In writing the music for ‘Waitress,’ Sara Bareilles taught musicals a thing or two

“We got such a kick out of doing the Tony Awards,” Sara Bareilles said the other day, over the phone as she walked around Los Angeles. “Josh and me? We’re such theater nerds. And we’ve been so warmly embraced on Broadway this last two years.”

That last statement is irrefutable. Josh Groban, Bareilles’ co-host last month and another star from the recording industry, sold a lot of tickets on Broadway to “Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812,” a show that struggled (and closed) once he left. And Bareilles — a singer-songwriter who first emerged in Los Angeles at the beginning of the millennium — wrote the score to the hit musical adaptation of the late Adrienne Shelly’s hit 2007 movie, all about a server who’s trapped in a small Southern town and who bakes her dreams inside her famous handmade pies.

Inclusive, emotionally engaging and kind-hearted, “Waitress” is emblematic of a number of trends on Broadway, not the least of which is an increasingly sophisticated understanding of how crucial it is to appeal to women, who buy the vast majority of tickets to Broadway shows.

But working-class characters are still relative rarities in the theater, where creative teams are increasingly dominated by the highly educated, and “Waitress” remains one of the few shows that understands life in America’s small towns and approaches those oft-struggling citizens without big-city condescension. The piece also creates an atypically intimate relationship between the cast and the band — the director, Diane Paulus, freed the band from the orchestra pit and stuck the musicians inside the diner, which might sound like a contrivance but, in fact, worked beautifully, as it still does every night.

That choice to let singers and musicians share their space added to one of the show’s crucial achievements within the historical trajectory of Broadway musicals — an uncommon level of intimacy.

Bareilles’ music — her songs often function as interior monologues and are suffused with hope — was the key factor. Bareilles did not so much write a traditional Broadway score as a song cycle, very much within the existing style that had gained her so many fans. And she threw out the rule book when it came to scale and style, focusing musically on a key group of empathetic characters, the dramatic power of human longing, and the wrestling within the hearts of ordinary people. As a result, “Waitress” proved able to communicate with a depth that most musicals never achieve. This had everything to do with the score. Bareilles did not try to change her fundamental identity as a singer-songwriter, most of whom communicate far more intimately through their compositions than your average musical.

So in myriad crucial ways, Bareilles taught the musical something it did not previously know.

“A lot of the story of how this show came to be involved magical left turns,” Bareilles said, when I suggested this theory to her. “Honestly, this show has reoriented everything for me and it has been the greatest joy of my artistic life. I can’t begin to express how grateful I am.”

What Bareilles did not say was how much she succeeded in reorienting the Broadway musical. Her gig hosting the Tony Award was, to a large extent, the industry expressing its gratitude to Bareilles.

When “Waitress” came along, Bareilles had been trying to bake a new career for herself as a Broadway performer, expecting to land roles in other peoples’ shows. But it turned out that she got the chance to write an original score — and then to perform it herself. After the exit of the show’s original star, Jessie Mueller, whom she said provided a master class in musical-theater acting, Bareilles got the chance to perform the score herself for a limited run.

Will she go back?

“I am at the point where I never say never,” she said.

Or compose another show?

“I certainly have that ambition. But I also now know what an endeavor that is, so it will be all about finding the right project. I am in this new phase of my career. I just want to keep doing things that are interesting.”

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