Stories in Song
An Interview with Waitress Composer Sara Bareilles
By Amanda Faye Martin
AMANDA FAYE MARTIN: How did your involvement with Waitress begin? What attracted you to the project?
SARA BAREILLES: [Director] Diane Paulus first told me about the project over lunch. I was certainly interested, but nervous because it felt like a huge undertaking. I had no experience writing in this format, but my first love was musical theater. Growing up, I devoured shows like The Secret Garden, Little Shop of Horrors, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Phantom of the Opera, Les Misérables, Chess, Oklahoma!, and Miss Saigon. They informed how I listened to music, and I think my being a storyteller was also influenced by that kind of writing. I watched the Adrienne Shelly film after I met with Diane, and the material spoke to me. I thought it was charming and heartfelt, and that there was a beautiful foundation to develop into a musical. I made a pact that I would do it with the condition that if it wasn’t going well, Diane would tap me on the shoulder and let me know. And nobody has tapped me on the shoulder yet!
AFM: Many of the songs on your last album, The Blessed Unrest, deal with the themes of
Waitress: asking for strength (“Hercules”), moving forward (“Chasing the Sun”), and you’ve said “Islands” is about having “to be your own island to exist. You have to be ok being alone.” What has it been like to explore these themes differently, writing for a musical rather than another solo album?
SB: I write autobiographically, so it has been challenging but so exciting to embrace this. I really connected to the lead character, Jenna. She is deeply flawed, pained, and broken, but also has so much strength and soul. When I first watched the movie, I was compelled by the lowest point in her character arc, and that was what made me want to go to the piano. The first song I wrote was “She Used to Be Mine,” which is about that phenomenon of waking up and looking at yourself and realizing there’s a part of you that doesn’t recognize who you are anymore. I also fell in love with all the other characters and their quirks. The character Ogie, who is the oddball love interest of one of Jenna’s waitressing buddies, is so funny, so warm, so delightful. I had a great time playing with humor in the writing and capturing this really quirky character with sound. I found likenesses between myself and each character, and that’s how I’ve been able to tell their stories. Writing the score has also liberated my process, because I had gotten used to writing in a specific format with a particular goal in mind. It’s not about “will this song make sense on the radio?” It’s more, “am I helping the audience understand the heart and soul of this character?”
AFM: You’ve said you consider yourself a feminist. Why do you think Jenna’s story is important to tell now in this country?
SB: We’re dealing with a woman in an abusive relationship who has to find strength within herself and within her community. One of the things I love about this story is that it highlights sisterhood amongst friends. I also think there is so much happening right now that celebrates what it means to embody a female spirit, and how that is evolving and changing for each new generation. The story deals with traditional value systems, but we’re challenging them within the world of the musical.
AFM: Did your upbringing in a small town in California help you capture that world?
SB: I encountered a lot of these characters growing up in Eureka—people who have big dreams that never came to life because they never got out of town, and people who are perfectly content, who made a wonderful life in a tight-knit community. You were never more than a couple degrees of separation from anybody else, so I really relate to that. I also worked as a waitress for a long time—all through my college years, and post-college when I first formed a band. I actually loved being a waitress. It’s hard work, but it’s also really gratifying and social. And that experience has definitely informed some of the Waitress lyrics. I worked at a little beer bar in Santa Monica after I graduated from UCLA. We had regular patrons who came in every single day. It was a unique experience because I knew them, and at the same time didn’t know everything about them. But the bar provided a sense of familiarity and a sense of home.
AFM: You’ve worked with other artists before, but how has this project for the theater been different?
SB: This is by far the most collaborative thing I’ve ever done, and that is both super challenging and exhilarating. I think the reason people collaborate is because the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Diane is visionary, brave, and bold, and I love that she has very high expectations. She is deeply collaborative, and so good at finding the gems and knowing when things need to be deepened and pushed further. I feel like I’ve hit the jackpot getting to learn from someone like her during my first professional experience in the theater.
Waitress is onstage at the National Theatre from May 15 thru June 3, 2018.