Sara Bareilles spent more than a decade in the spotlight as a platinum-selling pop pioneer before getting a taste of backstage artistry as the songwriter for Waitress, which earned her a 2016 Tony nomination for Best Score. But when original lead Jessie Mueller gave notice, Bareilles realized it was the perfect opportunity to take her star turn—after all, she’d been dreaming of performing on Broadway since childhood. On March 31, Bareilles slips into the practical shoes of Jenna, a downtrodden but dream-filled waitress with an abusive husband, a baby on the way, a talent for baking pies, and a very complicated love life.
Why did you decide to go into the show now?
The perfect confluence of circumstance. I had thought that, maybe after I did my next record, I would join the show for a short period of time. But it just kind of dawned on me: I’m as close to the show as I’ll ever be right now. It’s been really exciting and fun over the rehearsal process to see the character emerge from myself. I had such a wonderful experience discovering her from the inside out as I was writing the songs; now to get to interpret it as the storyteller onstage feels like a nice full-circle moment.
Is your take on the role very different from Mueller’s?
There are sort of natural differences that are emerging. Jessie and I are two different humans so we just kind of move through the world a little differently. Also, my scene partners are different.
That’s right: Will Swenson is coming in as your husband, and Chris Diamantopoulos as your ob-gyn with benefits.
Yes! It’s nice to have other newbies alongside myself so I’m not the only brand-new entity in the mechanism. I think in that way we kind of liberate ourselves from what has been discovered already. We know that we have this beautiful blueprint of a show that works, and we get to just explore and play with some different colors in the palette.
After decades of Broadway flirting with mainstream music, the divide between theater and pop songs seems to have all but disappeared. What do you think about that evolution and your part in it?
Once upon a time Broadway songs were the popular music; those were the songs on the radio. So in a way I think it’s actually returning to something instead of blazing a new trail. My introduction to listening to music was very much informed by Broadway cast albums and the storytelling that happens in those wonderful scores. To me it makes a lot of sense that there would be a convergence. If there’s a movement toward people taking Broadway home with them, I think that’s magical. That’s getting people excited about theater.
You consulted with Josh Groban, currently in Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812, about the differences between concert touring and performing on Broadway. What’s the best advice he gave you?
That it’s about being willing to be bad in front of people as you’re going through the rehearsal process. In the studio it’s you and your producer, and if you go for a note and you don’t quite make it, that gets to be very private. I think it actually aids in the bonding of the cast; it has to be such a safe space for each other and that has certainly been the case in my rehearsals.
Have you experienced any “What the hell am I doing?” moments?
On my god, yes! Even yesterday we were rehearsing the finale, and I’m learning choreography for the first time and I’m in the middle of this flurry of activity and every person knows what they’re doing. I was just standing there laughing because I have no fucking idea what I’m doing. Luckily I’ve got some time to catch up.
How has your hardcore fan base reacted to you going into the show?
It’s been so heartwarming. There’s a Sara B fan community who have all become friends over the years through a connection to my music. They’re organizing a trip to New York to come see me in the show. What I love about my incredible fans is that they know that this is a childhood dream, so it’s almost like they’re prideful parents.
Now for the most important question: What’s your favorite kind of pie?
Blackberry. One of my fondest memories of growing up is baking pies from scratch with my mom. We had big, wild Himalayan blackberries in our backyard. It’s funny, there’s actually a scene in the show where Jenna tells her doctor about baking blackberry pies with her mother; it’s this very intimate scene. It actually came from the Waitress movie! When those little cosmic winks happen, I always take that as a sign of, oh, you’re in the right place. This project in particular has been incredibly nourishing in that way. I was a little burnt out with the rhythms of my industry and the monotony of touring, and I was really looking for something that was going to revive and rejuvenate me. The show has changed my life 100%. It has totally reorganized how I am in the world.
Are there any other movies you’re dying to musicalize?
The one that I am so in love with is The Princess Bride—but I think it’s already happening so I’ll just enjoy that as a fan.
You may be in luck because that project has reportedly stalled. Maybe this is another cosmic wink.
It’s such special source material! I’ve been saying it should be a musical for years.
Sara Bareilles stars in Waitress from March 31-June 11.