Sara Bareilles, the singer-songwriter of the uplifting cultural anthems “Love Song” and “Brave,” has become a bona fide theater person. Most recently, Bareilles was a stunningly effective Mary Magdalene in NBC’s live “Jesus Christ Superstar” with John Legend and Alice Cooper. Bareilles not only sang “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” with silvery soul but also suggested to a national audience that she can act.
“I think I’ve always been a theater person,” Bareilles says, affably, in a production office 11 floors above Broadway, with a view of Times Square. In Eureka, Calif., Bareilles’s mom, Bonnie Halvorsen, closed in a local production of “Nunsense” the night Bareilles was on TV in “Superstar.” Sara acted on the same stage as a kid, and she loved the cast parties.
It’s been five years since Bareilles’s last studio album, “The Blessed Unrest,” because Broadway has so consumed her that Bareilles now categorizes her life into before and after “Waitress,” which she starred in for the second time this spring. Her boyfriend Joe Tippett (NBC’s “Rise”) even comes from the original cast of “Waitress.”
Director Diane Paulus approached her about writing the songs for an adaptation of the quirky 2007 movie “Waitress.”
Paulus asked the pop singer to watch the movie and not worry about what might be “right,” but to write from the heart. Weeks later Bareilles emailed an MP3 demo of “She Used to Be Mine,” the soulful ballad that drives the musical’s climax.
“I knew in a heartbeat that we had a show,” Paulus says.
“She just understands narrative, not only textually with lyrics, but with melody,” says “Waitress” choreographer Lorin Latarro. “She understood the lead character, and really understood the kind of emotional depth we needed to have on stage to make an impact.”
The musical opened two years ago and is still running strong, with Katharine McPhee now starring as the unhappily pregnant waitress Jenna (who has an awful husband and a gift for making pies). “They’re having a hard time getting rid of me,” Bareilles says. “Now it’s like, ‘Let go of the baton, Sara.’ ”
In her 2015 memoir “Sounds Like Me,” Bareilles writes about getting it hilariously wrong with a song for Jenna’s sexually eager husband; the number featured dancing sperm. Messing up as part of a team was “excruciating,” says Bareilles.
Increasingly this decade, singer-songwriters like Bareilles are writing directly for the stage: Sting (“The Last Ship”), Edie Brickell (“Bright Star”), Sheryl Crow (“Diner” at D.C.’s Signature Theatre), Bono and the Edge (“Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark”), Trey Anastasio (“Hands on a Hardbody,” with Amanda Green), Dave Stewart and Glen Ballard (“Ghost”), Bon Jovi’s David Bryan (“Memphis,” with Joe DePietro), and Cyndi Lauper, whose “Kinky Boots” won a 2013 Tony Award.
“It got easier,” she says of “Waitress,” which frequently showcases her music by gliding the live band on stage. “Such a nice takeaway was knowing that not every idea is a good one, and sometimes the bad ideas are a bridge that bring you to somewhere. . . . I definitely fell head over heels for the project,” she adds. “Who knows whether it works or not? I have had songs I was sure were going to be huge hits that didn’t go anywhere, and songs I thought were going to be throwaways that took on a life that I never would have predicted.”