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"Waitress" brought Sara Bareilles a new menu of opportunities
"Waitress" was an opportunity served up at just the right time for Sara Bareilles.
The singer and songwriter had released five studio albums, had a Top 5 hit in "Love Song" and a few Grammy Award nominations before she was tapped to write music and lyrics for the stage adaptation of the 2007 movie. By that time, Bareilles was ready for a change.
"When I said 'yes' to working on it I really didn't know what I was signing up for, but I was honestly just looking for some kind of a drastic departure from the cyclical nature of being a pop artist," Bareilles — who received a Tony Award nomination for Best Original Score for "Waitress" — says by phone from her home in New York. "Y'know, you write a record, you go to the studio and then go out and tour and do the promotion. Then you come home, do a brief break and star all over again, and maybe it goes one notch up in terms of size and scale.
"The monotony of that cycle was really starting to, I think, just drain me and feel uninteresting and unalive. I was looking for something that was going to feel different."
"Waitress" — which Bareilles likes to call "a subversive feminist fairy tale" — certainly provided that. Directed by Diane Paulus and with a book by Jessie Nelson, it opened during 2015 in Cambridge, Mass., and hit Broadway the following year, snaring four Tony Awards and six Drama Desk Awards, with male lead Christopher Fitzgerald winning the Drama Desk for Outstanding Featured Actor in a Musical. Bareilles' songs also netted a Grammy nomination for Best Musical Theater album, while she was tapped to co-host the 72nd Tony Awards with Josh Groban in 2018.
"I think it's a badge of honor for me," notes Bareilles, who spent some time herself in the lead role of Jenna Hunterson. "I think this production and this project really profoundly changed my life in almost every way, shape and form. It changed my personal relationships, my professional relationships, the kind of projects I'm being approached for at this point — all of that stems from my time on 'Waitress.'
"It's something I'm really proud of."
But Bareilles, 39, does acknowledge that she was a bit "naive" about what she was getting into with the production.
"I didn't know what a time commitment I was signing up for," she says. "I had no idea it was going to completely eclipse everything else in my life and usurp all my time and energy — that I was basically going to become a 'Waitress' monk for the next six years."
She wouldn't trade the experience, however. The woman used to working primarily on her own, at least as a writer, found it exhilarating to be a team player.
"I think I had gotten used to this kind of accidental rulebook that starts to occur in pop music," Bareilles explains. "With ('Waitress') the playground seemed so wide and inviting and unrestricted. And I got a glimpse of what it feels like to really trust your collaborators — just the deeply collaborative experience of working on a theater production and the kind of analog quality of making theater that's really about every moment ... being alive and considered and thoughtful. That really spoke to me."
So did the experience of her occasional performances in the piece.
"Omigosh, it was extraordinary," says Bareilles, who subsequently earned a Tony Award nomination for portraying Mary Magdalene in NBC's "Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert" last year. "It was the scariest thing. That first night when the curtain was coming up I was just a deer in the headlights in many ways. It was such an amazing journey to go on and do something that was really scary.
"And some nights were better than others. Over the course of going into the show several times I felt like I learned so much about what it means to be on stage, what it means to be acting in a scene with another person. I found that acting, for me, was a real meditation on being present, because so much of it is about really, truly listening and really truly responding."
Bareilles has carried the "Waitress" experience into her own music, as well. She did more songwriting collaborations than ever before on her new album, "Amidst the Chaos," which debuted at No. 6 on the Billboard 200 when it came out in April. And she's incorporated some of what the learned about acting into her live shows, with a full tour kicking off during October in Detroit.
"Waitress" has also brought more opportunities Bareilles' way. She created a new TV show with J.J. Abrams and "Waitress" writer Nelson about a young singer in New York, with filming slated for this summer. And more theater opportunities have come her way in the wake of "Waitress."
"I'm really excited to work on another theater project," Bareilles says. "I just want to be really intentional about where to place that. I think this might not be the right moment to open that particular can of worms.
"But I certainly would love to write another show and be in another show. I hope that theater is a place I can carve out a little space for myself — as long as they'll have me."
"Waitress" runs Tuesday, May 7-19 at the Fisher Theatre, 3011 W. Grand Blvd., Detroit. Tickets are $39 and up. Call 313-872-1000 or visit broadwayindetroit.
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