In the world of entertainment, there’s not much Katharine McPhee hasn’t done. Reality TV? She placed second on American Idol in 2006. Television dramas? After costarring in the cult hit Smash, she joined the cast of the cyber-crime series Scorpion, now in its fourth season on CBS. Recordings? Her five albums include I Fall in Love Too Easily, a collection of standards released last fall. Now the versatile McPhee is getting ready to check off a big item on her career bucket list: Broadway. Starting April 10, she begins a ten-week engagement as spunky pie baker Jenna in Waitress at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre.
“This is something I’ve dreamed about since I was really little,” says the vivacious actress, speaking to Broadway Direct from the set of Scorpion in her native Los Angeles. McPhee’s preparation began at home, where she developed her creamy soprano under the tutelage of her mother, a noted vocal coach. She studied musical theater for three semesters at Boston Conservatory, then returned to California to pursue film work. Two early breaks came on a whim: auditioning for American Idol, with her mom waiting nervously outside, and playing the title role in Annie Get Your Gun at a local theatre at age 20. “That was the last time I did professional theater,” she recalls with a laugh, “and now it’s so amazing that I’m going to Broadway.”
Theater fans have eagerly awaited McPhee’s New York stage debut since watching the faux version on Smash, in which she vied to play Marilyn Monroe in a fictional musical called Bombshell. “The Broadway community was such a big part of Smash,” she says of sharing scenes with Tony Award winners and nominees such as Megan Hilty, Christian Borle, Leslie Odom Jr., Jeremy Jordan, and Marc Kudisch. Showing off impressive skills as a singer, dancer, and actress, McPhee caught the attention of real-life Broadway producers, but she decided to wait for a stage role “that felt true,” she explains, “something well suited to what I can bring — and that’s how I feel about Jenna.”
McPhee became aware of Waitress when she watched composer Sara Bareilles and original star Jessie Mueller perform the soaring ballad “She Used to Be Mine” at the 2016 Tony Awards ceremony. “I’d been a Sara Bareilles fan for a long time, and I started listening obsessively to the [Waitress cast] album,” she says, admiring Bareilles’s ability to channel the emotions of a pregnant waitress caught in a difficult marriage, as well as the warmth of Jenna’s friendship with everyone at the diner where she works. “I cannot wait to sing these songs.” Offered the role without an audition, McPhee accepted immediately and began texting with Hilty about what to expect from her Broadway debut.
Beyond savoring the beauty and variety of Bareilles’s Tony-nominated score, McPhee looks forward to putting her stamp on one of Broadway’s most appealing heroines. “I really identify with the idea of a woman who seemingly has it together but feels completely broken on the inside,” she says. “I also identify with the idea of feeling trapped and reliant on a man, thinking that you can’t do this thing called life on your own. For me, Waitress is the story of a woman finding her inner strength, something I’m constantly learning about in my real life.”
On a personal level, McPhee looks forward to sharing the stage with Drew Gehling, who plays Jenna’s obstetrician and unlikely love interest. “It’s cool to do the role with the guy who originated it,” she says, “and when I met Drew backstage, he said, ‘We’ve actually worked together — I did a couple of days on Smash!’” Another happy coincidence: Matt DeAngelis, McPhee’s Boston Conservatory roommate 15 years ago, is in the Waitress ensemble. “I’ve wanted to be part of the Broadway community since I lived in New York filming Smash, and this is the perfect opportunity,” she says.
For the past four years, McPhee has spent 14-hour days filming Scorpion, a quirky drama that occasionally allows her to show off her singing voice. The rigors of turning out 24 episodes a season (twice the number of most cable series) will undoubtedly serve her well as she transitions into playing eight live shows a week. “At this point, I feel like a seasoned television actress,” she says. “Certain episodes have helped me home in on playing comedic scenes, and on the art of simplicity. But there’s so much more I want to achieve, and Broadway is a big part of that.”
Just don’t ask her to choose between acting and music. “I hate to put a label on myself,” she says. “They’re different, but I love them both.” After all, this is a performer who feels equally comfortable playing the doomed wife of Robert Durst in a Lifetime TV movie and singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” at Café Carlyle. American Idol fans will recall that McPhee first performed “Rainbow” while competing on the show that has since sent alums Jennifer Hudson, Fantasia Barrino, Justin Guarini, Clay Aiken, and Constantine Maroulis to the Great White Way. “Broadway is a great vehicle for people to show multiple sides of themselves,” she says.
It all comes back to versatility. For McPhee, Waitress represents the chance to play a character she loves in a medium she admires. “There’s nothing more powerful than being on stage with a bunch of people creating music together,” she says. “I love singing harmonies. I love singing in unison with an ensemble. I remember taking choir class in musical-theater school, and the power we all felt in those moments. That’s what I’m most looking forward to, just sharing the stage and singing Sara’s music with this cast. I feel so passionate about the show, and I’m honored to get the chance to do it on Broadway.”