“My first introduction into music was theater cast albums,” Bareilles tells PEOPLE, during a sit-down in New York City. “Miss Saigon, Les Misérables, The Secret Garden, Little Shop of Horrors, Chess — you name it, I was all about it.”
She had a chance to write her very own theater cast album with Waitress — the hit 2016 musical she composed about a waitress in a small town who enters a pie contest in hopes of using the prize money to escape her unhappy marriage.
And now, Bareilles has taken her love for the form to the next level, stepping into the show’s lead role of pregnant pie-maker Jenna Hunterson for a limited 10-week run at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre.
It’s a part that was made famous by Keri Russell in Adrienne Shelly’s 2007 movie of the same name and Tony winner Jesse Mueller on Broadway. But Bareilles didn’t spend too much time thinking about who came before her. Instead, she dove head-first into acting.
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“I was the most intimidated to explore what it felt like to be an actor,” she admits. “It felt like a foreign language. But I did a lot of work with acting coaches, trying to find my way into that language. And now I’m actually really enjoying the challenge to be present — to be alive and new with just reacting to something and being very honest and grounded.”
For more on Bareilles’ Waitress run, pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE — on newsstands now.
Storytelling has always been important to Bareilles — something she learned from her favorite songwriters. “People like Billy Joel, Joni Mitchell, Carole King, Ben Folds — their songs are little slices of life,” she says. “There’s so much vibrant detail and nuance. And getting to do that on stage in this capacity? It’s exciting.”
Below, Bareilles discusses the songs that helped shape her life — including the hardest tune she wrote in Waitress.
First Song She Learned to Play on the Piano: “Someone Else’s Story,” Chess
“I have a vivid memory of trying to teach myself to play ‘Someone Else’s Story’ from Chess. And I must have played the beginning of the record over and over and over so I could remember the voicings of what was happening. I can’t remember it anymore on the piano, but I worked so hard on that.”
“I actually give my oldest sister Stacey the most credit for teaching me to play piano. In a way, there was never instruction. I took piano lessons for a very short period of time and I hated them. My teacher was a love bug, but I just hated the structure — I didn’t want to dissect it. But I loved playing the piano. So my sister kind of helped me to learn to read chords. I can’t read notes on a staff, but I know how to play an A-chord, or a B-flat, or a A-flat minor. Those are the three chords I know.”
Sara’s Favorite Showtune: “Send in the Clowns” from A Little Night Music
“It’s so cliché to pick a Stephen Sondheim song, but ‘Send in the Clowns’ is kind of the most tragic, perfect song. It’s such a beautiful song. My sister was in a Sondheim review, Side by Side by Sondheim, and the musical director did the most beautiful arrangement of that song I have ever heard. It haunts me to this day. I’m going to have to dig it out and do it at some point — it was so beautiful.”
Song That Always Makes Her Cry: Anais Mitchell, “Shepherd”
“You try to get through that song and not cry. It’s the most tragic, beautiful song. She’s an incredible songwriter anyway, but I love that song. And she has another song called ‘Coming Down’ that’s so beautiful and so melancholy. Apparently Anais Mitchell always makes me cry. I love her work.”
Song That Always Gets Her on the Dance Floor: “Hey-Ya!” by Outkast
“That song is just classic and timeless. It could have happened in the ’60s. It’s an absolute go-getter. And pitting men and women singing against each other in the lyrics? That’s always helpful.”
Favorite Song in Waitress: “She Used to Be Mine“
“I just have to answer that from the sentimental place. It was the first song that I wrote for the show. It just so cuts to the heart of what the whole show is about for me. That song, I think, is my favorite.”
Song of Sara’s That Was the Hardest to Write: “Opening Up” from Waitress
“Not to harp on Waitress, but the opening number! I rewrote it about 40 times and it was literally days before opening when I finally added a new little B section that made the chorus feel like it was doing the thing it needed to do. I was in tears when we finally got the green light.”
“There are so many demos of that song — I’ve written horrible songs for this show. I had a song with dancing sperm in it. It was a “please have sex with me” song from Earl’s perspective. It was f—ing horrible. I wanted to die!”
“I learned to be patient with songwriting. It’s very mercurial and it sometimes goes down a wrong road. You have to trust that the good ideas float to the top and create the safe space for everything to come to life so you can let it live and breath.When you have some good perspective, you can see what actually belongs.”
Waitress is now playing on Broadway.