of times. There's a company I work with called New York Harlem Production. It is based in Munich. The Artistic Director and Producer is an American. I've known him for years. So, a lot of the young performers coming up want to talk about character building in terms of Sportin' Life. I've gotten a number of them started in the role. So, I help out that way and have become a father figure to them, which is good. I'm also a coach and a comrade in arms.

WAITRESS is about domestic abuse. Jenna is in an abusive marriage and Joe offers her fatherly advice. How do you think a show like this can help a victim of domestic abuse?

I think it gives people who are in that sort of situation courage. It's like what's going on right now, you know, with sexual assault charges. Somebody says something and it gives the next person the courage to step up and then hopefully, this culture will be changed. Consent is really important. You don't force yourself on anybody. This show gives people the courage to stand up. I've seen people at the bows...I've seen women with tears in their eyes, for the joy of seeing something like this being approached the way we do it. We're not banging people over the head with the message. It's there laid out. They can take it more easily that way. I've seen women wiping tears away. I've seen a few men wiping tears away. Who knows? Maybe their daughters were in a situation like this, or someone close to them. Or women have been in situations like that. It touches everyone. It's one of those shows where people stand up...and they're not just doing it to be polite. They're doing it because they really feel and they really appreciate this story.

Not only is the story touching, the music by Sara Bareilles is incredible!

It is amazing! Somebody recently compared Sara to Carole King. The music has a flavor of just about everything in it. It's so singable. That's the thing. It's not hard on the ears! Oh gosh. "You Matter to Me" is one of the...I just love that song! I stand in the wings every show listening to it. I mean, I don't have to stand there, but I go and I just listen to that song. I just get bathed in it.

"She Used to Be Mine" is magical too.

Yes, yes. I think she has a career here! (laughs) She's an amazing woman, too. She's a kind, fun person. The whole team is good. The whole team.

You've been so successful in your career, having performed for half a century. What's your secret?

Listen. It's just the will of God! (laughs) I give all praise. I've been very fortunate. And I think most of it has to do with a certain discipline. People know what they're going to get when they hire me. A lot of it at the beginning was word of mouth. I work with this group of people; the musical director then tells the producer about me. I remember one incident early in my career. I was doing ON A CLEAR DAY with Howard Keel and I got drafted. I had come into town and a man that I considered, after working with him, my mentor, was in it before. He had this all male choir that was very famous. They used to do a lot of the work behind Harry Belafonte. He wanted me to join the group. I said that I had just gotten drafted and he said, "Well if you get out of it, give me a call." It turns out I was able to get out of it, so he said, "Okay, you can go on the road with us." I said, "Yes, I'd love to. But I'd have to give my notice to the company." He said, "That means you'll be four days late. Well, they really speak highly of you, so just come on and join the group when you get back." So that's how that went. People let it be known that you're a person of quality. I'd gotten a good reputation and people decided that I was worth the risk. You sign the dotted line and you live up to what you've signed.

So, how did you end up doing musicals from a start doing Doo-Wop?

Yeah, well that was music! Actually, I'm in the process of writing a little, short memoir about that for my website that I'm launching. How I got started back after my Doo-Wop days was I decided that I really wanted to know something about music. So, I started out at Xavier University in New Orleans and ended up at the New England Conservatory of Music. I was studying basically opera at the time. There was a tour of PORGY AND BESS that was going to Israel for the summer. I auditioned and I got the job. I went to Israel and my first job was understudying Robert Guilliaume as Sportin' Life. That was my junior year. Then I went back to school.

Later I got a call to go out with the national company of PORGY AND BESS. The guy that was the musical director for that was a man named Dick Paranella. He was taking out the national company of ON A CLEAR DAY. He told the producers about me. In the mean-time I had gotten summer stock with John Raitt doing OKLAHOMA and ON A CLEAR DAY in repertoire. And Dick Paranella asked if I wanted to go out with the national company. So, I made arrangements and they made arrangements with the producers of the summer stock, and I went out with ON A CLEAR DAY. From there it just kept going. I just ended up in theatre. (laughs)

I'd say you're blessed. You've had an incredible career.

Yes, I really have. Like I said, I thank the Almighty. It wasn't anything I particularly went after. It just sort of came to me. You know in the beginning the direction just landed in front of me. I was just really thankful.

Photo Credit: Desi Oakley and Larry Marshall by Joan Marcus

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