5-time Grammy nominee, singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles has long been a fan of musicals, growing up on shows ranging from Oklahoma! to Phantom of the Opera to Little Shop of Horrors and she took a leap of faith on her first body of work that is not autobiographical, as the composer for the new musical Waitress, opening 24 April on Broadway (in previews now). Bowing at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, Bareilles makes history as part of the first Broadway musical ever with women in the top creative roles, joining director Diane Paulus, book writer Jessie Nelson and choreographer Lorin Latarro.

The Waitress score sounds completely contemporary for a theater setting, a refreshing musical foundation for a show. You said in a previous interview, “Musical theatre is a part of the way you write as a songwriter.” Can you elaborate on what this means for your storytelling and the way you want your songs to emotionally connect?

Well I think it relates to how I grew up listening to music because I grew up listening to Broadway cast recordings, so I got really acclimated to lyrical content and being taken on an emotional journey through song. I would learn about a character by what they would say through their music, so I think that was such a strong foundation for me. This particular project has been so fun for me to focus and expand on my own storytelling, which I’m used to writing for myself – I love telling my own story through my songs. But I got to practice telling another story with these songs, it was enlightening and a really cool experiment.

There is a pulse to all of your music – felt on “Door Number Three” and “I Didn’t Plan It.” The pulse of your music is like the hustle and bustle of real life, like the busy streets of New York City and the show’s theme of “sugar, butter, flour” mixed into the score is like your inner heart and soul, or Jenna’s dream. Did you come up with these three simple ingredients? 

That was me. And I have since learned that the ingredients of sugar, butter and flour aren’t necessarily the best ingredients in making a pie, it should have been salt! Yeah, that was something that develops very, very early on in the beginning stages, as I was thinking about how to build some sort of motif for our lead character who is of course an extraordinary pie baker. I liked the idea of vocal looping. The idea stuck in terms of using a voice and ingredients as the music to build upon, so that was something that just kind of worked early on in terms of how to musicalise Waitress. I do think all of the music for this show really lives in a particular kind of musical world. It’s been fun to see how these songs are close cousins in many ways, how one flows into another, or how there’s bits and pieces that reflect one another. I feel very proud of that, making a body of work. I definitely know that I have certain tricks up my sleeve but I also have limitations. I know this is in my writing – sometimes I fall into similar patterns, it’s luckily served me well. I think it’s definitely a part of how I have built my signature sound.

So when Tony-winning director Diane Paulus calls you to meet her for lunch in Times Square and tells you that she hand picks you to compose the music to a whole new musical, what goes through your mind and what does that experience feel like?

At first what I appreciated about that first initial meeting is it felt like an opportunity to explore. It was a huge undertaking at first, I was excited about it but not entirely sure if I could make it happen. It was an invitation, there were no time constraints or pressure, it was exploring mostly with the creative team. For almost four years it’s been a really delightful journey on a deep level – falling in love with the movie even deeper and what has come with all these months and years of making this adaptation happen. It’s been a real labour of love.

What were you most intimidated by and what were the challenges you faced with writing music for a brand new musical production?

There are lots of challenges. Some are more obvious than others. For me at first, it was a challenge, but a joyful challenge to find my way into the characters that I identified with. For example, I had a much easier time identifying with Jenna whereas the abusive husband and crotchety older man who is a patron saint in Jenna’s life were more challenging. It was fulfilling learning to practice empathy working on all sorts of characters, finding a way to love all of the characters – even the quote-unquote “villain” – so I could speak from an honest place. It was an enriching and exciting discovery for me. The main thing is that this was the most collaborative project I’ve done. I, of course, have a wonderful team of my own but I keep making the analogy that being part of a musical is like being a part of an orchestra – all the parts need to be moving in the same way. It was a great education.

You worked closely with Jessie Mueller, who of course won the Best Actress Tony for her portrayal of Carole King in Beautiful. You coincidentally performed with Carole King a few years back on the Grammys. Did you and Jessie have an immediate bond through your love of music?

She’s become a dear friend and there was something about seeing her on stage portraying this life of this woman that I deeply love and respect, who has been a lighthouse for me in the industry. Seeing Jessie play Carole was deeply moving and emotional. When I saw her on stage, I knew I wanted her to be in this show. Luckily, over time we were able to have meetings with her – it feels a little bit like a dream come true. Jessie is a kind, gracious, infinitely-talented performer who is grounded and she happens to sing her ass off. She has brought so much depth and complexity to her character – she’s just really so special, we’re very lucky to have her.