Sara Bareilles at home in theatre

Sara Bareilles in Waitress on Broadway, where she played waitress Jenna for brief stretches this year and last.
Sara Bareilles in Waitress on Broadway, where she played waitress Jenna for brief stretches this year and last.PHOTO: JEREMY DANIEL

The singer behind 2007 pop hit Love Song has been doing more work in theatre, saying it is a "welcoming safe space"

NEW YORK • If you are watching the Tony Awards (this morning, Singapore time), you may be surprised to find out that Sara Bareilles is co-hosting the event.

Most people probably remember her as the singer behind the infectious 2007 pop hit Love Song. But the 38-year-old has since fallen in love with theatre.

In April, she was a stunningly effective Mary Magdalene in NBC's Jesus Christ Superstar Live In Concert on television. Days later, she got tapped to co-host the Tony Awards with singer Josh Groban.

"I think I've always been a theatre person," she said in a production office 11 storeys above Broadway. "It's the most welcoming safe space on the planet," she noted of theatre.

"Taking a left turn into a pop artist career is not necessarily what I envisioned for myself."

It has been five years since Bareilles' last studio album, The Blessed Unrest.

Broadway has now so consumed her that she categorises her life into before and after Waitress.

She had unsuccessfully auditioned for a 2012 Shakespeare in the Park production of Into The Woods when director Diane Paulus approached her about writing the songs for an adaptation of a quirky 2007 movie titled Waitress.

The musical opened two years ago and is still running strong, with Katharine McPhee now starring as unhappily pregnant waitress Jenna who has an awful husband and a gift for making pies.

Bareilles might even have played the part from the beginning, only Paulus wanted the rookie composer to focus on making the show.

Still, Paulus said, there were rehearsal nights when almost everyone else had left and she would coax Bareilles on stage. "Be Jenna for me, Sara," she would say, just to hear Bareilles sing the songs.

Bareilles' own track record of singing at the Oscars and the White House nailed the Superstar casting alongside John Legend and Alice Cooper.

She not only sang I Don't Know How To Love Him, but also suggested to a national audience that she could act.

Now, she has the nation's attention once more, teaming up with Groban.

"I don't think either of us has the delusion about, 'Let's make this about us','' she said of the Tonys' co-hosting gig.

"Hopefully, we can be conduits to that new audience who maybe doesn't know so much about theatre, but knows us."

That is the big cultural evolution, 20 years after Paul Simon controversially flopped with his gangster study The Capeman and left complaining that Broadway was an impenetrable insider-y clique.

Since then, the Abba catalogue hit Mamma Mia! (2002) and Four Seasons' story Jersey Boys (2006) have proved that audiences would flock to pop hits repurposed on stage.

Increasingly this decade, singer-songwriters such as Bareilles are writing directly for the stage. "If there was a perception that that wasn't appropriate, that's gone," Paulus said of the pop invasion.

Would Bareilles take a role on Broadway?

"Totally," she said. "I'm lucky that I get to have those conversations now. Eight shows a week is tough, but compared to touring..."

She does not hit the road hard any more, the way she did when she was paying her dues.

With the entertainment industry now in love with her talents, she has been tapped to pen songs such as the inspiring If I Dare for the Billie Jean King-Bobby Riggs movie Battle Of The Sexes (2017) and the peppy second-act opening number for Broadway's cartoony SpongeBob SquarePants musical which has earned 12 Tony Award nominations.

Bareilles will get back to the studio after the Tonys. She is feeling more focused now than five years ago, when the write-record-tour cycle burned her out.

The new album has no shape yet, but she figures she will trust her habit of looking inside.

It worked for a decade before Broadway - immediate personal circumstances generated her standbys Love Song, Brave (2013) and Gravity (2004).

Of Gravity, she said: "I had no intention of making anybody else feel better with that song. I was only self-soothing. (But) if I can just speak truthfully to my experience, it will resonate where it needs to resonate."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 11, 2018, with the headline 'Sara Bareilles at home in theatre'. Print Edition | Subscribe