Amid the crowd of pop songstresses who’ve emerged in recent years, Sara Bareilles has stood out for her ability to craft songs with appeal for adults as well as teens and tweens. So it’s not entirely shocking that in this age of successful pop-Broadway crossovers – think Cyndi Lauper and Kinky Boots or Duncan Sheik and Spring Awakening – Bareilles would be tapped to write the score for a stage show. Waitress, based on the 2007 film by Adrienne Shelly starring Keri Russell, ran recently at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, MA and is scheduled to open on Broadway on April 24, 2016 starring Tony Award winner Jessie Mueller. Well in advance comes What’s Inside: Songs from Waitress, an album of songs from the show sung by Bareilles herself.
The atmospheric miniature “What’s Inside” opens the disc and announces right away with its snaky melody that we’re in for something rooted in pop music but thoughtful and theatrical too. It gives way to the dance-pop harmonies of the sunny boogie-woogie number “Opening Up,” followed by the appealing Sondheim-lite quirk of “Door Number Three,” theatrical in a smooth pop mode.
Bareilles is in wonderful voice, clear and solid, with an honest feeling and artistic integrity.
While the songs with their character-based lyrics do touch off imaginings of the corresponding stage numbers, I didn’t feel any need to imagine “Broadway” singers (e.g. Mueller) singing them. Bareilles does them beautifully. Case in point: “She Used To Be Mine,” a strong, soulful ballad, sung with a sweet combination of torchy heft and emotional delicacy.
“When He Sees Me” is pure theater and more of a narrative piece, again with a touch of Sondheimesque angularity. “Everything Changes” is a typical inspiring closing number, yet smile-inducing in spite of itself.
I’m impressed by Bareilles’s ability to filter theatrical-music tropes through a singer-songwriter sensibility to create songs that are imagistic both lyrically and in their abstract musicality, even when you don’t know the storyline (and I don’t, having not seen the ART production and with very little memory of the movie, a romance about a diner waitress, a pregnancy, and a pie contest). I don’t know what character is singing songs like the gentle “Soft Place to Land” or the tongue-twisting “Never Ever Getting Rid of Me” – and it doesn’t matter. The collection adds up to a collection a lot more satisfying than the typical pure pop album of today with its one or two catchy songs lost in masses of insistently noisy filler.
There are less-melodic numbers deeper into the album, and while the guest vocals from Jason Mraz are nice on duet passages they’re rather insipid alone (though they do help paint a multi-character picture). Still every song is strongly conceived, with a firm sense of story-motion. It helps too that the vocals are recorded without the roboticizing tricks of today’s dehumanized pop music, reminding us of the pleasures of the unadulterated human voice, especially a really good one like Bareilles’s.
I was surprised at how much I enjoyed What’s Inside: Songs from Waitress. While I’ve liked well enough the handful of Bareilles’s pop songs I’ve heard, I never have high hopes for the score of a new Broadway musical, especially one written by a stage newcomer. This Waitress, in addition to being a good album on its own, actually makes this adult want to see the show. And that’s saying something.