“I was under-prepared and under-qualified,” Sara Bareilles writes in her book Sounds Like Me: My Life (so far) in Song. “My heart raced and my voice shook as I wobble-sang Sondheim and overacted the sh*t outta my lines in the scenes.”
That was in 2012, when she was called in to audition for the Shakespeare in the Park production of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Into the Woods. They looked at her for Cinderella, a role that went to Jessie Mueller, fresh off her Tony-nominated turn in On a Clear Day You Can See Forever.
The two didn’t know each other back then.
“It’s weird, isn’t it?” Mueller asks (to which Bareilles jokes, “This bitch won’t get out of the way!”).
“I felt like that was a good omen. I was never supposed to do that!” Bareilles says, laughing. “I didn’t realize how horrifically underprepared I was. It was a fun, little experiment-slash-mortifying moment in my life, but then it was so delicious to know that at the end of the day, it went to Jessie Mueller. It just felt like this cosmic hug.”
Delicious as a piece of pie, one supposes. Fast-forward four years later, and Mueller (now a Tony winner for Beautiful, where she finally met Bareilles) is headlining Waitress, playing Jenna, a pie maker stuck in a loveless marriage—the role created by Keri Russell in the 2007 film.
Mueller and Bareilles have become fast friends—rehearsing together, crying together, trusting each other, apple picking for fun and sending never-ending strings of nonsensical voice memos to one another.
And this time, Mueller wasn’t up against Bareilles for the role, even if the Waitress music has already hit the pop charts (via the What’s Inside: Songs from Waitress album) with the Grammy-nominated songwriter’s stamp.
Although known as a singer-songwriter, Bareilles found refuge in theatre as a child. “Among these people, I never felt fat,” she writes in her memoir. “I never felt ugly. I was welcomed into the center of all of it.” With her passion for performance, one would think that she’d star in the musical she’d create—à la Hamilton—but she knew from the beginning that she wouldn’t originate the Waitress she has musicalized.
“There is no f*cking way in hell I could do what she does. Like, there’s just no way. It’s been so amazing to feel like I’m getting to learn by watching you,” she says to Mueller (who oftentimes covers her ears when Bareilles praises her).
“There is a part of me that’s curious about what it would feel like to be a stage actor in this capacity—not necessarily within this show, but just to even open up the question, ‘Is that something I want to do?’” Bareilles continues. “I think I always dreamed of it as a little girl, but watching someone act beautifully and make it believable… I try all the time at home alone! It just might not be in the toolbox I got when I got here, ya know? There’s no way I could have been involved in this show from a performance capacity in any way and had been able to do what I’ve had to do and to maintain perspective. Other people have done that beautifully in this medium, but for me, it would have been impossibly hard. And…I’m realizing that I get such joy and such pride by watching someone interpret my music and not being the singer.”
“That’s so interesting,” Mueller says, looking over to her collaborator. “Have you ever experienced that before?”
In the aforementioned book Sounds Like Me, Bareilles takes the reader through the writing process of her hits—“Gravity,” “Love Song,” “Many the Miles,” “Brave” and “She Used to Mine,” to name a few—and the broken hearts, struggles, sorrows and successes behind them.
Mentioning the memoir, she responds, “So, you know I’m a total basket case!”
But Mueller quickly chimes in to relate. “I happen to also be a flawed human being,” she says. “Maybe it’s just where I am in my life, I’m just drawn to things that are a little murkier. There’s something about Jenna, that person, that really appealed to me. I was like, ‘Oh, I just relate to that lady. She’s just trying to figure her life out.’ And, she’s at a point where she’s not a kid anymore; she’s not even a teenager; she’s not even, necessarily, a budding young woman. She’s in her thirties. She’s in what should be a place in her life where she’s really coming into herself, and she hasn’t really done that yet. I just find that fascinating because that’s sort of where I am in my life.”
“Every person I know kind of grapples with that,” says Bareilles.
“Yeah, and I don’t think that stops,” Mueller adds.
“No, I don’t think so either—I pray it doesn’t!” Bareilles says. “I remember having this revelation just out of college, like, ‘Oh my God, there is no plateau. There is no happiness plateau.’ And, I even catch myself sometimes still clinging to the idea of that.”
“She Used to Be Mine” was the first song Bareilles wrote for Waitress, a perfect piece about being imperfect that Mueller now embodies on Broadway—and the two feel like their journey to Jenna’s diner has come full circle.
“Darkness and light exist in the same room,” Bareilles explains, “and that, I think, is a huge part of our show.”