In 1996, single dad and home cook Kurt Wait became the first and so far only man to win the Pillsbury Bake-Off — in the first year that the contest prize was raised to $1 million. After his stereotype-defying victory — thanks to a decadent macadamia fudge torte recipe — he did the talk show circuit, autographed a few cookbooks for his friends and gradually settled back into comfortable obscurity in Redwood City, Calif.
And he would have stayed that way, if not for Signature Theatre. That’s where a musical loosely based on Wait’s win — “Cake Off,” by Sheri Wilner, Julia Jordan and Adam Gwon — had its world premiere Sept. 29. But until a reporter broke the news to him over the phone last week, Wait had no idea that the play existed.
Imagine taking a call that goes something like this: Hello, sir. Did you know that here, on the other side of the country, a theater is staging an entire musical based loosely on one particularly exciting day in your life that happened nearly 20 years ago?
Wait had to, well, wait to absorb the news before responding.
“No,” he said, finally.
Then he added: “It’s interesting that it’s happening and I know nothing about it. So how could [the playwrights] know anything about my life?”
Well, uh, they didn’t, really. They didn’t think that was a problem. They never felt the need to consult him, they said, because the play isn’t really the story of Kurt Wait.
Their dramatization, Jordan said, is of “a situation more than a person.”
That situation, based on what Wilner read in a New York Times story about Wait’s win, hangs on just a few broad details: Divorced dad enters historically female-dominated baking competition the first year it ups the ante on its prize money — and walks away with the bundle. Wilner wrote the play in 2002, and she, Jordan and Gwon later expanded it into a musical.
“We have a major disclaimer on it” announced at the beginning of the show, Jordan said. “We really want to stress that this is a made-up story.”
True, a lot of it is. In the musical, the Wait character’s name is Paul Hubbard, and he is a contestant in the “Millberry Cake Off.” Paul is a divorced dad who likes to bake with his son as a way of connecting with a child who has become emotionally distant after a contentious marital split. He spends much of the show fretting over his 12-year-old and running off to check on him in the audience even when he’s supposed to be baking — all the while incurring the ire of Rita, a mother of five and three-time contestant. Rita believes that this is the year that she deserves to win, but she struggles to be noticed amid the novelty of 14 men participating in the contest.
In reality, Wait’s son didn’t attend the Bake-Off, and Wait’s relationships with the boy and his ex-wife were perfectly amicable. And he barely spoke to the other contestants while baking.
But there are a few things that Jordan and Wilner got right. In the play, Paul’s son is named Wyatt, and goes by Wy. Wait’s son is named Charles, but goes by Cy. This fact was reported in a few outlets, but the two writers say that their choice of name was purely a coincidence. “Sheri likes puns,” Jordan said. “She likes having people go, ‘Wy, why?’ ”
And just like his theatrical doppelganger, Wait made a mistake with his first cake.
“I did one and it turned out, I thought, terribly,” he said. “I kind of scorched the top, because the oven was hotter than what I was used to. So then the stress went way up.”
He recovered from the error, though, as does Paul in the play. But in the twist ending of “Cake Off” — no spoilers! — their stories diverge in a major way.
The biggest difference between the play and reality, Wait says, is that the play makes the competition much more interesting than it was. In real life, he and 99 other people baked quietly in a Dallas hotel ballroom, with minimal drama. He doesn’t remember any TV cameras being present. He had time to make three cakes, but his second one came out so perfectly that he decided to bag a third effort.
“You’d have to fictionalize it to put something in there to make it not boring. If they just did my life,” he said, the play “wouldn’t last the first night.”
That’s why Jordan and Wilner focus sharply on the competition’s gender imbalance.
“It felt like the company’s success, profit and this contest itself had been built upon women buying and baking and using their products,” Wilner said. “It was upsetting to me that the first time this real reward was being given, it went to a man.”
“That’s the crux of this play,” Jordan said. “Yes, we want gender roles broken down — but when it’s benefiting men more than us, we get a little upset.”
(For what it’s worth, Wait didn’t catch wind of any flak for his victory. “Some of the people probably weren’t happy that a guy won, but I didn’t see any of that,” he said. “Actually, everybody was real congratulatory.”)
In the play, Paul’s story ends when the contest does. But after being informed that Wait was not upset, just slightly bemused, by their adaptation of his life, Jordan and Wilner wanted to know what happened to him after the Bake-Off. When they attended the 2012 competition, they “felt really palpably” that the contestants “were really longing for their lives to completely change,” Wilner said. “Did his life change?”
For a little while it did, Wait said. He appeared on ABC’s “Good Morning America.” He was even asked to option his life rights for a movie, but he turned the offer down because he realized that screenwriters would have to fictionalize lots of details — sort of like Wilner and Jordan did. It was for the best that the playwrights didn’t call him, he said, “because I wouldn’t have cooperated anyway.”
The $1 million prize went toward paying off his house as well as now 27-year-old Cy’s degree in zoology.
Wait retired three years ago, at 60, from his career in financial reporting at AT&T and now enjoys playing tennis and working in his garden. He has also made a hobby of “recreational eating” — of other people’s cooking. He visits restaurants in California wine country and frequents Bouchon Bakery.
As for his own baking, he has pretty much hung up his apron.
“It’s fun to travel around, relax and let somebody else do the work,” he said. He hasn’t whipped up his winning recipe in years — and he’d prefer not to. The devil’s-food cake mix he used for his torte, he said, has changed somewhat, so, he said, “I have a good excuse not to have to make it.” (A representative from J.M. Smucker, which now owns the rights to Pillsbury cake mixes, said that small tweaks have been made to the mix over the years.)
“Wow,” Jordan said upon hearing this. “We had in a few drafts that the contestants were longing to never bake again, but it never made it into the show.”
So, is the story of Kurt and Cy — or Paul and Wy — something that Wait would be interested in seeing on the stage?
“I enjoy Broadway musicals,” he said. “If it got good reviews, if it were close, I’d probably go see it.”
And what about Wilner and Jordan: Have they ever made Wait’s winning cake?
“The irony of all this,” Wilner said, “is that I’ve never baked a thing in my life.”
Cake Off by Sheri Wilner, Julia Jordan and Adam Gwon. 97 minutes. Through Nov. 22 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington. Call 703-820-9771 or visit www.sigtheatre.org.