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It Used to Be Hers: Sara Bareilles dons her apron once more with ‘Waitress’ live-capture film

NEW YORK (AP) — She was an admired pop star with a voice like butter. But writing a musical about a woman who bakes pies? When Sara Bareilles was approached more than a decade ago about penning the score for “Waitress” on Broadway, she literally pictured a mountain in front of her, impossible to climb.

Bareilles hadn’t even yet seen the source material, the 2007 indie movie starring Keri Russell as Jenna, a small-town waitress in an abusive marriage who bakes for solace and self-expression. And though she loved musicals, Bareilles had never written from any character’s perspective but her own. But at that initial lunch meeting, theater director Diane Paulus suggested Bareilles go watch the film and then write something, anything: “Whatever pours out of you.”

A few weeks later, an MP3 file from Bareilles popped into Paulus’ inbox. It was “She Used to Be Mine,” an achingly wistful, painful yet also somehow triumphant anthem for Jenna. And it was ready to go. Paulus thought: “OK, we’ve got our musical.”

Movie audiences will now see Bareilles, as Jenna, sing that song, which has taken on a life as a favored audition song and something people of all ages and genders, professional or amateur, just love to sing. It's the emotional highpoint of the live-capture version of “Waitress: The Musical” that hits movie screens nationwide on Thursday for five days, a return to the big screen more than 15 years after the story began its life there.

To Bareilles, the full-circle moment means people who could perhaps never afford to see an expensive show will now have the chance — something she describes as “a huge source of pride.”

“I grew up in a small town,” she said in an interview, referring to her youth in Eureka, California. “I think it would have been off the map to be able to come to New York and see a Broadway show. So that was a big motivation."

Capturing the show, during a return engagement to Broadway in 2021 just as theaters were tentatively recovering from the devastating pandemic shutdown, was not an easy feat. Everybody had to stay healthy or the four-day shoot — two live performances plus some extra work for closeups and the like — would not work.

“It’s already hard to worry about getting sick when you’re in the theater,” Bareilles said. “And we only had these four days.. But there was so much excitement and buoyancy ... people really wanted to be there and capture this moment to live in perpetuity.”

Jessie Nelson, who wrote the book, says producers moved quickly once they were able to secure Covid relief funding. “We realized that probably never again will we have this incredible group of people together and this beautiful cast,” Nelson says. “It was really this feeling of, we had lightning in a bottle.”

In a sense, the whole story of “Waitress” feels like lightning in a bottle. Both the show and the movie by Adrienne Shelly thread a delicate needle, blending the dark theme of domestic abuse with some outright raunchy comedy (for one thing, Jenna has trysts with her gynecologist — on the exam table.) It could have been a fatal mix, especially in a musical, but it was Bareilles, says director Paulus, who found the way to capture it all truthfully.

“Sara’s musical score enabled us to ride that emotional journey,” Paulus says. ”What was attracting us all ... was that it was addressing this pervasive issue of domestic violence, but doing it in a way that was human and quirky and messy — in a Broadway musical.” The director says some audience members told her they credited the show with helping them escape their own abusive relationships.

For Bareilles, 43, who only took on the role of Jenna after original star Jessie Mueller's run ended, it was an artistic journey that changed her career. Back in 2012, all she knew was that she was ready for something different.

“I was newly transplanted to New York City. I had left my band and my boyfriend and my manager and my house. I just was kind of clean-slating my life. And I didn’t really know why,” she says. “And so I think the themes of this woman sort of realizing she’s in a life that she didn’t quite recognize or maybe even entirely want — I was relating to those themes. ‘She Used to Be Mine’ is as much a diary entry for me as it is for Jenna.”

Bareilles adds that someone else helped her with the process of writing — a person she’d call on frequently, though they had passed away years earlier. Shelly, who wrote, directed and acted in her movie, playing the character of Dawn, was tragically killed by an intruder in 2006 at age 40 — before she could learn that her film had been accepted by the Sundance Film Festival.

“I did a lot of talking to Adrienne Shelly during the process of making the show,” Bareilles says. “I did a lot of inviting her into the process and wanting her spirit to be very available and very welcome.” The singer says she feels Shelly was deeply present in the work that emerged. “You become the vessel for it,” she says.

A vessel — and also a musical theater actor. Last year Bareilles was nominated for a Tony award for her much-loved portrayal of the Baker’s Wife (yes, another woman who bakes) in “Into the Woods.” Conquering a Stephen Sondheim role on Broadway was something she could barely have imagined in 2012 when meeting Paulus. In fact, she had just come off what she calls a terrible audition for an earlier production of “Into the Woods.” The role — Cinderella — went to Mueller, eventual star of “Waitress.”

Whatever she does next, Bareilles thinks this movie is likely her last outing as Jenna.

“Never say never,” she says. "But in my heart, this capture feels like a nice bookend for my time as Jenna. I spent a lot of time in that apron and loved every second of it.”

Bareilles and her colleagues are heartened that small productions of the show are taking place around the country, keeping alive what will always be the first Broadway musical led by an all-female creative crew.

“We broke that glass ceiling so that everyone else can walk through that opening ... to be able to say this is possible,” says Paulus. Especially important, she notes, is that the show was a financial success. “So often, my sense before ‘Waitress’ was that feeling of, ‘Can women really be in charge?’” she says. “The door just had to be opened.”

To Bareilles, the guiding spirit will always be Shelly, who she imagines would now be feeling “really proud, really pleased to see that this brainchild and heart child of hers is having a life that is very clearly reaching a lot of people, and deeply resonant.”

“People have very emotional, almost familial connections to this show,” Bareilles says. ”It’s a world they want to live inside of, touch base with, reconnect with. And I think this is all from Adrienne.”

Jocelyn Noveck, The Associated Press