The Waitress composer and singer-songwriter, fresh from winning her first Grammy, is taking to the West End stage to star in the hit show herself. She tells Tim Bano about the time she was first asked to write its Tony-nominated music, swapping the pop world for musical theatre and the impact that collaborative theatremaking has had on her work
It has been a bittersweet month for Sara Bareilles. She has just landed in London for a six-week stint playing the lead role in Waitress, the Tony award-nominated musical that she composed. A few days earlier, the Broadway production closed after almost four years.
“There’s a lot of tenderness around that,” she says, still slightly jet-lagged, in a freezing cold rehearsal room a couple of days before she makes her West End debut. “Yesterday’s rehearsal was surprisingly emotional. We were staggering through the show and I felt this well of emotion come up.”
It doesn’t help that we’re meeting in a room above London’s Arts Theatre, home to Six, the musical that is replacing Waitress on Broadway. “But it’s okay,” she says in her typically gentle and thoughtful way, before quoting one of the songs from her score: “Everything changes.”
The last few years have brought profound changes to Bareilles’ life, triggered when she agreed to write the music for Waitress seven years ago. She loved musical theatre as a child – “That was my first love, they were the first records I fell in love with, the first things I knew by heart: The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Charlotte’s Web, Little Shop of Horrors” – but had never pursued it.
Instead, Bareilles had become an internationally renowned pop star, known for her piano-led, soul-infused songs. Before Waitress, she’d sold more than one million albums, earned five Grammy nominations, and her 2007 single, Love Song, had been certified four times platinum. She was judging reality shows, touring with Maroon 5 and collaborating with Pharrell Williams.
She was also going through a kind of crisis. Burnt out and bored, her life in California had become repetitive. As her fourth album came out and she embarked on another cycle of promotion and touring, she realised something had to change.
In 2012, she moved to New York and started putting out feelers for theatrical work. “I auditioned for Into the Woods in Central Park and didn’t get it. That was a very sobering experience, because I was wildly underprepared and I’d never done anything like it. I felt I got my ass handed to me. They were very kind in the room, but I knew I was so far out of my depth, it was unbelievable.”
Meanwhile, buoyed by the success of their Tony award-winning production of Stephen Schwartz’s Pippin, producer Barry Weissler and director Diane Paulus were looking for their next project. Weissler had sent Paulus a pile of films, asking her to pick one she might like to adapt into a musical. The one that stuck was Waitress, a strange comedy set in a diner, written and directed by Adrienne Shelly, who also starred in it. It follows waitress Jenna as she tries to enter a pie-baking contest to escape her abusive husband. Oh, and she also has an affair with her gynaecologist. Tragically, three months before the film’s premiere Shelly was murdered and never saw its success.
After her bruising audition for Into the Woods, Bareilles “slunk back to my corner”, but soon got word that Paulus was interested in meeting her. She wasn’t sure what it was about, “so I met with Diane and she told me about Waitress. She was like, ‘Watch the film and see if you respond’. I watched the movie and felt curious. It wasn’t that I was like: ‘I have to do this movie.’ But there was just this part of me that was wondering: could I do it?”
I loved being a waitress. There were days I hated it, sure, but I loved that it was social, I loved that it was community-based. We worked in a small restaurant and we had a wonderful man as our owner. He was very loving and supportive of all the staff. We became bonded and close-knit and I made great money. So I would always have cash in my pocket and plenty of food to eat. Good beer on tap. It was a great job.
A self-taught pianist, who used to figure out songs from Chess and The Scarlet Pimpernel – Frank Wildhorn’s musical based on the Baroness Orczy novel – by ear on the piano after school, Bareilles “never imagined in a million years that I would be tapped as a composer. Even that word sticks in my mouth a little bit”.
So Bareilles watched the film, had lunch with Paulus, and said yes. “We kind of agreed it would be this exploration and if it didn’t work out, we would shake hands, hug and move on. And then here we are.”
As Paulus explained in an interview with The Stage last year, she asked Bareilles to “go inside her heart and soul and write the first song that came to her. I told her not to worry about the plot, or think about a treatment or outline of how it would be adapted. I told her to simply respond to the film”.
A few weeks later, Bareilles sent over a song called She Used to Be Mine. “I listened to it,” said Paulus, “with that feeling: ‘Here we go, cross my fingers.’ And when I heard it, I knew we had a show.”
Paulus and Bareilles teamed up with Jessie Nelson to write the book, and soon the work came to life. But what’s astonishing is that She Used to Be Mine, the show’s emotional high point, hasn’t changed. “That’s note for note the way it came out, which is crazy. I know how crazy it is now having written the rest of the show. There’s songs in there I rewrote 50 times, and I’m not exaggerating. But it flowed, which to me was very spiritual.”
In the musical, the song marks the moment when Jenna’s abusive husband finds a stash of money she’s been saving to enter the pie contest. He steals the money, and leaves Jenna broke and bereft. “I felt very moved by the scene in the movie – you watch her lie to her husband and let go of her dream of leaving. It was so broken, and I found myself in the character. Our circumstances were very different, but I had just moved to New York. I’d left my boyfriend, my band, my manager, my house, my whole life. I did not recognise myself at all. And I was like, what am I doing here? I didn’t know anybody in New York. And then I wrote this song for the both of us, because I think I was at that stage of reckoning in my life.”
It has since become a crowd favourite, as well as Waitress’ showstopper, with many hundreds of cover versions on YouTube. The New York Times even ran an article about the song, with its critic Jesse Green describing it as having “a classic arc from sadness and self-criticism to acceptance and triumph. You get breathy confessional head-voice moments building to a belty chest-voice climax”.
But Bareilles insists she wasn’t consciously trying to write the perfect 11 o’clock number. “These were the kinds of songs I used to write. Working in pop music narrows the field of vision a little bit and keeps you in a certain space. Whether that’s good or bad, that’s just what happened. And so it felt like I was given the playground back.”
“I deliberately wasn’t listening to a lot of musical theatre at the time. I didn’t want to copycat, I just wanted to write from my perspective and focus on good storytelling.” She does admit, however, that She Used to Be Mine is inspired by Someone Else’s Story from Chess. “I loved the idea that Florence [in Chess] is talking about this girl in the song, and then makes this turn and says: ‘The trouble is, the girl is me.’ That’s a beautiful way to frame how we get to speak about ourselves: that separation of how we can speak to ourselves as friends, but kind of as separate entities.”
What was your first non-theatre job?
Janitor in my dad’s business offices. I would get $20 a week to clean the offices, vacuum and take out the garbage. I was probably overpaid. There were only four offices. He was doing me a solid.
What was your first professional theatre job?
Community theatre growing up – my first show was called Quilters.
What is your next job?
Jenna in Waitress, Adelphi Theatre, London.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
That the whole thing is going to feel like the Mad Hatter’s tea party. And not to take it so seriously because I would have had fewer panic attacks and nervous breakdowns if I could’ve held everything a little more lightly. But that’s a lesson I’m still learning.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
Carole King has always been one of my shining stars. As much as I adore and appreciate her musicianship and her craftsmanship as a songwriter, she’s also an extraordinary human being. We did a duet at the Grammy’s, and I was shaking in my boots. She took my hand and put her hand on my back and was like, we got this. She cared so much about making sure I was okay.
What’s your best advice for auditions?
Be honest. There’s so much that is out of your control. People walk into the room and either you are the person or you’re not. My heart breaks for actors because they have to deal with so much rejection that has nothing to do with their talent. The people on the other side of the table want you to do well, so be relaxed and be honest.
If you hadn’t been a singer, songwriter and composer, what would you have been?
I love working with kids, so I could have been a teacher. I love the innocence and the purity and the opportunity to leave lasting impressions in a positive way.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
Do your stretches and your warm-ups.
Soon after a tryout at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts, she released What’s Inside, essentially a Waitress concept album, with all the show’s songs performed by Bareilles and friends.
Was it a homage, I ask, to those classic musicals – Chess, Evita, Jesus Christ Superstar, Les Misérables – to release a concept album before the show had hit Broadway? No, says Bareilles. It was “purely selfish”.
“I knew I was handing over these songs to someone else. I had become so attached to them. I’m a very sentimental person, I bond deeply with my music. The idea it would be created and then sent away was too much for me to bear.”
But she also believes it serves a purpose. “There is a good argument for how valuable familiarity is in terms of someone experiencing a new piece of art. So if people come into the theatre and there are songs they recognise, it works well.” That’s borne out by the huge number of covers of Waitress songs, and the popularity of Waitress karaoke nights, where audience members can get up on stage and sing, accompanied by the show’s band.
In fact, karaoke night is just one of several tools the producers used to keep the show alive. They also had a convection oven installed in the Brooks Atkinson Theatre on Broadway, in which an apple and cinnamon pie would cook every night, wafting its aromas into the auditorium. There was a Waitress cookbook, there was celebrity casting, such as YouTuber Joe Sugg playing comic character Ogie in the West End or, indeed, Bareilles taking to the stage to perform in the show she had written, a rarity in musical theatre.
She has now played Jenna three times on Broadway, each time in a quiet sales period for the show, and each time pushing box-office figures into huge amounts; when she was performing, weekly box-office sales would exceed $1 million.
The West End production is due to play its final performance in July before heading out on a national tour, and when it does it will mark an end point in a chapter of Bareilles’ career that has lasted years and completely changed her life.
She has been wholeheartedly embraced by the musical theatre world, she says, and now sees her life in terms of ‘before’ and ‘after’ Waitress. It was through doing Waitress that she made her Broadway debut as a composer and performer, and now her West End debut too. It was Waitress that enabled her to meet producer JJ Abrams, with whom she is making a TV series, Jessie Nelson who is writing the series, T Bone Burnett, who produced her last album, and even her boyfriend Joe Tippett, who played Earl in Waitress at the American Repertory Theatre.
Following the success of the show, she was cast as Ariel in a concert version of The Little Mermaid at the Hollywood Bowl; she was asked to write a song for the SpongeBob SquarePants musical on Broadway, which earned her (and the other composers) a Tony nomination; she was cast as Mary Magdalene in a live TV performance of Jesus Christ Superstar (Emmy and Grammy nominations followed); then she co-hosted the Tonys with another musical theatre adoptee, Josh Groban, and even that got her nominated for another two Emmys. Oh, and she wrote a memoir, and brought out a new album.
“Going to the Tonys for the first time, I felt like I’d been at the wrong party my entire life. It felt like: ‘Oh my God. All of my friends are here. I’ve been in the wrong room.’ I don’t mean that disparagingly of the music industry, but the nature of theatre is so ephemeral. It lives and it dies. And so people generally end up cycling through projects where the community is less competitive in certain ways.
“Not that there’s not competition or cattiness. I mean, it’s not like it’s a total ‘kumbaya’ moment, but at the same time, they’re working harder for less money than anybody in any other industry. And they’re more talented. There has to be passion. There has to be people doing it for the love of it. And any time you get a community of people who are brought together because of their passion, there’s something very special and undying about that.”
Bareilles had no idea what she was signing up for when she said yes to Paulus. But the last seven years have profoundly changed her not only in terms of the opportunities that have come her way, or the exchange of ideas between her pop practice and her nascent musical theatre career, but also in the way she appreciates art and its pursuit.
Where she was precious and solipsistic before, keen to keep creative control over her music – her most famous song, Love Song, was even an attack on her record label for pressuring her to make safe, radio-playable songs – now she embraces collaboration. “One of the great lessons of Waitress: I’ve become a more generous audience member because I know it’s so hard to make something at all. Period. And so things that have a sweet spirit but are flawed or don’t tick all the boxes I still think deserve such celebration because it’s so hard to make something. And the pursuit is so noble.”
After her West End stint is another first for Bareilles: a TV series for Apple’s streaming service Apple TV+. Named after her debut album Little Voice (nothing to do with the Jim Cartwright play), it is described as “a love letter to the diverse musicality of New York”.
Like Waitress, “it’s been much more than I anticipated. I thought theatre was hard. TV is so fucking hard”. Bareilles promises lots of music and lots of optimism in Little Voice. “This is not a cynical show. It’s very heart-forward. The cast is darling and sweet and fresh-faced and diverse. And we tell stories I am excited for my younger sister and my niece to watch, stories about a young woman, about good people doing their best.”
And after that? “I need a break. I haven’t taken a break in close to five years. I need to just take a minute and process my life, not to sound hip-dip about it. I need to go live in my house and be with my friends and my boyfriend. Sometimes you get in the mode of saying yes to things and the train’s moving and you want to keep up.”
Why not take the break now? Why come to London and sing eight shows a week? “It’s a tricky time in the theatre. You know, January, February is hard for ticket sales, so it’s a perfect time to come over, give the show a little boost, bring in new energy. Also, I don’t know how else to describe it other than like there’s a person inside of me that raises her hand and says: ‘I want to, I want to.’”
It’s been seven years since Bareilles said yes to Paulus, and since then Broadway has completely bitten her: “I hope I get to work in this medium for the rest of my life.” But with success has come a little caution and a little wisdom, too: “Now that I know how hard it is, I’m going to be more careful about what I say yes to.”
Born: Eureka, California, 1979
Training: Communications with a minor in Italian at the University of California, Los Angeles
• Waitress, American Repertory Theater (2015); Brooks Atkinson Theatre, Broadway (2016); US tour (2017); Adelphi Theatre, London (2019)
• ASCAP Pop Music awards (2008)
• Broadway.com Audience Awards, favorite female replacement (2017)
• Women’s Entrepreneurship Day Pioneer Awards, music pioneer award (2017)
• Songwriters Hall of Fame’s Hal David Starlight Award (2018)
Agent: Jack Tantleff, Paradigm
Sara Bareilles and Gavin Creel are appearing in the Waitress cast until March 7. It is currently booking at London’s Adelphi Theatre until July 4