Sara Bareilles is having a really big few days. She went to last night's 76th Annual Tony Awards as a nominee for Best Leading Actress in a Musical, for her performance in Into the Woods. She also performed on the evening's broadcast. Tonight, the live stage film of Bareilles' musical Waitress, with Bareilles herself leading the cast as Jenna, premieres at Tribeca Film Festival, with a simultaneous free screening happening in Times Square at 7:30 PM.
Adapted from the 2007 film, Waitress features a book by Jessie Nelson and a Tony-nominated score by Bareilles. The musical made its first Broadway bow in 2016, earning four Tony nominations including Best Musical. Bareilles first played Jenna as a replacement to original star Jessie Mueller; she ended up headlining two more limited engagements throughout the original run and did a stint in London’s West End prior to the coronavirus shutdown. This stage capture was filmed during the musical's post-shutdown 2021 Broadway return, with Bareilles again in the lead.
We caught up with Bareilles by phone over the weekend before the Tonys, to chat about becoming a multi-hyphenate Tony nominee (Bareilles was nominated for her Waitress score in 2015), the new Waitress live stage capture, and more. Though when asked for the plans for the filmed capture after Tribeca, Bareilles was mum. She couldn’t tell us what’s next in store for the film just yet, but it seems likely that a wider release is in the cards.
The conversation below has been edited for length and clarity.
How does it feel to be a Tony-nominated performer?
Sara Bareilles: It’s thrilling. First and foremost, it's so important for us to come together and continue to lift up and celebrate the theatre industry, because, as you well know, it's something that continues to struggle and try to rebuild after the insanity of the last three years. I feel so proud to be someone who got acknowledged in this extraordinary season of art. I just can't believe it. It feels like my childhood dream. Not that it wasn't an amazing experience to go through this with Waitress, but I just had never imagined myself as a composer. The little-kid dream was me on stage singing my face off. To see this come to life is a really tremendous moment. And I'm so grateful.
Your multi-hyphenate career also includes a lot of writing, both as a composer but also with words as a lyricist. How does it feel going to this celebratory evening in the midst of the fierce battle the Writers Guild of America is in with Hollywood producers?
It was an amazing act of generosity for the Writers Guild to acknowledge that this ceremony was really valuable for our industry. I'm so grateful for that. I am incensed on their behalf for what is not being offered to them. And I believe that [the strike] is 100 percent right. But one of the things I love about theatre is that it's all about our humanity. I feel like it's one of the industries that comes back to this very handmade, soul-giving work that, especially in and around the question of artificial intelligence and when should we use AI to help create stories, I feel like human beings deserve the right to create human stories. The theatre industry is one of those places where that lives and breathes, and it feels wonderful to get to support that. The world is very complicated and we’re in a very complicated time. But I don't think that these industries are at odds with each other in any way.
Let’s talk about Waitress. This live stage film has been more or less an open secret for a couple years. How long has it been finished?
Not that long! It did take us a while to finish, but it’s only been done for maybe about six months or so. I’m not great with the timeline. Waitress is a very hand-made product. Everything we do is done in-house, so our process is our process. Sometimes it takes a little longer to bake the pie. But we felt like we were looking for the exact right moment to premiere this. To get the opportunity to be involved with the Tribeca Film Festival, which is so iconic to New York. This is the first time there's been any kind of collaboration with Tribeca and the theatre industry in this way. And to be doing this giant screening in Times Square on the TSX Board is—this is all major first for our city. And it feels like a really huge, huge moment to celebrate.
How did it get filmed?
We shot two live shows, and had two and a half days of setup—we were in the empty theatre and we could bring in the big rig cameras, and have our Steadicam operator on stage if we needed to get those more intimate shots. What you see in the film is a compilation of some stuff that worked the best when the audience was there and some of the more intimate moments where we needed the cameras to get even closer, and we wouldn’t have been able to do that with an audience. But it’s kind of amazing. I really thought it would be easy to tell the difference, and I think it’s harder than I’d imagined to know when the audience is there and when they’re not. Our actors did a fantastic job.
We’re so used to seeing these release on an arguably less prestigious scale, like PBS. What does it mean having Waitress premiere at Tribeca?
It’s elevating, and it's a kind of validation for the medium of the live capture. Even though we saw these wonderful filmed performances in the past, I think there has been an evolution in that medium and a more contemporary and more modern and more intimate kind of approach to trying to make these films. It lets them live somewhere in between just filming a stage show and what a movie would be capable of doing.
I grew up in a little tiny town in Northern California seeing and doing shows with my community theatre, which is where I saw Evita and The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Little Shop of Horrors, Jesus Christ Superstar. It's a way to let us celebrate theatre in all its forms and to give people access to it. The first time I came to New York, I was in my 30s. We didn't have the money to travel to New York and see a Broadway show, so TV was how we saw it. I love the idea that Waitress will get brought to families and people who watch the show are already know the show because they love the music or the movie, and they get to see it in this form.
What were the TV musicals that meant a lot to you as a kid?
Into the Woods was one of them for sure, and the Rodgers and Hammerstein Cinderella with Lesley Ann Warren. Those are the two that come to mind immediately. I don’t even know how many times I watched that Cinderella. I wore it out. I could not get enough of it.
Performances like that are so important for us theatre kids. It’s almost like they get printed on our brains. How does it feel knowing that you will be that for a whole new generation of theatre fans?
Oh, man. I haven't thought about it in those terms. But it's unbelievable. The whole hope as an artist is to make stuff that you love. That is my number one goal. I just want to work on and make stuff that I love, because I have no control over how anyone else is going to deal with any of the shit that I make. And that has really held so very true for me, especially in the last maybe 10 years of my career. I get to stand behind this thing and know that I made this and I love it and I believe in it. I believe in the soul of this piece. I believe that we honored Adrienne Shelley's beautiful story about flawed people making mistakes, but doing the best they can and finding ways to love themselves and to love each other—and I think that message is so important.
I was a kid that needed to believe there was a place for me to belong in the world, and theatre became that place. I was not someone who thrived in my school setting. I felt very judged and bullied, and I felt really ugly and small and unimportant. Theatre was the first place where I actually felt like it was OK to be my whole self. So I love making stories in theatre, whether it's Into the Woods and interpreting this wild and wonderful world of, again, flawed people making mistakes but doing the best they can, or making something like Waitress. I just think it's essential, life-giving, soul-affirming work.
What surprised you about the show and your performance watching it during the editing process?
It is nerve-racking! And I think we did a good job of capturing what is alive about telling the story. I think it's perfectly imperfect. Did we get every shot we wanted exactly right? No. But we made this beautiful, living breathing time capsule, a little snapshot in time. I think what surprised me is that I didn't need it to be perfect. I just wanted it to feel true, and alive. And I think we did it.
You are engaged to Joe Tippett, who plays your character’s abusive husband in the show. How did you manage going to such dark places with someone you’re in a relationship with?
It’s about trust. We had an intimacy coordinator who worked with our company that was sort of teaching us about boundaries, and where we need boundaries. Joe and I would sort of tap in and tap out for performances. It was like, OK, now we’re going into Jenna and Earl territory. We have some really ugly stuff [in the show]. And after the show, we can look into each others’ eyes, take a big breath in, and give a big hug—and then we’re back. It was a really helpful tool that I had never heard about previously. It was a great resource to be able to go to the darker places. But I trust him with my life, so I felt very safe.
Watch a teaser trailer for the Waitress film below.
The free Times Square screening of Waitress will be featured on TSX Entertainment's 18,000-square-foot digital screen beginning at 7:30 PM ET, with sound available through TSX's mobile app.
Waitress's Broadway encore and its live stage film pay tribute to the late Nick Cordero, who originated the role of Earl in the musical's original run. The board listing Jenna’s cleverly named confections at the diner where she works newly includes “A Big Ol Slice of Live Your Life Pie”—a nod to the Cordero song that became an anthem as he battled a severe COVID-19 case. He lost his life in July 2020, at the age of 41.
Bareilles is joined by the musical's complete encore run cast, including Christopher Fitzgerald in his Tony-nominated performance as Ogie, Drew Gehling as Dr. Pomatter, Charity Angél Dawson as Becky, Caitlin Houlahan as Dawn, Eric Anderson as Cal, Dakin Matthews as Joe, and Joe Tippett as Earl. The Broadway encore company was rounded out by Tyrone Davis, Jr., Matt DeAngelis, Andrew Fitch, Henry Gottfried, Molly Jobe, Emily Koch, Max Kumangai, Anastacia McCleskey, Gerianne Pérez, Stephanie Torns, and Nyla Watson.
Waitress, produced by Barry and Fran Weissler alongside Norton and Elayne Herrick, features sets by Scott Pask, costumes by Suttirat Anne Larlarb, lighting by Tony Christopher Akerlind, and sound by Jonathan Deans. Nadia DiGiallonardo serves as music supervisor. Casting is by Telsey + Company. The stage film is produced by Michael Roiff.