Sara Bareilles, the acclaimed singer-songwriter who penned the pop hits "Love Song" and "Brave," is making her musical theatre debut as the composer of the new musical Waitress. And, she's bringing her whole family with her.
Though Bareilles' career has, until now, existed in the spectrum of modern music, she spent many of her childhood years on the stage of her community theatre, performing in Little Shop of Horrors and The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Bareilles, who was also "obsessed" with The Sound of Music, Cats, The Phantom of the Opera and Miss Saigon, watched her mother and sister star in various productions.
Bareilles recalls musical theatre as the first genre of music she fell in love with and credits her sister, who is nine years older than she, for her own involvement in the craft.
"I wanted to grow up and be her," Bareilles said. "She was my first co-writing partner. We wrote a song together called 'I Love a Parade'; it only had that one lyric. One of my earliest memories of writing at a piano was alongside my sister. We did all the duets together from all the musicals. Any time there was a duet to be sung, we did it together." Now Bareilles is playing a new role, and she's doing it on her own: composer of the new musical Waitress, which will begin performances at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, MA, Aug. 2. An adaptation of the 2007 film of the same name, which starred Kerri Russell, Waitress follows the life of small-town woman Jenna, played by Tony Award winner Jessie Mueller, who works a dead-end job at a diner while living a stifled life with an abusive husband. After an unexpected pregnancy introduces her to Dr. Jim Pomatter, Jenna, who harbors a gift for creating delicious pies, begins to consider a different kind of life.
Bareilles, who was introduced to the project by its director, Tony Award winner Diane Paulus (Hair, Pippin), said she accepted the job because "I was a little bit scared of it, and it felt slightly bigger than I thought I could manage. I was on a kick of trying to see myself take on things that felt a bit scary."
She hadn't seen the film, which was written and directed by Adrienne Shelley, but after watching it, Bareilles was drawn to its soulful atmosphere and the fact that it wasn't perfect.
"I kind of just said, 'Let's try,'" Bareilles said. "Stepping back into theatre, a childhood dream, I always felt like I would be onstage. I hadn't imagined myself in a composer role... I find it so satisfying to be behind the scenes and writing the music and watching it elevated and characterized by different voices than my own. It's so exciting. I made a pact with Diane that if at any point it wasn't going well, she had to be honest with me and tap me on the shoulder and let me know."
Bareilles, who rose to acclaim in 2007 with the hit "Love Song," has sold over one million records in the United States. She has received five Grammy nominations, as well as earning a nomination for a Grammy for Album of the Year. She served as a celebrity judge on "The Sing-Off" on NBC and her book, "Sounds Like Me: My Life (So Far) in Song," will be released in October by Simon & Schuster.
Despite her varied accomplishments, Bareilles has described the process of writing the music for Waitress as the most vulnerable she has ever been.
"If I have ever been cracked open and felt exposed and raw, it's through this process," she said. "I think [it's] in large part due to the fact that I'm a first-time theatre composer. I'm very aware that I'm stepping into some sacred ground here and wanting to do right by the legacy that's been set before me. It's a genre I love and have respect for, but I also want to feel like I can tip my hat to what has come before but also make the storytelling my own."
Bareilles was surprised by how invested she became in her characters, which, she said, explore many aspects of her own personality. She described hearing the song "She Used To Be Mine," the first song she wrote for Jenna, as moving her to tears.
"I have never had an experience before where I have written a song and now when I hear the song it makes me cry. It's been a really interesting experience of channeling these characters' stories but also finding myself as a listener. I feel more like an audience member than a composer. It's a new role for me." Bareilles' strength and ability to be vulnerable artistically as well as personally has come, in part, from her determination to remain herself in a male-dominated industry that prizes appearance and image.
"I always describe it as feeling like being pat on the head: 'Oh, that's cute you have an opinion,'" she said of her first years in the business. "I don't experience that as much as when I was starting out, but there was so much of that. I felt like I was stomping and screaming to get anyone to hear me as a voice of authority. We were talking about my own music and my own creation.
"I've been told to wear different things, to look different, to lose weight, to look sexier, to wear more hair, to wear more makeup. The language of that ends up being about our physical presence. It's happened in the recording studio and around the conference table. I don't have as much tolerance for it anymore. I don't think that I get regarded in that exact same way anymore, because I think I've fought back in my own way over the years. It's still something that is very present."
Waitress, which is both written and directed by women, premieres following the history-making Tony Award win of Fun Home, the first production to win Best Musical that featured a book and score by women. In her speech at the June 7 broadcast, composer Jeanine Tesori said, "For girls, you have to see it to be it."
"I think it's beautifully put," Bareilles said, reflecting on Tesori's staement. "I think we can also flip the phrase around. 'Be it to see it, too.' The more we can liberate to be what we don't see, is a new way to look at that. I, like probably a lot of women out there, want to see more of my perspective — and by my, I mean female perspective — reflected in the work on a larger scale. It's going to help balance and inform the medium that is reflective of what's actually out there. The more I can be in a position to encourage more little girls to thinking big and writing the songs for theatre productions or writing the music they want to hear or dressing the way they want to see people be dressed…kind of bending the rules to be the pioneers they're waiting for."
While stepping into the role of pioneer herself, Bareilles has brought a bit of her family with her. Mentioning a scene when Jenna's character bakes a pie that uses blackberries, she evoked memories from her own family's kitchen.
"That's one of my childhood memories," she said. "My mom would bake blackberry pies with us, and we had all these wild blackberry bushes and [would] pick bowls of them and bring them into the kitchen and roll out the crust and make homemade blackberry pies."
"It's been an inspired and exciting journey to be on," she concluded. "We've maintained that collaborative spirit that I was so intrigued by initially. Our creative team is small. The production team as well as our creative team feels like a chamber piece. Nothing's gotten too big. It's all stayed really intimate. That's been hugely satisfying for me creatively. I didn't know how deeply I was going to fall in love with this. And two-and-a-half years in it's by far my favorite thing I've ever done." (Carey Purcell is the Features Editor of Playbill.com. Her work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com as well as in the pages of Playbill magazine. Follow her on Twitter @PlaybillCarey.)