Before Jenna Ushkowitz played shy soprano Tina Cohen-Chang on Glee, she was on Broadway in The King and I and Spring Awakening. The actress is back onstage in Waitress — the musical adaptation of the 2007 film, starring Jessie Mueller and featuring Sara Bareilles’ score — replacing Orange Is the New Black’s Kimiko Glenn as Dawn.
“It was difficult to remember how much stamina I need,” Ushkowitz tells The Hollywood Reporter. “I’m usually such a perfectionist, but I have to remember that it’s not always going to be a perfect show. And I’m thrilled that every night, I get another chance to get it right.”
Ushkowitz, 30, goes Off Script to talk playing the skeptical diner server, discovering technology-drenched stage doors and listening to the emotional ballad “She Used to Be Mine” eight times a week.
What do you admire about Dawn?
Even though she wants so badly to break out of her shell, Dawn knows what she likes and is comfortable with who she is. I see a lot of myself in her. I wanted to make sure she’s not a caricature — she can be weird and quirky and an out-there oddball, but she’s coming from a caring and sincere place. Altogether, we’re all driven by love to find someone to share their lives with.
What’s the toughest part about playing her?
This is the most prop-heavy show! Pens flying everywhere, sugar going all over the place, mugs and pie and coffee — it’s like working in a real diner, and you’re your own prop handler.
What have you given up for the role?
Carbs and alcohol, but I give myself pasta and a glass of rose on Sunday nights, before our day off. Last week, I went to Becco for their $20 pasta night as a treat. And socializing comes with a lot of talking, so I refrain by going home to my frozen yogurt and binge-watching shows on Netflix, which I’m happy to do. I’m steaming and making sure I get enough sleep. Also, Dawn shouts a lot during the show, so I need to save some of my voice for that.
Any preshow rituals?
I get my half-decaf, half-regular ice coffee from Frisson Espresso down the block, roll out and stretch, steam for 10 minutes and laugh with Jessie and Keala [Settle].
What do you when you’re not onstage?
I drink a green juice at intermission so I don’t get tired during the second act. When we’re not changing costumes, Keala and I are playing Cookie Jam in our dressing room or listening to Jessie sing “She Used to Be Mine” from backstage. Sara wrote a beautiful song that all women will probably sing in auditions for the rest of our lives. If we’re not weeping during that song, we’re weeping in the hospital scene with her afterward. That’s when I can look at the audience in the front row, and they’re trying to secretly wipe away their tears, like they don’t realize that everyone else is crying.
Best backstage guest?
Nathan Fillion — he was Dr. Pomatter in the movie! He first came during previews, but was here again the other day. You always hope someone from the original project enjoys the [adaptation].
What are your dream stage shows?
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Miss Saigon, Company. Anything [Stephen] Sondheim. Les Miserables — I’m beginning to think I’ve aged out of Eponine, but then there’s still Fantine.
What’s different about Broadway since you were last here?
Now that there’s so much social media, everyone at the stage door wants a selfie. It’s so different from before, when they just said, “Will you sign my Playbill, and take a picture with my Canon?”
Best stage door reaction so far?
A young girl said she’s followed me since Glee and said, “Thank you for representing me onstage.” Dawn wasn’t written [to be Asian], and to continue that diversity is important because there’s not enough of us represented in the entertainment industry. I’m lucky and blessed they kept that.