“Waitress,” the new Broadway musical based on the 2007 indie movie, is not your typical love story. Set in the South, the plot swirls around a diner waitress and expert pie-baker named Jenna, who, mired in a loveless marriage to an abusive husband and unexpectedly pregnant with his child, embarks on a torrid love affair with her married gynecologist.
Then again, Sara Bareilles is not your traditional Broadway composer.
Ms. Bareilles is the singer-songwriter behind piano-driven hits like “Love Song” and “Brave,” who earlier this month played what she — self-deprecatingly — calls her “mid-tempo ballads” at a White House state dinner honoring the Canadian prime minister.
But she’s also part of a new twist in musical theater: one of a handful of female singer-songwriters attempting to make the leap to Broadway songsmith, along with Edie Brickell, Sheryl Crow, Susan Werner and Erin McKeown.
Writing Broadway musicals, as visitors from the pop, rock, folk and country music worlds are finding, can be a time-consuming and only occasionally lucrative endeavor. And pivoting from the familiar world of composing pop songs to the collaborative craziness of the Broadway musical can induce a sort of cultural whiplash.
“It actually took me a long time to say that I love this project,” Ms. Bareilles said recently, enjoying a glass of pinot grigio after another long day of rehearsal. “It was very hard; it was confusing; it was foreign. I think I was having a little bit of an out-of-body experience with it for maybe the first year of working on this show.”
Yet in a career that has brought her a No. 1 album, five Grammynominations and a celebrity judgeship on the NBC a cappella competition “The Sing-Off,” the 36-year-old Ms. Bareilles said she’s never felt such a sense of reward.
“Some of that is related to the sheer man-hours that it’s required of me,” she said. “I’ve never worked on anything this hard, and this long, and this sincerely.”
The road to Broadway for “Waitress,” which opens April 24 at the Brooks Atkinson Theater, has taken nine years and cost $12 million. The veteran producers Barry and Fran Weissler picked up the theatrical rights to the Adrienne Shelly movie just after its release in 2007, spying musical potential in the imperfections and desires of Ms. Shelly’s characters.
They also saw a project — a mix of feminist fable and romantic fairy tale — that could resonate with women, who drive Broadway sales. Two creative teams didn’t pan out. Soon after hiring the director Diane Paulus, with whom the Weisslers worked on the Tony award-winning revival of “Pippin,” they opted for a different approach.
“It wasn’t this big, bold Broadway musical,” Ms. Paulus said. “This was something more delicate, maybe something that required a new kind of musical theater voice.”
She put together a wish list of songwriters who had never written for the musical theater. The first slot belonged to Ms. Bareilles; Ms. Paulus never talked to anyone else
In Ms. Bareilles’s songs, Ms. Paulus saw both range and a storyteller’s craft — “Gravity” being “a personal, deeply searing heartache of a song,” while “King of Anything” was “spunky with lyrical twists.”
With more Broadway musicals in the works than ever, this behind-the-scenes form of nontraditional casting is becoming increasingly common. “As an industry, we producers are finding that the talent pool of the traditional theater writers — librettists and composers and lyricists — has not really expanded,” said Scott Sanders, the producer of “The Color Purple,” who is considering several female singer-songwriters for an upcoming project.
And with a music business that’s been upended by the Internet, shaving record sales (and those songwriting royalties) by considerable sums, producers are finding those musicians eager for new opportunities.
Ms. Bareilles’s recording and touring career has remained more robust than that of others, but she was ready for a change.
Between touring and shooting “The Sing-Off,” she felt exhausted and overwhelmed, uninspired and too comfortable. “I wasn’t unhappy, but I just felt unalive,” she said. She broke up with a longtime boyfriend, and her longtime band; and she would soon move to New York after 13 years in Los Angeles. Musical theater, she told her agents, was something she’d like to explore.
Ms. Bareilles was first exposed to the form growing up in Eureka, Calif., where her mother and older sisters were involved in community theater. “Nunsense” was among her earliest musical memories — she took up tap dancing because of the show — and she repeatedly listened to cast albums like “Oklahoma!” and “Miss Saigon.” (“I think she knows some musicals better than me,” Ms. Paulus said. “She can sing the whole opening of ‘Beauty and the Beast.’”)