Sara Bareilles wasn’t content just to write the songs for a Broadway musical — now she’s starring in the show as well. The popular singer-songwriter will step into the lead role of Jenna in “Waitress,” the musical for which she wrote the score, when Jessie Mueller, the actress who originated the part, exits the production later this month. Bareilles, now in rehearsal to prepare for her March 31 start date in the show, sat down with Variety to talk about what she’s learning from her new perspective on the musical she helped create.
You’ve been in rehearsal for a few weeks now. How’s it going?
It’s been exciting and overwhelming and frustrating and challenging and exhilarating. It’s given me such a great, newfound understanding and respect for the amount that Jessie has been doing all this time. This role is so emotionally demanding, but it’s also incredibly technical. All the tiny little nuance-details that I had not even noticed before. Now, learning it from the inside out, I realize: It’s a beast!
Just for example: There’s a scene in which there’s a song called “Soft Place to Land,” where the women are baking a pie together. In the preparation for that particular song, Jenna has to retrieve everything off of the baking racks behind her as she’s still speaking about this subject matter that’s really intimate and delicate. And you have to place things in an exact space on this table. I think once you’ve done it a bunch of times it must — hopefully! — start to feel like second nature. But for this gal, I’m like: You better leave those damn Post-Its on the table. I don’t know where the egg goes!
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Does it feel different at all, singing the songs in character versus singing them as yourself in a concert setting?
I think the biggest difference for me is that as a songwriter-artist, I’m used to speaking from the perspective of sharing something I’ve already figured out, and sharing with the audience something that I’ve already created and crafted. But as a character in a show, you’re coming to these discoveries one by one, alongside your audience members. There’s a slight shift in perspective. But I’ve found that to be really interesting to play with, and actually something that I think about taking with me back into the realm of my own pop artistry. It’s just an incredibly present way to communicate.
What made you decide you wanted to appear in the show, not just write the songs?
There was just a perfect storm of things that lined up. I had originally thought that this year would get dedicated to making my next record, and I had gone into the songwriting process. And then when we got the news that Jessie was moving on, I hadn’t made a lot of headway with my own record yet and I was still sort of holding space for this show in a strange way. It just felt like this was the time. I’m as close to the show as I’ll ever be. My friends are in the show. The band is the original band. Lots of things are still very similar to how it was created, and I feel like that’s the show I want to be in.
Does Jessie have any advice for you about the role?
Her big piece of advice was: Make sure you ask for what you need. Take care of yourself. What I’ve learned from her is that she is such a hard worker, and she brings so much honesty and vulnerability to her role every night. Of course I’m finding my own iteration of what my Jenna looks like, but I think the heart of that, her vulnerability and her relatability, are such incredible gifts. I look up to that very much.
Even after “Waitress” opened last spring, you’ve still been around as part of the Broadway community.
I am straight-up fangirling. Do you ever have that experience where you enter into a new chapter in your life, or even just a new community, and you’re like, “Oh, these are my people! Here you are. I’ve been searching for you my whole life.” I had that experience once in college, when I met my a cappella group. I remember writing in my journal, “I’ve found my tribe. These are my people.” As you go through life, you so crave those pockets of community and support.
It sounds like you might want to do this whole Broadway thing again sometime.
It does. I might!