SLICING UP “WAITRESS”: AN EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW WITH STARS JESSIE MUELLER, CHRISTOPHER FITZGERALD AND JENNA USHKOWITZ

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SARA BAREILLES HAS BAKED A SMASH.

The Tony and Grammy nominated singer/songwriter’s debut musical, Waitress, opened this past March to rave reviews and instant box office success. Based on the 2007 indie film of the same name, Waitress is predicted to recoup its costs as soon as October. As Forbes points out, “For a new musical that isn’t Hamilton, that’s pretty spectacular.”

Waitress tells the story of Jenna, a waitress in a small Southern town, who yearns to leave her abusive marriage. Also working at the pie diner are her best friends, Dawn and Becky. When Jenna becomes accidentally pregnant, she meets the handsome (and also married) Dr. Pomatter. As she seeks a path to freedom, she sets her sights on a local pie contest as her golden ticket to a new life. Meanwhile, Becky and Dawn look for love in all of the most unexpected places.

Jessie-MuellerI spoke with Tony nominated actors Jessie Mueller (Jenna) and Christopher Fitzgerald (Dawn’s love interest, Ogie), as well as Glee star Jenna Ushkowitz, who has just joined the show as Dawn (following a leave of absence by original cast member Kimiko Glenn). We chatted everything Waitress including their favorite pies, working with Sara Bareilles, their creative processes, inspirations, and more.

NAGORSKI: How did you first get involved with Waitress?

MUELLER: I had a lunch with Diane Paulus and we discussed the project, and then I did a reading in December of 2014.

Jenna-UshkowitzUSHKOWITZ: Kimiko Glenn, who originated the role of Dawn, took a leave of absence. They called me on a Thursday and said, “We’d love for you to come in to meet everybody on Friday to do some of the Dawn stuff.” I went in and did it for a couple of hours and then left. That same evening, I found out that I was going to be joining the cast for a little while. It was all really quick and then I started rehearsals the next day!

FITZGERALD: The producer, Barry Weissler, called me. He and I had a couple of meetings about what we could find to do together. We had talked about a couple of things and then he said, “I’m doing this project. Do you know the movie Waitress?” I told him, “I think I’ve seen it. I’m not sure.” And he said, “Well, here, take a look at it. Somebody get me the DVD!” So he gave me the DVD and then explained, “There’s the small part of Ogie, the poet, who is a very eccentric guy. I’m not sure if it will interest you but take a look and see what it does.”

Christopher-FitzgeraldI asked him, “Well, who’s doing the score?” And he told me, “I think Sara Bareilles.” And when he said that, I was like, “A-HA! She’s cool! That would be interesting.” So I went home and I watched the movie. Eddie Jemison, who plays Ogie, is hilarious. He’s so good. But I couldn’t quite see how some of it was going to be musicalized, especially that character, but I figured why not give it a shot?

Then, they had a reading at their apartment, and there were maybe five of us. So in terms of when actors started to be involved, I’ve been involved since the very beginning. And nobody in that reading (other than me) is still a part of the project. There are all sorts of reasons why that is. We read through the screenplay essentially, and then Sara just sat at a piano and played and sang the songs. It was so incredible! When that reading ended, I was like, “I really want to be a part of this. I’ve got to make sure that I put some effort into continuing to let the people who are making decisions know that I want to be a part of it.”

I met Diane Paulus, our director, at that stage. And then we started doing several more readings, which is generally the process for new musicals. You have to do a lot of readings because you’re just trying to synthesize so many things – story, story with songs, who’s singing, why they need to sing, songs are cut and added, etc. There’s a lot of that kind of process. Through those readings, I was able to start a dialogue with Diane, Jessie Nelson (who adapted the screenplay) and Sara about the thoughts I had. It just became more of a collaborative experience and then we went into rehearsal, and now here we are!

Jessie, you’ve also been with the show since its early days. How has Jenna (and/or your interpretation of her) evolved throughout the process, from the early readings to the A.R.T. run to now on Broadway?

MUELLER: I think (and hope!) she’s grown deeper, and become like more of a second skin. Getting to spend time with a character helps. When I start working on someone, it feels disconnected. But I’ve learned for my own process that it is just that: a process. It takes time. I think in the beginning, I was a bit puzzled by her and by her decisions and choices – a bit like the audience experiences her. But in spending more time inside her, I came to know the complexity of her experience. I don’t judge her anymore. I think I did in the beginning.

Part of what makes you each so captivating on stage is how fully immersed in your characters you get. How do you choose your roles?

FITZGERALD: As an actor, you spend so much time hearing “no.” I’ve heard that word endless amounts of times. Hearing it so many thousands of times, you almost start to have a relationship with that word and that experience. But this was one of those experiences where I was like, “I think I have a handle on who this guy is and this would be really fun to physicalize.” In readings, when you’re reading it, you’re really working on the material. But I was like, “If I could get on my feet, I think I could have a lot of fun with this song.” So I don’t know about choosing stuff, it kind of chooses you, weirdly, you know?

The characters that I’ve played on Broadway, like Boq (Wicked), Igor (Young Frankenstein), Og (Finian’s Rainbow), are all of these weird little creatures. I basically am Broadway’s creature guy. I play all of the weird, non-human characters. So this time around, as Ogie, it’s nice that I get to actually play a man … but he’s also unlike any other man.

USHKOWITZ: Like I say for anything in my life, if it scares me a little bit, that’s always a good sign. If there’s a bit of a challenge, no matter what that is, I’m intrigued. I haven’t done a Broadway show and that rigorous schedule in eight years, so I definitely had to get back into a groove. I enjoy finding characters that are different from what I’ve done before. But it’s also important to make sure that I can relate to them and that my heart’s in it. Otherwise it’s kind of pointless.

MUELLER: I gravitate toward roles that I connect with. There was something about Jenna, and especially the music, that I related to. When I first heard “Everything Changes,” I cried. I’ve never had a child, but there was something that struck a chord. The healing of that song, the transformation, the yearning for renewal, the breakthrough – I found it so powerful. I like pieces that illuminate what it’s like to be a human being on this earth: the good, the bad, and the ugly.

How influential was the film when you were working on creating your characters? What/who else helped you find them?

MUELLER: Very! I came back to the film when we were working on the show out of town. It’s where Adrienne Shelly’s vision started. I think what Kerri Russell brought to the film was beautiful. I’ve since become a huge fan of The Americans and I always think of Dr. Pomatter’s line, “I could find the whole meaning of life in those sad eyes.” She has this amazing life that lives in her eyes. Well, you can’t really access that in a large Broadway house, but it was very influential to me. Jenna’s sadness lies very deep within her.

I also watched waitresses all the time. I searched for photos of people and waitresses at diners, especially those in small towns, or highway truck stops. There’s a fantastic book I got called Counter Culture by Candacy A. Taylor. And I found myself listening to a lot of country/folk music. There’s a Kacey Musgraves song called “Merry Go Round” that I got obsessed with for a while.

USHKOWITZ: I saw Kimiko’s performance right when the show first opened. She was wonderful and I wanted to keep the integrity of what she worked on. Especially during the rehearsal process with the girls, I wanted to make sure that we were keeping with the vision of what everybody had created. But obviously, Kimiko and I are so different, so it was also important to keep that and then wash away the rest.

I loved, loved, loved the movie when I saw it years ago, but I have not seen it since because it is very different. Dawn’s character is the biggest rewrite from the screenplay to the book for the musical, so I didn’t want to confuse the two. Therefore, I haven’t watched it again. Once I leave the show, I’ll probably go back and watch it again just because it’s so good.

Because Dawn is so particular, I look to people and to friends who are introverts to help bring her to life. I’m also an introvert and kind of OCD myself, so I tried to bring little bits and pieces of all these people that I knew and my own imagination to who I thought Dawn would be. I wanted to make her as human as possible because I think she is the easiest to be misconstrued as a caricature. And she’s not! She’s a real person. So that was really important to me when we were working in the few short weeks of rehearsal.

FITZGERALD: To me, the film was always the Bible of the piece. It’s where I felt like I always returned to in order to find the characters and their humanity. Adrienne wrote, starred in, and directed it, so that was always a constant reminder to allow her vision to inform you somehow. Those people crafted those characters first.

I’ve had a little experience doing that before. When I was playing Igor in Young Frankenstein, I felt the same way. How do you follow Marty Feldman? He’s perfect. He isIgor. There will never be anybody but Marty Feldman in that part. That was an iconic movie and each performance is iconic in it. All you can really do is try to tap into that and try to steal some of the joy, spirit and whatever that essence that makes it so incredible is. You want to try to borrow it and use it to your advantage.

For Waitress, some people didn’t want to watch the movie and didn’t want to have that experience. But I did and I definitely watched Eddie a lot. I think the main thing that I stole from him was that Ogie is a guy who is positive all the way down to the fiber of his being. He makes only positive choices and that’s really fun to play! It’s really fun to play someone who’s naively positive and who doesn’t see the wall in front of them that we all have. That really helped inform his song (“Never Ever Getting Rid of Me”) and the whole character’s journey.

Ogie is just like, “You are the one and I couldn’t know it more. This is too right. You know it and I know it.” He has that spark that made me realize that that’s where his drive comes from. It’s really fun to come into a show and have that energy, especially when all of the other characters are in the midst of the thickness of conflict. Everyone else is dealing with so much and making crazy, horrible choices because they’re in a lot of pain. Almost everybody in this show is in some way. So here I get to come in and just be like, “This is a joyous day!” And Ogie really believes that.

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Christopher, you’ve won Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle Awards for your performance. Do you think it’s this overwhelmingly positive outlook Ogie has on life that makes him such a scene-stealer?

FITZGERALD: Absolutely! That outlook informs everything. Have you ever seen those videos of birds doing big, crazy sex dances to try to get their mate excited? But in reality, they’re just these little, tiny birds that are showing off because of the stuff around them? They always make me laugh and they remind me of Ogie. They make me think of just how funny it is that there’s this person who’s a complete dweeb and nerdy weirdo, but who just doesn’t give a shit. It’s so satisfying to see somebody like that! We kind of all wish to be like that.

So yes, I think that positive drive is really what makes everyone go, “Wait, what’s happening? Who is this guy?” And then Sara wrote this crazy song that I feel like could almost be a stalker song. It’s kind of weird. We don’t have a lot of time to set it up. But he’s so positive and loving that you know it comes from an earnest place and that it’s not crazy. I feel like at the end of the song, if Dawn said, “You know, I really can’t do this,” Ogie would say, “Okay, I get it.” He’d put on a little performance and be like, “Now I’m very sad. I will try again but I get it.”

Waitress is the first Broadway musical to come from an all-female creative team. How (if at all) did this impact the overall creative process/experience of building the show?

MUELLER: I think we probably developed a shorthand that most of us weren’t even aware of. There was lots of talk of gyno appointments, babies, love, affairs, a woman’s experience, etc. It was very easy to go there and I think that’s because of the personalities that were in the room.

USHKOWITZ: Going into this show knowing that is awesome! You walk in already feeling inspired and empowered. I think all around women are raising the bar in society and in today’s world, so I’m thrilled and honored to be a part of that as well. It should be that way and yes, we should have all women creative teams! It shouldn’t be out of the norm. But I wasn’t looking at it any differently than I do going into any other project.

FITZGERALD: I think to tell a story about women, it’s probably good to have women tell the story. That sensibility was important to what the story’s really about. However, it was just a normal Broadway creative process with all of its challenges and all of its celebratory moments. It wasn’t really that different to me. I’ve worked with a lot of female directors and there’s no real difference to me. It’s the same kind of process.

The show explores themes such as motherhood and self-empowerment, and has resonated with all sorts of audiences, regardless of age, gender, etc. What do you think it is about Waitress that makes it so universally appealing and crowd-pleasing?

USHKOWITZ: I think what is really cool about it is you have these three ladies and each one of them goes through a beautiful arc in the story. Each one is vibing off each other’s energy. For example, Dawn and Ogie’s scene forces Jenna to go call Dr. Pomatter and face him. Each one sort of feeds off the other and inspires the other to grow and to change. It’s a really beautiful story of empowerment. It shows the importance of leaning on, supporting, and learning from each other. And the music, obviously, is really beautiful.

FITZGERALD: I feel like the strokes with which these characters have been created make them very real. You don’t usually see a comic musical with these kinds of damaged people. Characters have flaws, but there’s a difference between, for example, Harold Hill’s flaws (in The Music Man) and Jenna’s. It’s just deeper. The stakes are inherently higher when you’re in an abusive relationship and are stuck in a small town and are in a lot of pain. I don’t know if people see themselves, but they feel like these are maybe characters that they really can understand or connect with. The show doesn’t do a lot of pandering. It just shows these characters’ lives.

Also, I feel like you don’t see enough stories about women. This show has complicated relationships between women, and friendships that are not fabulous. They’re in a diner. I think it’s those kinds of themes that we all gravitate to, and because of those dynamics, people are attracted to the show. It’s really interesting. It really seems to be striking a chord in particular with young women.

I also think it’s Sara and the way her music speaks to people. When you’re listening to Sara’s music, whether it’s a song like “Gravity” or really any one of her albums, it’s like you enjoy the ache of her music. It’s as though it’s actually pleasurable to feel the kind of pain that she sings about. Do you know what I mean? When you put it on, it just gets inside you. Even if it’s a song about a break-up or heartache or whatever, it’s delicious to your soul somehow. When Jessie sings her 11 o’clock number, “She Used To Be Mine,” it’s just an amazing moment. It’s an incredible song about someone at their wit’s end, but the way the melody is and those lyrics are just make the song so satisfyingly painful. That’s the way I feel.

MUELLER: The show taps into a part of the human experience everyone can relate to – doubt, pain, suffering, life choices. I think to see someone honestly acknowledge their mistakes and their pain is a very powerful thing. Something we don’t often feel safe enough to do in life. But when we can sit in a theater and engage with characters and watch them go through it, we can safely relate. I had an acting teacher who used to talk about that. The power of theater is we can learn lessons without the collateral damage of actually having to go through it ourselves. And I think the show is really well balanced. There are laugh-out-loud moments and moments of extreme joy and healing. It’s got a little bit of everything. Each side makes the other more potent.

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What is something about yourself, either personal or professional, that playing these characters has taught each of you?

FITZGERALD: I had a lot of fun really working on this and taking charge of how I felt like my first number could go. It was fun to have that confidence. It taught me a lot about taking that moment and collaborating with Diane and (choreographer) Lorin Latarro. It also started as something so different than where it got to, so it taught me to be really open to new things and to have faith. And I really did! I was like, “We’re going to get there, but I don’t know how.” I learned a lot doing that. That was cool.

MUELLER: Playing Jenna has taught me to own your feelings and your thoughts. The good, bad, and the ugly. I’m still learning that one everyday … and then having to re-learn it. And to stand up for yourself.

USHKOWITZ: I’m an introvert at heart. Dawn has taught me to branch out to be open to new experiences and also to love myself. Dawn’s really happy in her ways and that allows her to hope and dream. I think that’s really valuable too. You need to know what you enjoy and how to live your life so that you’re happy.

Christopher, how is your chemistry on stage different with Jenna than it was with Kimiko? And to both you and Jenna, how does that chemistry inform your performances?

FITZGERALD: It’s really not so different in terms of the way that the story comes off. I’ve also played opposite a few understudies, so I’ve played it now with maybe four different Dawns – the same way that Kimiko and Jenna have also played opposite different Ogies. What’s kind of remarkable, though, is how the story is still told. It’s really fun! Dawn is basically the straight man through that first act number. She’s just like, “What’s happening?” It’s so fun how that turn happens. I’m having a great time with Jenna. She’s got a big laugh and a really fun spirit. We get along very well and we’ve become good pals.

USHKOWITZ: Christopher is a comedic genius. Our chemistry is vibrant and it’s like a little Ping-Pong game in that we really do vibe off of one another. I also would say he’s like a teddy bear, so it’s a very cuddly relationship. He’s very charming. I actually met him 20 minutes before our first performance together because he was on vacation when I was in rehearsal. So it was really important to listen to each other because we were literally getting to know each other on stage for the first time. That was a really great learning experience for me and I’m lucky to continue to do that every day. It was really special and definitely very cute.

In your opinions, why are Ogie and Dawn a perfect couple?

USHKOWITZ: I think they push each other. They both have created these beautiful lives for themselves that make them very fulfilled. Realizing then that there can be other people that can also fulfill you in ways that you can’t do for yourself is really sweet. I think that the two of them are like peas in a pod that way. And accepting each other for who they really are – like when they dress up as Betsy Ross and Paul Revere – is really cute.

FITZGERALD: They’re so mix-matched but so perfect for each other. Dawn is essentially kind of a “no” person. She’s sort of afraid, quiet, and reserved and he’s just the opposite. That’s why it’s so satisfying to watch those two forces come together.

What’s your personal favorite song in the show and why?

MUELLER: It really changes every night and they all feel so different. I wouldn’t say I have a favorite.

USHKOWITZ: My favorite song to listen to is definitely “She Used To Be Mine.” I think Jessie gives a spectacular performance and I feel like that song is the culmination of the show. It just really gives you an idea of who she is and what we’re dealing with. But I also really love “Everything Changes.” I really enjoy singing that with the girls. It’s just all so beautiful.

FITZGERALD: I’ve got to give it up to my buddy Nick Cordero and his song, “You Will Still Be Mine.” But they’re all good! They really are. I like to put on the CD in my car sometimes, just because I love all of the songs from the very beginning to the end. I really just think this is a remarkable score!

What are your favorite things to do to relax on a no-show day?

MUELLER: Get out of the city and go somewhere green!

USHKOWITZ: I just finished watching Stranger Things. I like to binge-watch TV shows just because on no-show days, I try not to talk. I’ll either go get a massage and then watch either The Bachelor, Bachelor in Paradise or Netflix.

FITZGERALD: It depends. Sometimes I like to take a nap, sometimes I like getting outside and sitting in the park and zoning out. Seeing friends. It’s always different for me.

This show doesn’t knock me out in the same way that it does someone like Jessie. She’s on stage the whole time. The emotional gamut that she runs is large and that really takes a toll on an actor in the long run. Because it’s not that you don’t feel those things. You do. You have to go there if you’re going to put over a scene where you’re about to be physically abused. And the fear of that is something that as an actor, you have to kind of tap into. So that takes its toll. It’s not necessarily always a fun place to be.

But that’s the most fun thing about playing Ogie: he’s nothing but positivity and joy. It’s falling in love with somebody and expressing that, and then letting that continue and that’s it. It doesn’t really take any other kind of turn. So it’s just fun to be here. And the cast and crew are a great group of people.

Jessie, one of the many things that I found so powerful and impressive about your performance at this year’s Tony Awards was how you were able to so quickly emotionally transition from the bubbly “Opening Up” to the vulnerable and heavy “She Used To Be Mine.” As an actor, how do you mentally prepare for the rollercoaster journey that your character goes on every night?

MUELLER: HA! I think that might have been sheer panic or exhaustion on the night of the Tonys. And there was a beautiful moment when I finished my costume change, and walked out on the stage, and saw and heard Sara, and it all hit me – how special the moment was. How far we’d come and what we’d all built together. During the show I really have to take it one moment at a time. It’s death for me if I think about where I have to get to or the emotion of a moment. If I open up and let go, it’s much better. I’m still learning how to do that. I have to continually remind myself there’s something bigger happening than all of us. But it also takes all of us. Every moment takes me to the next, every character, that’s what makes it possible.

How would you each describe the experience of working with Sara Bareilles and what’s been the best part about getting to sing her music?

FITZGERALD: Sara is awesome. She’s got a great sense of humor and all we do is kid around with each other and make fun of each other. She’s unbelievably talented and is unafraid to think about, speak about and give out stuff that is challenging and interesting. It was really fun to collaborate with her. We came up with some other ideas together and she was open to any and all of them. She’s fierce and is also very clear about what she wants and what she needs. That’s also really satisfying. She’s just incredible.

MUELLER: Sara really was awesome. She was so open, available, and extremely thoughtful and supportive when it came to the score. If something wasn’t fitting in my voice or wasn’t serving the bigger picture, she was open to changing it. She wanted the score to be comfortable for us to sing. That being said, she’s brilliant and has an incredible vocal instrument. I think this is one of the most challenging scores I’ve ever sung. She set the bar high!

USHKOWITZ: I actually didn’t work with Sara. She came and saw the show after I joined and she really enjoyed the performance. When I was learning the material, they were like, “Don’t worry! Just sing the stuff and feel it and be honest with it.” Looking over videos and things that I’ve seen of Sara working with the original cast, like when they were working on the album, she always encouraged them to “Let this be your version.” She’d say, “This is your story and your version. I’ve done mine!” She put hers on a concept album and it’s beautiful to listen to. But we’re all different so I think that’s the biggest thing I took away. That it was okay to make her my Dawn. To not try and replicate what had been done – because you can’t.

Vocally, how does singing this type of pop-infused score differ from your more traditional and classical musical theater work?

USHKOWITZ: That’s exactly what it is. It’s pop. It’s a bit more laid back and emotionally driven. And Sara’s songs, I will say, are not easy to sing. It’s not like we’re singing some easy pop song that’s done in a recording studio. Her stuff is tough. It’s beautiful and intricate and that’s why I think it does so well. In musical theater, you’re trained a certain way. So to be able to bring in this contemporary sound and have that live feel with our studio mics and everything makes it become sort of like a pop concert as well.

FITZGERALD: To me, it is a little easier to sing. The way that Sara voiced the characters is just such strong writing. And there’s not much difference when it’s good writing.

MUELLER: It’s really fun and was a departure for me. There’s a little more freedom. And sometimes that’s scary, but it also encourages me to really put my heart and soul into it. Of course I’m conscious of what I sound like but it’s not my main concern when singing pop scores. It’s fun to put some guts behind it and hopefully give audiences something they don’t always hear in musical theater.

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What are your personal favorite kinds of pie(s), both to eat and to bake?

MUELLER: Chocolate cream pie from Bakers Square, or banana or coconut cream. I’m not good at baking those, so if I were baking, it would be a fruit pie – maybe strawberry rhubarb.

FITZGERALD: I really love a banana cream pie. Some people hate the idea of banana in anything and it makes them gag. I love it. I also really like a good, high-quality chocolate cream pie. My mom’s apple pie was always simple and so well done. So, I also just love a very well made, fresh, hot apple pie with vanilla ice cream. I mean, come on!

USHKOWITZ: Well, I have to be honest, I’m not a pie baker. I will make a healthy pie out of spaghetti squash, but that’s about it and that’s kind of boring. I like quiche, which Jenna also does make for the diner. I’m a big fan of eating quiche, but if I had to choose a sweet one, I’d go with a classic apple pie à la Mode.

Jenna, one of the many projects you’ve taken on since Glee ended is your podcast, Infinite Positivities. Can you please tell me a little bit about what inspired you to host this and what some of the most rewarding aspects of working on it have been so far?

download (1)USHKOWITZ: Well, after I wrote my book Choosing Glee in 2013, I got a really great response from people and I started to realize that not everybody had this viewpoint and perspective on positivity. It really opened my eyes to understanding how to condition yourself to make happiness a choice. The podcast is sort of an extension of my book. I take topics based off of the chapters in my book and I discuss real life issues with really cool and inspiring people. The way I like to find my guests are people who seem like they live their lives whole-heartedly and sort of have been through tough times but came out the other side successfully. I can show my listeners that it’s not always easy and either way, you’re going to come out stronger. So, that was sort of the inspiration.

The most rewarding thing is having these amazing, inspiring, successful people on and learning that they’re just human beings. We all feel and we all mess up and we all fail. We’re ambitious and we try and I think that the most beautiful thing is just being aware of all of these things and showing people a different perspective on life.

Who of your Glee co-stars are you still in the closest contact with? And have any come to see you in this show yet?

USHKOWITZ: Well, none of them have come to see me because I’m only in my second week of the show, but I know Darren (Criss) is going to come. He said he wanted to come and Lea (Michele) wanted to come. I talk to Darren, Lea and Becca (Tobin) a lot. I was actually speaking with Kevin (McHale) just this morning. Then of course, Harry (Shum Jr.), Naya (Rivera), Diana (Agron), and Amber (Riley). It’s hard to say. We all speak a lot. We stay in really close contact. We’re all family so sometimes we’ll go months without talking at all and then sometimes we’ll talk everyday.

Jessie, can you please describe what the recording of charity single “What The World Needs Now Is Love” with Broadway For Orlando was like?

MUELLER: It was one of the coolest afternoons I’ve had in a long time. It felt like such a blessing to have something to do in the face of what felt like helplessness. And what a room! I felt like I was watching from the outside and wondering who the heck had let me in there. I was in a Carole King/Sara Bareilles sandwich for most of the session. My heart was very big that day.

Christopher, a few months ago, I interviewed Shoshana Bean, and she told me that she credits her involvement in Wicked with why she gets to travel the world singing today. So I’ll ask you the same question that I asked her then: How has being such an integral part of such a blockbuster musical shaped your career?

FITZGERALD: Well, nobody wants to hear me travel the world and sing like Shoshana. If I sang like Shoshana, I think I would say what she said. It’s interesting. I come out at the stage door after the show and half the people are like, “Oh, my god! I loved you in Wicked! I love Wicked!” It’s crazy that there are still fans from that time.

The only thing I can say really is that it was amazing to watch the power of something that could affect that many people. It was like, “We’re just singing songs and telling a story. It’s nothing more special than that!” And yet it is that special, and it’s just remarkable! People still have such an affinity for it. The fact that right now there are like five different Boqs around the world tonight that are going to say lines that I said first, and do little bits that I did, that just blows my mind sometimes. I’m like, “Really? They’re going to do that little book thing that I did and they’re wearing the same costume that I wore?” It’s totally surreal!

And yet if I walked over there right now, the people at the theater would be like, “Can I help you?” or “Who are you?” They even have a sign that says something like, “If you were in Wicked previously, you may not come backstage. You have to come back with somebody.” Because there are so many of us now!

Waitress1487rOh wow. If you were in charge of casting, who would you like to see play Boq in the upcoming Wicked film adaptation?

FITZGERALD: Aside from you, you mean? I don’t know! Who could play Boq? Joseph Gordon Levitt, maybe? I don’t know. It’d be one of these actors that I don’t know because they’re so young now. Maybe Michael from Stranger Things. My wife and I just finished that show and we loved it. It was so fun and exciting. That’s my hip answer because it’s pretty current. But already Stranger Things is becoming old hat, I guess. It’s so sad how quickly these things move.

Do any of you have any plans to release your own solo albums? What would they sound like?

MUELLER: I’d love to someday, when I have something to say. I just don’t know what that is right now. So I also don’t know what it would sound like.

USHKOWITZ: That’s a really good question! If you were to ask me even before Waitress, it would definitely be along the lines of a Vanessa Carlton/Sara Bareilles/Ingrid Michaelson/Regina Spektor/Florence and the Machine feel. But as of right now, no. I’m really enjoying this acting route at the moment. I’m not closed off to it, but that’s not something that I’m dying to pursue at the moment either.

FITZGERALD: Maybe! It would be called like, The One Syllable Names or The Creatures. I did a Feinstein’s show before it closed about three years ago (before it became 54 Below). I did it with my friend David Turner. It was a mixture of all sorts of fun songs. It’s a really fun thing to do because you get clear about what really moves you. It was a combination of some songs from my childhood and some songs that were older and also some new ones. So it’s really eclectic and weird, but fun.

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CLICK HERE TO PURCHASE TICKETS TO WAITRESS, NOW PLAYING AT BROADWAY’S BROOK ATKINSON THEATRE. AND CLICK HERE TO PURCHASE THE WAITRESS ORIGINAL BROADWAY CAST RECORDING.

Originally published on PopBytes

THE UNSTOPPABLE SARA BAREILLES: HER NEW BOOK, ALBUM, AND BROADWAY MUSICAL

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Sara Bareilles is conquering the entertainment industry one medium at a time.

Since the 2013 release of her Grammy Award nominated album,The Blessed Unrest, the singer/songwriter has been hard at work on not just a new record, but also a book and a Broadway musical. And you thought you had a busy year.

Sounds Like Me: My Life (So Far) in Song Published last month by Simon & Schuster, Bareilles’ debut book, Sounds Like Me: My Life (so far) in Song, is an autobiographical collection of essays woven together by various pivotal songs in her repertoire. Filled with candor, plenty of humor, and soul-searching, the book chronicles defining chapters in her life – such as her first earth-shattering breakup, her time abroad living in Italy, and the struggles of both finding inspiration and staying authentic to her artistic identity when crafting her music.

In addition to shedding light on the genesis of songs such as “Gravity” and “Love Song,” Bareilles pulls back the curtain on some of the personal obstacles she’s had to overcome. For instance, the poignant chapter, “Beautiful Girl,” finds Bareilles writing an array of letters to her younger self to guide her through the body image issues she’s been facing since childhood. While it’s clear that nobody gave her the prolific advice she’s now giving her former self, these moving letters illustrate just how far she’s come, allowing her to revisit (and sometimes still combat) these self-sabotaging feelings with a fresh perspective. The way in which she describes those inner demons and what her journey has taught her about how to face them is nothing short of courageous and inspirational.

Another standout essay is “She Used To Be Mine,” in which Bareilles discusses how she became involved with writing a musical, how that creative process differed from what she was used to, and how she tackled the new and exciting challenges that presented. She reflects on her lifelong affinity for musical theater and how shows like The Sound of Music, Les Misérables, West Side Story, Little Shop of Horrors and The Mystery of Edwin Drood shaped her songwriting style long before she ever set out to create her own musical.

“I developed a way of listening to music because of those shows, and because of that, I learned a particular way of writing that would show up down the line,” Bareilles writes. “The focus was acutely on the storytelling, bringing the audience along on a character’s journey, sharing their emotional evolution, all delivered with some unforgettable melodies. I experienced the power of deepening a dramatic moment with a song”

She continues, “I also learned that I was not a true soprano, no matter how hard I clenched my butt cheeks. I tried to sing the part of Christine in The Phantom of the Opera dozens of times, melodramatically staring myself down in my nightgown in my bedroom mirror, and tragically falling short of the high E she sings at the end of the title song until I actually gave myself a headache one time and had to sit down for a few minutes. In spite of my injuries, the seeds were sown deep and true, and my love for the genre has never faded.”

1516-waitress-vertThat love and classic influence is very much apparent in the music and lyrics of Waitress. Based on the 2007 indie film of the same name, the show features some of the strongest work of Bareilles’ vast career thus far. Masterfully blending contemporary musical theater with the signature piano-pop sound that she’s known for, Bareilles has composed an evocative, original, and unforgettable score.

In advance of its inaugural Broadway bow at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre on March 25, 2016, Waitress played an acclaimed and completely sold-out limited trial run at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts this past summer.

Like this year’s Tony Award Best Musical winner, Fun HomeWaitress comes from an all-female creative team. Directed by Tony Award winner Diane Paulus (Pippin; Hair) and starring the immeasurably talented Tony Award winning actress Jessie Mueller (Beautiful: The Carole King Musical), the show tells the story of Jenna, an unhappily married waitress in the South who learns that she’s pregnant. Now that she’ll be responsible for two lives instead of just her own, Jenna must decide if she has what it takes to start a new life for her and her child or if she will continue meekly accepting the bleak fate she’s grown to know. And throughout, she consistently bakes incredible new pies as a form of self-expression.

While putting Waitress together, Bareilles became so enamored with the project that before the inevitable cast recording hits shelves next year, she’ll be releasing a concept album of songs from the show. In stores this Friday, What’s Inside: Songs from Waitress gives fans a taste of what they can expect from the musical when it makes its eagerly awaited arrival on the Great White Way.

In a press statement about the album, Bareilles explained, “I fell more deeply in love with the writing of the musical Waitress than I had ever imagined. It proved impossible for me to imagine handing over the songs to the show before selfishly finding a way to sing them myself. This is a deliciously self-indulgent project and I’m sorry, I’m not sorry.”

Sara-Bareilles-Whats-Inside-426x426Yet while the record is comprised entirely of selections from Waitress, there are several songs that Bareilles deliberately did not include on the track list. This way, there would still be some surprises left for audience members when the show opens (looking at you, “Take It From An Old Man”). And instead of recording these songs in the exact style that they are performed on stage, her approach was to treat these as she would any other songs she’s written. Produced by Neal Avron (who collaborated with Bareilles on her second album, Kaleidoscope Heart), the tracks on the album act more as pop interpretations of what the show has to offer, rather than as a direct reflection of how they’ll be presented in the musical.

The album’s lead single, “She Used To Be Mine,” is a gorgeous power ballad that Jenna sings during a monumental turning point. She’s at a crossroads and yearns to reconnect with the strong, free-spirited woman she used to be. She remembers what it was like to learn and grow from mistakes instead of be bogged down by them. Through the song, she reignites the flame inside of herself to grant her the courage to pick one of the paths she sees before her. It’s an empowering track that not only paints a detailed portrait of one of the musical’s central conflicts, but it’s also the type of instant classic that will make it a staple in all of Bareilles’ future concert set lists alongside “Love Song” and “Brave.”

Other highlights on the album include “When He Sees Me,” a quirky song with big and brassy vocals that one of Jenna’s two closest friends sings about unearthing the confidence to go on her first real date. “Door Number Three” is a bouncy and hopeful ode to the possibilities of what can happen when one takes unexpected risks. “Bad Idea,” one of the two songs featuring Jason Mraz, is a comical and sexually charged duet about not being able to resist someone despite the best logic advising against it. And “Lulu’s Pie Song” is a powerful lullaby that acts as the show’s finale and a tribute to Jenna’s child.

Corey Mach, a cast member of the A.R.T. production, exclusively told me that “working with Sara on Waitress was a dream. She was constantly involved from day one, adding new orchestrations, arrangements, and even songs daily. She is a remarkable human and a brilliant songwriter.”

Mach also happens to be the founder of Broadway Sings, a revered concert series that spotlights a pop artist and creates brand new arrangements of their song catalog in the vein of musical theater. Performed by a mixed troupe of up-and-coming and well-established Broadway stars, these concerts are backed by a full jazz band and give a unique twist to the popular music they perform. Artists that have been featured include Adele, Michael Jackson, Beyoncé, Pink, Amy Winehouse, and Justin Timberlake, with Billy Joel being the next up on the roster. So naturally – and just in time for Friday’s release of What’s Inside– Broadway Sings dedicated their latest concert to Bareilles earlier this week.

“Sara’s music is inherently theatrical,” Mach told me. “I think a huge reason the Broadway community is so open to welcoming her is because they are genuinely intrigued by the thought of her lyrics being sung by actors. Her songs tell beautiful stories, and so do great musicals; it’s a perfect combination. That’s a huge reason why I chose to honor Sara for my ninth concert in the series.”

True to promise, the concert featured exciting renditions of Bareilles’ greatest hits and deeper album cuts. These included Jessica Keenan Wynn’s show stopping, sultry big band take on “King of Anything”, the Louis Armstrong-meets-Michael Bublé swagger of Ben Thompson’s “Little Black Dress,” Ben Platt’s soulful “Many The Miles,” and Natalie Weiss’ belting master class on “Stay.” Comprised of a sold-out crowd that would roar with applause and chant “Get It Girl!” anytime a performed reached a key change, the Broadway Sings event showcased just how much Bareilles’ work is both complimented and has already been embraced by the vibrant theater community. Not a bad welcome.

So now that Bareilles is a New York Times bestselling author, has her fifth full studio album under her belt, and is garnering early buzz for a Tony nomination, does she plan to appear on a Broadway stage herself?

“I certainly have dreams of being on a Broadway stage someday, if they’ll have me. I think I want to stay really open to whatever possibilities present themselves. My role in this show as composer and being behind the scenes has been so delicious in such a surprising way,” Bareilles said to Glamour. “I thought I would have a much harder time relinquishing the role to someone else because I fell in love with our lead character so much. I love this woman, Jenna. She resonates with me, and I really identify with her,”

“But then getting to work with someone like Jessie Mueller and watching her and how masterful she is at creating a character, I feel like I have a lot to learn before I would be ready to take on something like this. But again, never say never—I certainly have those dreams, and I hope that it happens at some point, whether it’s in this show or something else. I hope I get to see those stage lights at some point,” she concluded.

With a new album, book, and musical, it’s clear that Bareilles has ripped a page from Jenna’s recipe book by baking all of these passion projects to perfection. We already can’t wait for whatever she serves next.


Click here to order the new album, What’s Inside: Songs From Waitress
Click here to order Sara Bareilles’ book, Sounds Like Me: My Life (so far) in Song
Click here to purchase tickets to Waitress on Broadway

Originally published on PopBytes

INGRID MICHAELSON TURNS ROBERT PALMER’S “SIMPLY IRRESISTIBLE” ON ITS HEAD WITH “GIRLS CHASE BOYS”

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Ingrid Michaelson transformed into everyone from John Lennon to Lady Gaga in her 2012 music video for “Blood Brothers.” Today, she pays homage to Robert Palmer with her new single, “Girls Chase Boys,” a stunning, gender-bending salute to Palmer’s 1988 video for “Simply Irresistible.”

“Girls Chase Boys’ started out as a break-up song but took on a deeper meaning as I continued writing,” Michaelson explained on her website. “More than just being about my experience, its focus shifted to include the idea that, no matter who or how we love, we are all the same. The video takes that idea one step further, and attempts to turn stereotypical gender roles on their head. Girls don’t exclusively chase boys. We all know this. We all chase each other and in the end we are all chasing after the same thing: love.”

The song is a soaring anthem of self-empowerment and hope, not unlike her friend and collaborator Sara Bareilles’ “Brave,” (Look for the inevitable Katy Perry knock-off soon.) The video finds the songstress looking smoldering against a backdrop of chiseled man-candy, who are fully made up and rocking skintight pink tank tops. As it progresses, the shirts come off, dance breaks are had, women join in, everyone butt-grinds and Michaelson remains as flawless as ever.

It’s impressive how Michaelson manages to tweak the sexualization of women in music videos without coming off like a buzzkill. We can’t wait to see what she has in store for the rest of 2014.

Ingrid Michaelson‘s Lights Out will be released on April 15. Pre-order it on iTunes now.

And check out Palmer’s “Simply Irresistible,” below:

Originally published on NewNowNext

EXCLUSIVE: INTERVIEW WITH BONNIE MCKEE

bonnie-mckeeBonnie McKee is no stranger to the top of the Billboard charts.

Over the past three years, McKee has been responsible for penning nine No. 1 pop anthems and has sold more than 28 million records worldwide. She’s worked with the likes of Kelly Clarkson, Christina Aguilera, Ke$ha, Adam Lambert, and Kylie Minogue, and her biggest smashes to date include Britney Spears’ “Hold It Against Me,” Taio Cruz’ “Dynamite,” and a whole slew of Katy Perry’s greatest hits – including “California Gurls,” “Teenage Dream,” “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.),” “Part of Me,” and the current #1 single in the country, “Roar.”

But earlier this summer, McKee decided to step out from behind the scenes and revisit her dreams of becoming a performing artist. Thus, with the release of “American Girl,” the debut single (available on iTunes) from her upcoming album, the California-born singer/songwriter made the transition from just being the voice behind the lyrics to actually being the voice singing them.

As she prepares for the release of her as-of-yet-untitled album (slated to be released by Epic Records in 2014), McKee chatted with me about the release of “American Girl,” her creative process, her secret recipe for songwriting success, how she plans to balance her performing and songwriting career, and much more!

Congratulations on the success of “American Girl” so far!

Thank you so much! We’re still in the grind so I won’t be happy until it’s gone all the way.

You’re responsible for writing nine of the biggest pop songs of the past few years. Which one would you say is your favorite and which one would you say is your crowning achievement?

Let’s see. Well, I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for “Teenage Dream.” That’s a big one for me. But I think my favorite right now is “Roar,” the new one that I wrote for Katy Perry.

You started out as a performer then switched to exclusively songwriting for a little while. Why did you decide that now was the perfect time for you to re-emerge as a performer again?

Well, after I released my first album, I got dropped from my label, and I kind of had to start writing out of necessity. It was always my secret plan to be an artist again, so I just knew that I had to come back ripe with ammunition. I needed to have a story and I needed to catch people’s attention. I was good at songwriting and I hoped that through that, I could get back to being my own artist again.

How indicative is “American Girl” of the sound of your upcoming album?

Very. It’s all very colorful and full of pop anthems. I’m pulling a lot from my influences like Madonna, Prince, and Michael Jackson. It’s definitely going to be really big and fun!

Do you have a title and/or release date planned yet?

Not yet. I’m still writing. Most of it’s done, but I like to write up until the last minute. You never know, it could be that last song you write that’s a spark of genius and could be the title of the album. So I’m going to wait until I decide what I’m going to call it.

Why did you choose “American Girl” as your re-introduction to the pop world?

Well I felt like “American Girl” was the quintessential Bonnie McKee song. I’m known for my lyrics and big melodies, so I felt like it was very me. I pulled from my own real life experiences and it just seemed like the most obvious choice.

The video for “American Girl” is filled with so many familiar faces. How did you get all of these celebrities to participate?

Most of them are friends of mine. I just sent out a mass text and e-mail. I wasn’t expecting that many people to participate! It was really moving actually. When I got the Tommy Lee video back of him in drag as me flying upside down in the air and playing the drums, I literally was bawling. I was crying. I filmed a reaction video and sent it to him and was like, “look what you’ve done to me, Tommy!” It was just so overwhelming because that song had been on my hard drive forever and no one had really heard it. So for the first people to be hearing it to be these people, and then for them to get so creative with it, was really over the top and overwhelming.

How is your creative process different when writing for yourself versus writing for other artists?

When I’m writing with other artists, most of the time, I have that artist in the room. It’s like a therapy session in a way because I’m picking their brains about what they’re going through and what they want to say. So they share their feelings and I take that and I turn it into a pop song. When it comes to myself, I have to dig a little deeper. I’ve written so many songs in my life that I really have to push myself. There really are so many things to write about in a pop song, so I like to get really creative with my lyrics and try to say something kinda quirky that I don’t think a lot of artists would want to say. So yeah, I’d say I get a little quirkier with my own lyrics.

For the fans that have been following you from the start of your career, will the songs you had featured on your MySpace in between your first album and now ever be available to download or buy?

Yes! There was one song called “Thunder” that got remixed by Rusko – he’s a really awesome DJ. I sent him the acapella and he did this whole thing to breathe new life into it, so that one got kind of a life again. “Stars In Your Heart” may actually make the album. I’m actually planning on making a video for that one either way, even if it’s just for online release. And then I think “Love Spell” will have a new life too. That’s a song that a lot of big names have recorded. A lot of people have wanted that song and I’ve heard so many great, famous voices on it. But I don’t want to give it up! It’s a song that I wrote for myself and is very personal to me, so I’m excited to sing it.

You’ve also written a lot with Max Martin and Dr. Luke, who are pop songwriting legends in their own rights. What’s the best piece of advice they’ve ever given you?

Literally every time I write with them, I learn something new. I always try and let the professionals do their thing and I try to pick up as much as I can. But I think the most important thing I’ve learned is simplicity. It’s easy to try to get overly clever, but I think it’s important to instead just pick and choose the moments where you want to be clever and let the record just be accessible. So yeah, I’d say simplicity is definitely the most important thing I’ve learned from Max Martin and Dr. Luke.

So is keeping it simple your secret formula for writing so many #1 hits?

I guess so. It also helps working with all of these amazing artists and songwriters, so it’s always a collaborative effort. But yes, I think that’s the key – writing a song that people can relate to, even if they don’t speak English. As long as you can sing along to it and still feel something, that’s what works. So phonetics are also really important.

I know you yourself weren’t present at the VMA’s this year, but what were your thoughts on the mob of redheads who were all chanting your name on camera?

I thought it was amazing! It was so cute. I didn’t even know that was coming, so when I saw it, I was like, “Oh my god!” It was quite a surprise. It was really cool. It’s awesome to know that you can have a Bonnie McKee costume – and the fact that it’s recognizable is really awesome. It really warmed my heart.

That must have been a really big moment for you!

Yeah! It was a big moment for me. It was one of those moments that I was like, “oh my god, this is really real,” so it was pretty cool.

Speaking of the VMAs, what was your favorite performance of the night?

There were some really good ones! It was a really exciting year this year. I feel like the past couple years have been pretty dull. I really enjoyed Lady Gaga’s performance because she always brings 110%. And of course, Katy. She’s always great. It’s always exciting to hear the songs that I wrote being performed. Every time I’ve seen someone perform a song live that we wrote together, I cry. Every single time. I’m a big cry-baby. So that’s always exciting. And of course, Bruno Mars.

It must be really interesting to see all the visual narratives and choreography and production value added to the performances of these songs that you wrote and seeing how all those things play out on stage together.

Yeah, it’s really cool! I’m always excited to see the music videos too because I feel like every time I write a song, I have a video for it in my head. I’m always imagining what the video for the song would look like. That’s kind of how I write, so it’s always fun to see how they turn out.

As a co-writer of “Roar,” what is your response to the allegations that the song sounds too similar to Sara Bareilles’ “Brave”?

Yeah, I heard about that. It’s funny because people forget that we wrote this song months ago. We wrote the song before “Brave” came out and I had never actually heard it. Then when I listened to it, I was like, “oh yeah, I guess that is kind of reminiscent,” but it’s a total coincidence. I had never heard the song before and I think it’s a great song, by the way. I love Sara. I think she’s so talented. And it happens all the time. I hear stuff on the radio that I’m like, “what?! I just wrote something like that!” but there’s no way that anyone could have copied that because nobody in the world’s ever heard it. But it’s just kind of something that happens and I think it happens all the time.

Will we be hearing more of your songs on Katy and/or Britney’s upcoming albums?

Yeah, I wrote 4 songs on the new Katy album, Prism. I’m really excited about those. We really had a lot of fun writing them together. They’re really different and fun. She likes to get experimental so they’re kind of a departure from her last album that I worked on with her. As far as Britney, I don’t know. If they call me, I’ll definitely do it. It’s always so exciting to hear an iconic voice like Britney’s singing the words that I’ve written.

That actually leads in nicely to my next question –  Do you ever get nervous or star-struck when collaborating with artists of that caliber? For instance, I heard you wrote a song on Cher’s upcoming album. That must have been quite an experience!

I know that Cher recorded a song that I wrote and that was really exciting, but I don’t know if it made the final cut of her album or not. That happens a lot – where the artist will record like 45 songs and they’ll pick the best from those, so I have no idea if she’ll be using it or not. But either way, it’s an honor to have her voice singing my song. She’s just an idol of mine. But yes, absolutely, I get nervous. Britney Spears is someone I grew up listening to and idolizing and watching and studying, so to see her in the flesh and to hear her voice was just really surreal. I’ve gotten to meet all kinds of people – like Steven Tyler was a big one for me. I got to sing for him and he got to sing for me, just me and him and a piano, so I’ve had tons of amazing experiences. It’s been very rewarding being behind the scenes.

What’s one song from the past year that you didn’t write but wish you had?

Hmm … “Call Me Maybe” is maybe 2-years-old now, but I wish I wrote that one. From top to bottom, it’s just a perfect pop song. There are no holes, no questions about it. It’s just a perfect pop song. And Carly Rae [Jepsen] is a total sweetheart.

After your album is released, how do you plan on balancing your career as a songwriter and your career as a popstar?

Well I’m fortunate in that I’m able to pick and choose who I want to write for and what I want to do. But I think for now, I’m an artist. It was always my #1 goal to be on stage and to be able to move people with my own voice and have that experience of sharing my music with people. There’s just nothing like that. So I think I’m going to focus more on my own artist project. As far as songwriting stuff – I’ll do things that I can’t say no to. If Katy calls, I’m not going to say no. If Britney calls, I’m not going to say no. If Cher calls, I’m definitely not going to say no.

Is there anything else you’d like to add about your album or any of your upcoming plans that we didn’t talk about?

I don’t think so! I guess just buy the “American Girl” single on iTunes!

bonnie-mckee1Originally published on PopBytes

SARA BAREILLES SHOWCASES NEW ALBUM AT NYC’S MCKITTRICK HOTEL

-2Sara Bareilles is proud to be a New Yorker.

After nearly fifteen years of living in Los Angeles, the 33-year-old singer/songwriter kicked off 2013 by moving across the country. Now an official Manhattanite, Bareilles celebrated next week’s release of her third studio album, The Blessed Unrest (iTunes), by performing an intimate showcase in the city’s trendy McKittrick Hotel this past Wednesday.

But before Bareilles took to the stage at the hotel’s Manderlay Bar, she revisited her theatrical roots by joining the ensemble of Sleep No More, a film noir inspired make-your-own-adventure spin on Macbeth. Playing the part of a nurse, Bareilles had to interact with the (entirely masked) audience members who chose to follow her character’s story line.

“I had to grab people and say ‘It will have blood, they say. Blood will have blood,’” she explained to me afterwards about her role. Talk about intense. But if Bareilles was at all nervous about performing in Sleep No More after only two days of rehearsal, it didn’t show at all.

-3“Does my fucking breath stink?” she asked one of her friends who she was able to recognize within the faceless crowd when the friend offered her a mint. “I mean, of course I never broke character,” the songstress joked.

While the transition from the Eyes Wide Shut-meets-Black Swan world of Sleep No More to the sound of Bareilles’ signature piano pop was a sharp one, it didn’t take long for the audience to become completely immersed in the stunning and confessional tracks from The Blessed Unrest. Plus, the complimentary cocktails (each named after a song on the record) didn’t hurt the crowd from singing along – despite the fact that these were largely brand new songs that most people were hearing for the first time.

The Blessed Unrest is easily Bareilles’ most personal album yet. “This is my darkest hour, a long road has led me out here,” she confesses on one of the record’s many standouts, “Hercules.” And it’s true. Unlike her first two albums, The Blessed Unrest immediately sounds like it was recorded during dark New York winter nights instead of sunny California afternoons.

When introducing the album’s closing song, “December,” the former judge of NBC’s The Sing-Off explained that she wrote the song at a very emotional time. Not only is December Bareilles’ birthday month, but she believes it’s a month that measures time more than any other, offering people the chance to clean their slates and start anew in the new year. Not surprisingly, it was this past December when Bareilles made the resolution to pack her bags and migrate to the Big Apple.

“A winter’s blooming in Los Angeles, the artificial cold is more than I was hoping for, but not enough to consume the darkened state I’m in,” Bareilles vulnerably sang about her decision to change settings.

Keeping with the geographical theme, Bareilles also sang “Manhattan,” another new track found on The Blessed Unrest. A heart-wrenching breakup ballad, the gorgeous bluesy song finds Bareilles sacrificing both the man and city she loves.

What I love about “Manhattan” is that it allows Bareilles to show off her incredible vocal abilities. While she’s easily one of the best singers I’ve ever heard live, Bareilles’ albums don’t always do her remarkable talents justice. Sometimes it sounds like her voice is just too big to be contained onto a recording. And after you’ve heard her sing in person, you’ll never hear her album tracks the same way again. “Manhattan” is the one recording Bareilles has ever done that truly captures the grand scope of her voice the way it comes across in her live performances, making it an immediate must-have track.

“Manhattan” also serves as a fantastic example of Bareilles’ matured songwriting. The imagery she paints is so spectacularly vivid that it’s nearly impossible to listen to the song without feeling like you’re privy to her innermost thoughts and sorrows.

Bringing the audience’s spirits back up, Bareilles sang another new song, the upbeat and charming “I Choose You.” She explained that she was inspired to write the song after she met a fan who wanted to dedicate a song of hers to his wife at their wedding, but was unable to find one that wasn’t “depressing.” As a result, Bareilles wrote what she described as her first true love song.

When Bareilles announced that the next song in her set was The Blessed Unrest’s kick-off single, “Brave,” the audience roared with excitement. Co-written by Jack Antonoff (of the band fun.) and featuring an accompanying music video directed by Rashida Jones (of Parks and Recreation), “Brave” was written for a friend of Bareilles’ who was having a hard time coming out of the closet.

“I think there’s so much honor and integrity and beauty in being able to be who you are,” Bareilles recently told The Advocate about why she wrote the song. “It’s important to be brave because by doing that you also give others permission to do the same.”

“I’ll always internalize it as a real civil rights anthem at a time when there are no civil rights anthems and there’s a giant need for [them],” Antonoff continued to the magazine, which predicted that “Brave” was “destined to become an LGBT anthem for the ages.”

In addition to all of the songs she played from The Blessed Unrest, Bareilles treated fans to previous hits in her repertoire like “Uncharted” and the career-making “Love Song.” To close the show, the songstress channeled another great piano-playing vocalist, Elton John, by singing an entirely flawless cover of the classic “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.”

With her new album, Bareilles has created a masterpiece. The Blessed Unrest is a combination of mature, honest, and raw songwriting with an experimental pallet of instruments and sounds. This makes it not only her most daring work to date, but also her best.

The Blessed Unrest hits stores tomorrow, July 16th.

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Originally published on PopBytes

1016337_10200357836893125_1271028259_n(Roberto Marin, Sara Bareilles and I)