When “Waitress” debuted in 2016, the musical comedy became the first Broadway production in which women filled the primary creative positions, including direction, book, choreography, costume design and musical direction. According to songwriter and lyricist Sara Bareilles, this history-making lineup was a happy accident.
“It wasn’t a tacit agenda,” Bareilles said via phone from New York. “It happened so organically that we just happened to all be women telling this female-centric story. It had a real sense of honesty about it because we were all relating to the material so personally.”
Yet Bareilles, a six-time Grammy nominee and creator of huge hits like “Love Song” and “Brave,” didn’t downplay the significance of largely female creative team. “What I love about being part of this kind of team is that it gets to be an example for other young playwrights and composers and directors and choreographers and costume designers — people who want to see themselves in those roles,” Bareilles said. “This is one way it can look.”
“Waitress,” directed by Diane Paulus, is the theatrical adaptation of the 2007 film by Adrienne Shelly starring Keri Russell. The story follows Jenna, a waitress whose pie-making talents enrapture customers and friends, and the unexpected pregnancy that traps her in a toxic marriage. Jenna finds hope for a fresh start by entering a pie contest with a large prize and by starting an affair with her small town’s new gynecologist. The touring production runs Dec. 19-31 at the Buell Theatre in the Denver Center for the Performing Arts.
Bareilles has built a career as a singer-songwriter penning piano-pop anthems that are unusual, witty and empowering. As successful as she’s been as a solo pop artist, the transition to theatrical composer was a natural fit for Bareilles.
“My mom and older sisters were very much involved [in community theater], so I spent a lot of time as an audience member,” Bareilles said. She began acting in productions at 12 years old and “absolutely fell in love with being on stage.” The shift to songwriting in college was a “left turn.” “When I think back on being a little kid and what I imagined for myself, I thought I would go into theater as a performer,” Bareilles said. “This feels like a homecoming.”
That homecoming took about four years, from the show’s initial workshops to its Broadway debut. “In theater time, that’s actually short,” Bareilles laughed. “If I had known how much work it was going to be, I probably wouldn’t have said yes initially, but I’m so glad I did. It’s absolutely changed my life.”
Before the production hit stages, Bareilles released an album of the show’s music called “What’s Inside: Songs from ‘Waitress.’ ” That album garnered the songwriter a Grammy nomination for Best Musical Theater Album and her first Tony nomination for Best Original Score.
Bareilles approached writing songs for a musical in a manner that is similar to how she writes songs for herself — with a twist.
“I found the whole process to be so playful. The big difference was trying to find my way into each of these characters,” she said. “It was trying to deepen their story and give them a real three-dimensional experience on stage.”
Bareilles’ first way into the story was through the main character, Jenna, and the ballad, “She Used To Be Mine.” That song’s lyrics outline the contradictions at the heart of the character: “She’s imperfect but she tries/ She is good but she lies / She’s messy but she’s kind/ She is lonely most of the time.” Those are qualities that Bareilles said she struggles with as well.
“She really fights to find herself, and that’s been a lifelong lesson for me as well,” Bareilles said. “Our stories are very different, but I think everyone can relate to that idea of having to reconcile the person you have become with the person you thought you would be.”
The lead role was originated by Tony-winner Jessie Mueller, and the touring cast bound for Denver features Desi Oakley as Jenna. Bareilles herself played Jenna for a short run this year and, in January, she will reprise the role for two weeks in New York, opposite singer-songwriter Jason Mraz.
“I loved my experience as Jenna,” Bareilles said. “For me, it felt like a moment of completion. To have observed the show from a creator’s standpoint for such a long time was a gift. But to get to take the storytelling to different places within myself, to share the stage with our wonderful cast, to have the fulfillment of such an intimate experience with a new audience every night — that was really rewarding. This was another way to explore being a performer — but not as myself.”
For a songwriter whose first hit single, “Love Song,” was a spirited refusal to play by a record label’s rules, Bareilles found it freeing to be “not herself.”
“The sandbox was already built, and you knew where you got to play,” she said of singing within a script and cast. “There’s a whole orchestra of humans who makes that happen every night. I found it to be really connected. The experience of being an actor is a meditation of being very present with every thought as it comes up, remembering not to get ahead of yourself, that your character is discovering these thoughts moment by moment, with the audience in real time.”
In addition to her upcoming reprisal in “Waitress,” Bareilles is focused on recording a new album, then touring, which will likely bring her back to Denver.
“I’ve always loved coming through Denver to play,” she said. “The audiences are so warm and passionate. Our cast is so excited to be there, and the fact that we get an extended stay is such a gift.”
“Waitress,” a musical. Original music and lyrics written by Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles. Times vary. Dec. 19-31. Buell Theatre at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. 1400 Curtis Street. $25-$155. denvercenter.org.