Sara Bareilles talked to “Elle” about Waitress the Musical, her memories of starring in the show, and the upcoming live recording movie.

When we were in previews for Waitress, I wasn’t in the show yet, but I was in the back. We were in previews and taking notes and we were all watching from the back of the audience. The diner, which is this big hydraulic system, didn’t come on the stage where it was supposed to, and it wasn’t the kind of thing you could sort of work around. It was the giant set piece that didn’t move into place. There was a problem.

So the stage manager’s voice comes on the announcement system, they pause the show, the curtain comes down, and you start hearing them just hammering. It started becoming clear it was going to take a minute. So, I ran up on stage, I got handed the microphone, and then I just started bantering with the audience. I sang Little Mermaid’s ‘Part of Your World’. I sang one of the cut songs (‘Down at the Diner‘). I held the microphone up to the curtain so some of the cast members could sing from behind. It was kind of mayhem. We were having the fucking time of our lives. It was just a total party.

The thing that I love about audiences in general, but definitely Broadway audiences or theater audiences: They love when shit goes wrong. It’s delicious because you get reminded that we’re all in the same space together. We’re alive making these choices one at a time, and that life is completely imperfect and unpredictable, and so you just have to make it work.

There was another time in London where it was an issue with another set piece, but my best friend, Gavin Creel, was playing Dr. Pomatter at the time. We walk in for our scene and there’s no gynecological table and everything happened on the table. So, we just had to stop. And Gavin was such a pro and just laughed it off and then walked off-stage and brought back the table. It was just hilarious. And the audience eats that shit up. It was so great.

I think people are so generous in those moments. They get that you’re trying, they’re watching you try to make something work, and they’re rooting for you. I think it takes a lot to use up the generosity of the audience, like wear out your welcome. You’ve got a lot.

We got this incredible arts grant from Chuck Schumer’s office, and we got the opportunity to remount the show after Broadway had been shuttered for 18 months. I mean, that was not in the original plan. We got the cast assembled and it was kind of our all-star cast and some of my best friends. My partner, Joe Tippett, was going to be able to do it. It was just like we felt this pull to make sure that we were able to preserve the show. So it was a bit of a scramble, but we did it all independently without knowing where it was going to land. It’s been a very long process. We made this two years ago and it’s been very handmade. I’m in the editing room with Jessie Nelson and the sound mixing, and we’re doing a lot. 

To have this finally land, not only at the Tribeca Film Festival, which felt like, how fucking cool and prestigious is that? And then to be actually in theaters is just…I’m so grateful to Bleecker Street, who are partnering with us, and Fathom Events. We’re really making this a moment. It’s so cool.

I feel like there’s been this beautiful shift in the last handful of years around this medium in general. I think initially people were feeling that making films of Broadway shows would detract from Broadway audiences. I think it’s important to just embrace the reality that for a lot of people coming to New York, and financially making a trip to New York happen is just not possible for a lot of people. So, I want to embrace that and help bring the theatre to them, because I think about all those theatre kids out there that are just dying to get closer and dying to see a show up close and personal. They’ll get here eventually, but they’re not there yet. So it feels generous, and I’m excited to see this shift in the industry.

I know as someone who grew up in a small town that did not have access to New York theatre community, to get even closer to New York City in this way and to see in a theatre, which is what a beautiful proxy for being in a New York theatre space, it just feels like a complete miracle that this is happening.

Jenna will always be really important to me. ‘She Used to be Mine’ was the first song that I wrote for the show. I had never written anything that wasn’t autobiographical at that point. As a songwriter, I just was always only mining my own stories. So, when I saw the original film and was trying to just start somewhere, I started with Jenna, and of course I started at her swan song, because that’s kind of what I do. And I found the portal into Waitress was with her. I mean, ‘She used to be mine. she’s messy, but she’s kind. She is lonely most of the time.’ That is a diary entry for me. 

My circumstances were very different at the time, but I was also sort of waking up inside a life that I felt like I hadn’t exactly chosen. I just left L.A. I left a long relationship of six years. I left a band of 10 years. I left my manager, I cleaned my slate and then moved to New York and was on this big adventure and felt really lost and kind of overwhelmed. So, I kind of found this kinship with Jenna. Our circumstances were very different, but I love her resiliency. I love her loyalty and her kindness. I love her struggle, and I love that ultimately she learns to be her own love story in that way.

We lost Nick Cordero to COVID-19 and he was young, healthy, a brand new father, newly married, and had just moved to Los Angeles. He was an incredibly talented, kind, wonderful person. As anyone who works in the theatre knows, in the best of senses, you become a family. It’s the good, the bad, and the ugly. Nick was a beautiful family member, and so we all felt that loss and carry him with us as best we can. There’s a pie dedicated to him on the pie board now forever in every production all over the world. It’s just one of those things that theatre is ephemeral as is life, and it is a really hard truth and reality to hold. His loss was deeply felt, and we continue to honour him in every way we can.

And Adrienne Shelly, I still feel is like everywhere. I talked to her out loud, I talked to her while I was making the show. I would invite her in, I’d light sage and candles and just be like, ‘I want you here.’ We all felt that way about her. Tragically, she never got to see this. She never got to see her film have the success that it did and be in this iteration now. But, her family has been really close with us throughout the process, and that’s been really beautiful. She feels like she’s on the creative team to me.  She’s essential.

On romance, I feel like I heard Viola Davis just talk about this. I think she’s the wisest person on earth. I think we forget that we are our great love story. Your greatest love story has to be legitimately with yourself and with total devotional relational acceptance. I don’t even want to say that will guarantee, there’s no guarantees in anything, but I think the more that I have spent time really looking at who I am and making an investment in loving myself, everything else feels less weighty. It’s like if I know that I am here to take care of me, then I can love more openly. I can be more myself in my relationships and my friendships, and I feel less like I need something else to show up for me to be okay. It’s a lifelong journey to do that.”  

I have good days and bad days, and Joe is the most incredible person… there’s been a lot of growing up that’s happened, individually, once we were together. Some of that growth is remembering that you’re already in the relationship, and that is your great love story with yourself.

To other pop musicians writing musicals, I’d say. remember you don’t need as much repetition in theatre. This was a piece of advice I got from my wonderful friend Andre Catrini, who is an incredible composer. He told me this very early on. I was playing him demos and he’s like, ‘I’ll just offer this.’ And I was like, ‘Oh my God, you’re so right, because the audience just wants to move forward in time with you.’  

From a craft perspective in pop music, we repeat because we want to live in a course that feels familiar and you want people to be singing along, but you don’t need three choruses that say the same thing here. It’s actually very liberating. You can say something else, you can develop an idea, you can just keep moving. I think moving forward in terms of narrative and thought is important to remember.