Sore feet, long hours, demanding customers: Anyone who’s ever been a server in a restaurant can attest that it’s arduous work. Playing one onstage, it turns out, is even harder. Actress Bailey McCall found this out firsthand last November when she was cast as Jenna, the lead character, in the North American tour of the musical Waitress – a role previously held on Broadway by the likes of Jessie Mueller, Katharine McPhee, Jordin Sparks, and pop singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles, who wrote the show. Bailey spoke to Encore about stepping back into waitressing shoes as Jenna on tour.

A native of Knoxville, TN, McCall has just the right mixture of Southern charm and wide-eyed vulnerability to play Jenna. She also has the requisite experience: before landing the role of Sally Bowles on the national tour of Cabaret – a gig that saw her following in the footsteps of Liza Minnelli, Judi Dench, Natasha Richardson and Brooke Shields – McCall worked as a waitress in a busy New York City restaurant. 

“Oh my gosh, it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. You had to take a personality and math test just to get hired, and then there were a couple seven-day weeks of training. It was just so intense.” 

Acting in Waitress, she says, is a different if equally gruelling kind of work – owing partly to the fact that Jenna rarely leaves the stage. “Other than going off and coming right back on, it’s pretty much constant.”

“’She Used To Be Mine‘ helped me through a lot of dark days. Especially in these types of abusive and manipulative relationships, the person is often so broken down and so made to feel so small, they truly lose sight of they are. In that moment, it’s like I’m naked in front of the audience.”

Bailey McCall

Of course, a touring production comes with its own set of challenges. The stop in Wilmington comes in the midst of a run of 231 shows in 8 months. When Encore spoke with Bailey, she had just finished a particularly long stretch of performances that included back-to-back two-show days in Ottawa, followed by a one-night stop in Kitchener, some 300 miles away. The company often travels with up to 30 people on a single bus, an arrangement that can make getting a good night’s sleep a challenge. 

“It’s a wild life! People have dog beds on the floor they sleep on, or are curled up on their little bus row, or have their legs propped up on the window. We’re just trying to get rest as much as possible, but you can only do so much on a coach bus.”

Still, she says, it’s worth it to partake in such a groundbreaking show. Waitress made history when it opened by becoming the first Broadway show to have its top four creative positions filled by women. This ethos extends to the touring version, as McCall is joined on the road by director Susanna Wolk, choreographer Abbey O’Brien and music supervisor Nadia DiGiallonardo. Waitress is, at its heart, a story made by and about women – a fact that isn’t lost on its star. 

“It’s something we do not take lightly. Gabby Marzetta and Kennedy Salters, who play Dawn and Becky, we talk a lot about that, and to have a show with three women in the lead is super rare. Also, to have a woman character who isn’t just some guy’s counterpart – this is her story, and this is her fighting and getting her life back.”

Since the show has closed on Broadway, that responsibility is felt even more deeply. McCall and her castmates had returned from a Christmas break and were just getting their footing when the Broadway version took its final bow – leaving them the only North American production still running. It’s something McCall thinks about each night when she takes the stage. 

“There are people all over the United States who maybe didn’t get to go to New York and see it, and we have the incredible opportunity to take the show to them. It definitely is a big responsibility but it’s really exciting, and is a chance to tell the whole Waitress community that, you know, this is not the end. I think it’s important to remember I’m not here to be Jessie Mueller or to replicate Sara Bareilles’ version of Jenna. It’s my job to find who Jenna is for me.”