When Grammy-nominated Sara Bareilles was approached about writing the score for a Broadway version of the 2007 indie film hit “Waitress,” she hadn’t seen the movie. But she was ready for a fresh challenge.
“I was a little burnt out with the normal singer-songwriter process. Tour, write a record, tour again,” Bareilles says two days after her triumphant turn as Mary Magdalene in the live Easter television production of “Jesus Christ Superstar.”
So Bareilles watched the movie about diner waitress Jenna Hunterson, a baker of extraordinary pies and a woman who happens to be trapped in an abusive marriage. Bareilles found it “charming and quirky,” and she said yes to the years-long collaborative process of creating a Broadway show. She would also make a bit of history with book writer Jessie Nelson, Tony Award-winning director Diane Paulus and choreographer Lorin Latarro: For the first time, women occupied the top four creative positions in a new Broadway musical.
“I actually didn’t know how much work it would be,” Bareilles says. “But it was so nourishing to work on something that was a big mystery to me.”
“Waitress” opened on Broadway in 2016, the year that “Hamilton” all but swept the Tony Awards. But “Waitress” is doing just fine, thank you very much. The story of a woman finding her way to her authentic self is still going strong after more than 800 performances.
And this week, the touring version of “Waitress” will open on Wednesday at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, where it will run through April 22.
Do note: If you walk into the theater and think you’re smelling apple pie, you aren’t crazy. Part of the show’s seductive charm and attention to detail involves scenting the air by baking spice-heavy pies at each performance.
The musical’s source material, that beautifully eccentric movie starring Keri Russell as Jenna, enjoyed a success its creator never got to see. Writer-director Adrienne Shelly, who also played Jenna’s fellow waitress Dawn in the film, was murdered at her Manhattan office before “Waitress” won a coveted spot at the Sundance Film Festival. Shelly’s daughter Sophie, who played Jenna’s toddler daughter, Lulu, in the movie, is now a teenager who has seen the musical version of her mother’s enduring work multiple times.
Book writer Nelson, a director-screenwriter whose credits include “I Am Sam,” “Corrina, Corrina,” “Love the Coopers” and other films, thinks too much is made of the musical’s female creative team.
“It felt like four professionals working as hard as we could and pushing each other,” she says.
At the same time, Nelson acknowledges aspects of “Waitress” were influenced by the team’s personal experiences and perspectives. The casting of Jenna’s waitress sidekick Becky, a married woman who has an affair with diner owner Cal, is one example. In the film, Becky was played by slender “Curb Your Enthusiasm” star Cheryl Hines. On tour, she’s played by curvy actress Charity Angel Dawson.
“We cast a wider net,” Nelson says. “We thought, ‘What if you cast a full-bodied woman as Becky?’ Our notion of what was beautiful was different.”
She also cites the late-in-the-show number in which Jenna gives birth. Unexpectedly pregnant by her possessive, abusive husband, Earl, Jenna has been having a wild affair with her obstetrician, Dr. Jim Pomatter. Conflicted about motherhood throughout her pregnancy, she goes into labor right there onstage, in the stylized “Contraction Ballet.”
“I don’t think men would have found that moment,” Nelson says.
On tour, Jenna is played by Desi Oakley, a University of Michigan grad who is also, like Bareilles, a singer-songwriter. Bryan Fenkart, who toured as Huey in “Memphis” (and is another singer-songwriter), plays Jenna’s married doctor-lover.
Working with the “Waitress” team, Oakley says, has been inspiring. “Sara is a genius. She’s been my idol since I started doing music. She was kind of the person to write this score,” the actress says.
Of director Paulus, she adds, “Diane is so specific. She has such a vision for what she knows the audience will take away. The detail is what makes it.”
At each local tour stop, the show hires two little girls to make a brief appearance as Jenna’s daughter, Lulu. At the Broward Center, 4-year-old Autumn Rae Sanchez and 5-year-old Quinn Eden Titcomb of Fort Lauderdale will alternate in the role.
“The girls are at the most precious age. Lulu changes Jenna’s life, and each of these girls changes ours,” Oakley says.
Fenkart, a Bareilles fan who says he’s honored to sing her music on tour, is enjoying playing someone he sees as part of an antihero trend: recognizable characters who aren’t simply good or bad.
“He and Jenna are catalysts for each other. His purpose is to light the fire that gets her thinking and moving,” Fenkart says. “He’s risking his medical license and his marriage. He’s layered and complicated.”
Nelson is preparing to direct the musical “Alice by Heart,” by “Spring Awakening” creators Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater. The new take on “Alice in Wonderland” will open at off-Broadway’s MCC Theater in January 2019. If her recording-tour schedule permits, Bareilles may star in the show. Bareilles has twice stepped into the role of Jenna in the Broadway production of “Waitress.”
Of Bareilles, Nelson says, “Sara’s strength as a person is this beautiful, heartfelt honesty she carries. She’s a witty, bright, playful person. Her score invites you to unzip your heart. She’s one of the most remarkable artists I’ve met.”
Bareilles says she found her way into the world of “Waitress” by first writing Jenna’s second-act song “She Used To Be Mine,” a number inspired by screenwriter Shelly’s writing in a scene that brought Bareilles to tears.
“It was Jenna’s 11th-hour cry for help, as she’s trying to do the right thing. First and foremost, you reckon with the person you thought you were,” she says.
Writing a musical gave Bareilles a gift that she believes will influence her music going forward. “It used to be all about writing songs from my point of view. This opened up my perspective. It’s nice to expand my source material,” says Bareilles, who will soon be back in the studio recording.
Bareilles is dating “Rise” actor Joe Tippett, whom she met when he played Earl in “Waitress” on Broadway. Going from appearing in community theater in her hometown of Eureka, Calif., to playing Jenna on Broadway was, she says, “spectacular. A fantasy. My little-girl dream. … I loved coming onstage as a storyteller, telling the story we created together.”
For Bareilles, “Waitress” has been a gift that keeps on giving.
“I’d love to do TV, film, animation, scoring. There are a lot of areas where I have a lot to learn. I love acting. I love writing for projects that I’m not a part of,” she says. “This has ignited a passion to go towards the new.”
”Waitress” plays April 11-22 at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, 201 SW Fifth Ave., in Fort Lauderdale, Showtimes are 8 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Tickets cost $35-$125 ($160 for Club Level seats). To order, call 462-0222 or go to BrowardCenter.org.