Long before she was tapped to play pregnant pie chef Jenna Hunterson in Waitress, Nicolette Robinson had memorized every song from the hit musical’s cast recording. Within months of seeing the show on Broadway in 2016, Robinson discovered she was expecting her first child, a joyful experience made bittersweet by the fact that her husband, Hamilton original-cast star Leslie Odom Jr., was in Europe filming a movie.
“I had a very emotional pregnancy, and listening to the Waitress cast album became my outlet,” says Robinson, who joins the cast at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre September 4 for a limited engagement through October 28 (Waitress currently stars Katharine McPhee and Katie Lowes). Odom returned home in time for their daughter’s birth in April 2017, and Robinson insists that newborn Lucille Ruby immediately recognized songs from her mom’s favorite musical. “Sara Bareilles’s music helped me get through a beautiful but challenging time in my life, and now I’m coming back to Waitress in such a special way,” she marvels. “I’m so honored and can’t believe this is happening.”
Known to fans of the Showtime drama The Affair as Jane, the waitress pal of leading lady Ruth Wilson, Robinson caught Bareilles’s eye in the Off-Broadway musical Invisible Thread, directed by Diane Paulus, just months before the Tony Award winner helmed Waitress. “I remember her honesty and truthful storytelling on stage,” Bareilles says of Robinson. They’re qualities crucial in helping Waitress audiences sympathize with a heroine who falls in love with another man while stuck in a difficult marriage. “When we choose our leading ladies, it is critical that they can embody both the vulnerability and strength of Jenna, and that is most definitely present with Nicolette. She is a soulful songbird who will bring Jenna to life with deep dimension, honesty, and humor. I am proud to continue to evolve in how we tell Jenna’s story, and I am so grateful that Nicolette said yes.”
Robinson, the first real-life mother and actress of color to lead the cast of Waitress, speaks about her life and career with the warmth and openness she will undoubtedly bring to her Broadway debut. “I just love her heart,” she says of Jenna. “She cares so deeply about the people she loves. I think that, as women, we innately put other people before ourselves, and Jenna has done that for so long, she starts to lose herself. Her journey is about rediscovering her power and listening to what she needs.”
Like Bareilles, Robinson is a UCLA graduate who sang in an a cappella group while in college, ideal training for performing the intricate harmonies, duets, and trios in Waitress. “There is so much variety in the music,” Robinson says of the show. “I get to sing one of the most beautiful songs written for musical theater, ‘She Used to Be Mine,’ and ‘A Soft Place to Land,’ a song I still sing to my daughter as I rock her to sleep at night. And then there are the fun, sexy songs, like ‘Bad Idea.’ I love the opportunity to blend with other voices.” Pausing, she says with a laugh, “Honestly, if you had told the college-age Nicolette that she was going to star in a Sara Bareilles musical one day, she would have died!”
Musical theater has been an integral part of Robinson’s life since her childhood in Los Angeles. Her mother, who is Jewish and the daughter of a rabbi, is a choreographer; her father, who is African American, has acted, directed, and taught acting. “They were my first mentors, and they’re still so supportive,” Robinson says, noting that her mom plans to move to New York to help care for baby Lucille during Nicolette’s Waitress run. “My parents were always great at empowering me to be proud of who I am,” she adds. “We celebrated Christian and Jewish holidays, and I got an understanding of both sides of my background. I feel really grateful for that.”
Appropriately enough, Robinson met her Tony Award–winning husband 10 years ago when she auditioned for a concert version of Once on This Island. She was still in college at the time; Odom was the assistant to director Billy Porter (who would go on to win his own best actor Tony for Kinky Boots). Sparks flew during rehearsals, and the couple married on December 1, 2012, enduring a couple of lean years financially before Odom hit it big as Aaron Burr in Hamilton.
Success, of course, brought new complications. “We constantly remind ourselves that we’re grateful, and we’re living our dreams,” Robinson says of blending two acting careers. In the year before and after baby Lucille’s birth, Odom worked on three films, commuting when possible to see his family. “It presents lots of challenges,” she acknowledges. “We’re still figuring things out, but we just try to be as supportive of each other as we can, and make time to be together. We’ve learned how important it is to rest and to find the balance in life. Healthy communication is the key.”
As she preps for her first star turn on Broadway, Robinson looks forward to exploring a role she has had her eye on for more than two years. “It’s such an inspiring thing when you find a show like Waitress, or like Hamilton, where you can give all of yourself on stage,” she says. “I get to go through a full journey as Jenna, her tough times and her emotional times. She has so much strength and vulnerability and power.” It’s a role perfectly in tune with Robinson’s real-life ambition “to play characters that inspire me and challenge me and allow me to show different sides of myself.”
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