Sara Bareilles had long favored “Little Voice” as a title — she named her debut album that, back in 2007. And it ultimately came up as one again when she and her collaborator on Broadway’s “Waitress,” Jessie Nelson, began working on a new TV series about a young singer-songwriter who is just beginning to find and claim her own voice, that was an obvious go-to in naming the Apple TV Plus show. But it took a while to get there, as the two co-executive producers batted around titles — and title songs — for the show.
“After ‘Waitress’ opened, Sara and I were looking for something to do together again, because we had such a beautiful experience working together,” says Nelson, the showrunner and a co-executive producer along with Bareilles. “And JJ (Abrams, another executive producer) and Sara met each other at a gathering, and JJ said, ‘Have you ever thought about doing a story sort of loosely based on coming up as a singer-songwriter — your journey?’ And concurrently, I was writing a piece about inspiration and where songs come from, kind of inspired by my time with Sara, because I was so blown away by what little germ would create a song for her. So we combined forces and decided to call it ‘Little Voice.’
“And,” Nelson adds, “Sara actually had written a song called ‘Little Voice’ 20 years ago for her first album. But even though she had written the title song for it, they’d stopped her from putting it on the album. So there it was waiting for us, all these years later, that song from her, like a love letter from her 23-year-old self to now.”
It may seem a no-brainer now, but Bareilles says it took her a minute to remember what she already had on her hands. “It was a very serendipitous moment of discovery,” she says. “I had submitted the song and was told that it wasn’t as strong as the rest of the songs on my first record, and should be omitted so as to protect the vision of the album as a whole. I was devastated, of course, but that song was the entire inspiration to name my first record ‘Little Voice.’ When Jessie and I were discussing the idea of a theme song, I tried to write something and just couldn’t seem to crack it. I remembered this song and sent it to her to see if there was anything that resonated about our show. And here we are.”
The first three of nine episodes from“Little Voice’s” first season (naturally, the cast and crew are hoping for a second) went up Friday, introducing viewers to Bess, played by Brittany O’Grady, an aspirant in Manhattan supporting herself with multiple odd jobs before she catches a break and some free studio time by winning a songwriting competition. She has two young men in her personal and professional life, both understandably besotted: Sean Teale is Ethan, her next-door neighbor in the storage unit she uses as her rehearsal space and, as it turns out in a clinch, a talented music video director. Then there’s Colton Ryan as Samuel, her guitar player and biggest booster, and the one of the two who doesn’t already have a live-in girlfriend… which naturally, for the sake of conflict, puts him at a romantic disadvantage. As subplots, Bess also has a Broadway-obsessed, autistic brother, an alcoholic dad with his own singing past, and a closeted lesbian roommate whom Bess wants to see be brave, to borrow a Bareilles-ian phrase.
The three principal cast members were naturally familiar with Bareilles’ solo or “Waitress” work before reading for their roles, some to a more obsessed degree than others.
“My older sister and I grew up on Sara Bareilles’ music,” says O’Grady, “and it was all about empowerment — ‘Love Song’ obviously was a great one, and ‘King of Anything’ was one of my favorites growing up. Actually, when I was a little girl, I did an open casting call for Disney Channel, and I sang ‘Love Song’ by Sara and got a call back. It didn’t move forward after the callback, but that was a song I felt really excited to sing, so I never imagined that 10 or 11 years later I’d be working with her. … Sara’s songs are intricate — the time signature, the tempo. It ebbs and flows in so many different corners, and the lyrics come from a very honest place of being like a musical diary. So it definitely resonated with me to sing that, and then there were definitely challenges, kind of like school, learning someone’s musical genius.”
Ryan was the most hardcore fan, coming in. “It’s embarrassing to answer because I have to see her again,” he admits. “When we had to audition for the show, I had to sing one of her songs. And it was me being like, ‘Do I sing “Let It Rain,” or should I go with “Manhattan”?’ I’ve been listening to her records since I was driving around in middle school in the car, bopping to ‘Love Song.’ I was all in back then. And then when she wrote ‘Waitress,’ as a music theater person I was really all in. I drove to Boston just to see it (in an out-of-town tryout run) before it even made it to Broadway. So it’s embarrassing. I really should just stop. I’m gonna stop.”
Says the British-born Teale, “I was obviously a fan and aware of how great her music was, but I think the full conversion for me — the full Colton — was Madison Square Garden.” (Ryan, on a Zoom call along with Teale, laughs at being made the measure o a Bareilles zealot.) “She was kind enough to have us there while we were shooting. It was such an incredible feeling, being in an audience that was experiencing such a joyous and lovely performance that was so connected, that I just went like, yeah, I’m sold. I mean, I’ll buy an extra — I’ll double down, too.”
As the MSG story indicates, Bareilles was off on tour for some of the shooting. But the actors and Nelson say she was a steady presence prior to that, in story meetings, then in producing O’Grady’s vocals in the studio, then on-set for a while.
Although the singer-songwriter doesn’t have story or teleplay credit on most of the scripts, Nelson says, “Every single story in the piece is either loosely inspired by her life or something from my life or a friend of ours’ lives. She had huge input into the shape of the story and also into making sure it felt authentic for musicians. That was really, really important to her, that we were really honestly telling what that story is. So she may have specific story credit on an episode, but in truth, she was in the writers’ room with us most of the time. And she and I were on the phone and texting, emailing nonstop: How’s this? What about that? Back and forth, back and forth. She’s everywhere in the show.”
(Bareilles, for her part, says of Nelson, “I think that so much of what went well about our show comes from the top down. You know, Jessie is one of the kindest human beings on the face of the planet. So there just isn’t a lot of room for operating any differently. “)
Says Ryan, “Sara would come a lot and was obviously the ultimate resource in terms of not just the story, because a lot of it’s based on her life, but also just the authenticity of how musicians speak with each other, or how they’d set up the stage. Those are the fine details that make the painting so great.” And, although he left the lead vocals to O’Grady, Ryan says he “actually spent a lot of time in the recording studio with Sara, sometimes laying down backing vocals even for some of her tracks. I got to know her on a level that I probably never would have assumed in my life, and she lives up to the hype. She’s as real as it gets, and beyond real, kind to a place where she didn’t have to be for the show.”
Teale added that Bareilles — who did step into the lead role of “Waitress” on occasion — worked with them “rom an actor’s perspective, just solely an actor as opposed to a talented musician as well. You’d think that was Jessie’s predominant realm. But Sara’s voice — not only literally, but sort of spiritually — is so unique and concise and present that I asked her questions endlessly. I’d just badger her every time to make sure that it aligned with what all of them wanted. She was super helpful, while also being respectful of focusing on the music side when Jessie was focusing on the other.”
Nelson and Bareilles had experience, from casting multiple iterations of “Waitress,” in looking for actresses who had Bareilles’ vocal range without seeming at all like a clone, on top of the non-musical duties. “We literally saw thousands of women for Bess,” says Nelson. ”Sara’s music has a huge range vocally and really complicated melodies, so finding someone who had that gift and could act brilliantly was not easy. Toward the end of the process, we found Brittany, and Sara and I immediately had a feeling about her. She was actually in New Zealand doing a movie. So we just had a couple of Skype sessions with her, and then off we went. You can imagine for Brittany, her first day on the set, singing Sara’s songs for Sara, and what that would feel like for a woman in her twenties. A real trust developed between her, Sara and I as we sculpted the character together.”
“The fact that we searched for her for almost an entire year lends itself to the ‘needle in a haystack’ theory,” says Bareilles.
Nelson says that picking nine episodes for the initial run of the show made sense not just from a narrative arc or practical perspective, but because that “felt right to us particularly since there were one or two original songs per episode. We wanted to make sure that they were really showcased and featured in a beautiful way, and that the episode really was integrated, musically and with the script. And once we got a sense of the arc for each character, it kind of felt like where we left each character was a good spot. Should we get to continue, there’s a lot of their journeys left.”
Sometimes original songs were tailored to the episode… but sometimes it happened the other way around. “I would say it was different for every single episode,” Nelson says, “For the pilot, I knew I wanted it to be a lot about a person who knew where they wanted to get there, but didn’t have the tools or the confidence to get there. So I said to Sara, ‘You know, it’s a lot about that age of, “I don’t know, I don’t know.” And the next day an MP3 arrives: “I Don’t Know.” Sara had written the title song [for the pilot]. So sometimes songs will come that way. Other times she’ll have a preexisting song, and we’ll look at it and think, how can she retool it and craft the lyrics to fit thematically into an episode? And we’ll build an episode around that song. Like, ‘King of the Lost Boys’ was a song that already existed that we just retooled for that episode. So there was no one way to do it. Some of the songs were such jewels that I would just write an episode around them, like the song ‘Simple and True.’ I knew I wanted to tee that up in such a beautiful way because it’s such a magnificent song.”
The series is a veritable advertisement for a sense of aspiration in a pre-pandemic (and, presumably, post-) New York City, with a great deal of location shooting.
“It’s weird to think that there was a time when people used to shoot TV shows about New York not in New York,” says Ryan, a local who was happy to pop out of his own bed to show up on set.
Says Teale, “We know New York to be that beautifully diverse mesh of people from all walks of life, but it has an amazing musicality to it as a city, and we got to demonstrate that. I mean, I definitely didn’t, which is to the benefit of the audience, that I don’t play a part in that (musical) side of the show. But getting to see all of it… I mean, Colton has lived in New York for a long time, and that time on Governor’s Island together was the first time he’d been there. I got to be an Englishman in New York, in every place in New York, whether we were walking down the Brooklyn Bridge at 5 in the morning or doing a mass tango in Williamsburg.”
As for what audiences — especially audiences in the age range of the principal players — get from the series, O’Grady and the loose inspiration for her character are very much on the same page.
Bareilles says “Little Voice” speaks “right to that time in a young person’s life where they’re finding their way for the first time as an artist and as a person. Bess is tasting independence for the first time, and I love that part of a young artist’s life, because so many things can go wrong. It’s just very satisfying to watch someone have to figure it out and be scrappy and think on their feet and make it work. … I think it’s something that I am unabashedly passionate about, speaking to young people and young women in particular. I think it’s because I struggled so much to believe in my own intuition in my life. And I had to fight so hard to feel like my opinion mattered and that I had something to offer and my wisdom was worth listening to. So I want young women, especially, to sort of start thinking about that at a young age, to remember that they have innate wisdom, that they have good ideas, that their voice is worth listening to.”
And not quite having gotten over that hump is a key acceptance that’s inherent in the series too, says O’Grady, who points out that quarantine conditions are making a lot of the target audience doubt themselves and their future even more.
“In a very interesting time with the pandemic and social injustices that are happening, I really hope that people get from this show that it’s okay to be honest with who you are and your journey and where you’re at,” says the actress. “And I hope that, in the same way I learning through this character, they find the courage to fail. Because it is one step closer to finding a purpose. I think that for a lot of young people, that’s a lot of pressure, and so I hope that they feel less alone and know that everybody goes through this and it’s okay. It’s okay not to know what’s going to happen next.”
To read a full Variety Q&A with Bareilles about “Little Voice,” click here.