Writing the music for the stage adaptation of the film “Waitress,” Sara Bareilles says, “completely changed my life.”
Bareilles had earned Grammy Awards and acclaim as a singer-songwriter (“Love Song,” “Brave”), but she had never written for musical theater when she got a call from American Repertory Theater artistic director Diane Paulus in 2015. Paulus wanted Bareilles for her planned stage adaptation of Adrienne Shelly’s 2007 film, which tells the story of Jenna, a waitress in a small-town diner whose marriage to an abusive husband gets more complicated when she becomes pregnant. Jenna, who expresses her feelings by baking pies with names like Wake Up and Smell the Coffee Kick Ass Pie and Lost Shepherd Pie, finds support from fellow waitresses Dawn and Becky. Bareilles joined book writer Jessie Nelson and Paulus in Cambridge, where the musical had its world premiere before heading to Broadway.
“I was delightfully oblivious about what was involved,” says Bareilles, who is now playing Jenna on Broadway while Desi Oakley stars in the touring production that arrives at the Opera House Feb. 20-March 4. “I will be forever grateful to Diane and Jessie for giving me a chance.”
When Bareilles came back with the first song, “She Used to Be Mine,” Paulus says she had no doubt about her ability to write the music for the show.
“The film has a quirky tone, with complicated characters,” says Paulus during a break in rehearsal for “The White Card,” which is getting its world premiere at the Paramount Center later this month. “In this first number, Sara took a deep dive into the inner heart and psyche of this character. I was struck by her ability to have the character of Jenna talk about herself in the third person.”
Paulus, whose productions of “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess,” “Pippin,” and “Finding Neverland” also got their start at ART before moving to Broadway, says she goes with her gut when choosing projects.
“The film ‘Waitress’ had a theatrical whimsy,” Paulus says. “It’s witty and funny, but it also socks it to us emotionally, being honest about how messy life is and how we respond when everything is thrown at us to knock us down.”
Bareilles says writing for the characters in “Waitress” was an exercise in empathy.
“My songwriting had been focused on things in my own life, but for ‘Waitress’ I had to explore other characters,” she says. “There are no heroes or villains in Adrienne Shelly’s world, just individuals making mistakes and trying to do the best they can. We live in a world right now where we are being pressured to think in binary terms. It’s good to be reminded of the nuances that make us human.”
Paulus says she went into the project thinking all the songs would reflect Jenna’s surreal dreams about the pies, but laughs when she admits that’s exactly what didn’t happen.
“What I love about working on new shows is the discoveries,” she says. “In seven weeks I was confident we were true to the heart of the show, but you can’t always see what’s missing when you’re in the middle of it.
“We’re excited to bring the show back to Boston where it started,” Paulus says, “because we were able to reorder some of the songs, add a new song [“What Baking Can Do”], and animate the role of the ensemble through new choreography.”
Casting the role of Jenna, Paulus admits, has been challenging.
“Sara’s music is not easy to sing,” says Paulus. “Her range is all over the place, and at the same time, the singer has to make it look effortless. Desi has that combination of vocal agility and comfort with the character.”
For Bareilles, “Waitress” opened an entirely new chapter in her professional career. After Jessie Mueller, who originated the role of Jenna, left the cast, Bareilles made her Broadway debut as her successor. Now she will play the role of Mary Magdalene, opposite John Legend as Jesus, in a staged concert production of “Jesus Christ Superstar” that NBC will broadcast live on Easter, April 1. She also wrote the song “Seriously” for “This American Life,” which was performed by “Hamilton” star Leslie Odom Jr. and imagines Barack Obama’s reaction to the current political climate.
“Sara’s a naturally gifted performer who understands how to absorb the DNA of her characters,” says Paulus. “She just has a sidebar career in songwriting.”
Presented by Broadway in Boston. At the Opera House, Feb. 20-March 4. Tickets from $44, 800-982-2787, www.broadwayinboston.com