As soon as Sara Bareilles and Gavin Creel walk into an interview, you can tell that they’re friends, and not just in the style of amicable co-stars, but of people who’ve been close for years. They have plenty of stories to tell, stories about working together, yes, but also about the time Bareilles helped save Creel from a shark on a vacation trip, which she had randomly decided to crash. Now, that friendship is on display onstage. Until February 3, Bareilles has gone back to starring in Waitress to celebrate its third anniversary on Broadway, this time alongside Creel, of Thoroughly Modern Millie and Hair and recently winning a Tony for Hello, Dolly!, who will be playing her love interest Dr. Pomatter. Creel and Bareilles met back before the musical came to Broadway, and he helped her acclimate to theater songwriting and performing, and now she’s getting the chance to help him come into something new on her show. Talking with Vulture, the two discussed the lessons they’ve learned from each other, what it’s like to perform together, and the history of their fast-building, very intense friendship.
How has the first week of performances been?
Sara Bareilles: I noticed last night there was a nice jump up. Things have settled a little bit. I’m less worried that I don’t know what happens next and can just kind of ground and really connect with my scene partners.
Gavin Creel: I still come offstage, and I stand in my dressing room. Where do I go now?
Everyone I’ve talked to who’s been in Waitress has talked about how it’s such a prop-heavy show. Is it hard to get into the swing of managing all the pies and diner props?
SB: It’s fucking stupid. It’s props on props, on props, on props. Jenna touches absolutely everything. It’s a lot of busing tables and writing on chalkboards and moving furniture, moving cards, and plates, and pies. “Baking Can Do” is the one where she’s kind of touching the most things. Once you get that down, you realize it’s possible. I remember when I was going in for the first time having a meltdown in the corridor with Jessie Mueller and just being like, “This actually feels impossible.” [To Gavin] You handled the prop mishap last night when there were no prescription pads.
GB: I just went, “I’m going to write you a prescription for…” Instead of saying, “This is your prescription for prenatal vitamins,” da da da. Just get on with it.
How did the idea of doing the show together happen?
SB: We knew we wanted to do something special to mark the beginning of our third year on Broadway. We have three productions, with London and our touring company. It’s my third time in the show. Gavin was the first call to see if you would be, first of all, even available. Then he said, “Yes.” And all of the angels started singing in my head.
GC: I’m a fan of the show, and a fan of hers and the music. This is the perfect way for it to happen, because she and I both have other projects that we’re trying to work on — she has an album coming out. I have seeds to plant. A garden to grow. Actually, an actual garden. She can’t do more than a month, and I’m busy in the spring, so it’s perfect.
I’d read that you met performing at a True Colors Fund benefit concert a few years ago. How well did you know each other’s work before then?
GC: When I was in Hair, we knew Sara Bareilles was coming to the show. The cast was flipping out. I didn’t know a lot of her music. So I went and said, “I listened to the rest of this record and I loved it.” Then she came, and I don’t think I met you …
SB: I don’t think we met that night either.
GC: Afterwards, at Broadway Impact, we were fighting for marriage equality, and we teamed up with Cyndi Lauper and the True Colors Fund. We were doing a pop star and a Broadway star coming and doing a show together. Sara said yes. She was one of the first people to jump in.
SB: I remember I did “Rainbow Connection.” That’s one thing I remember singing, because I was wearing a rainbow dress. I was watching Gavin from offstage. What a unique and singular talent you have. His voice is just one of my favorites. We stayed friendly, then we became friends.
So that was before Sara had started working the music for Waitress. Did you talk as Sara developed it?
GC: That was the coolest, because she was like, “I’m doing this.” And she would play me little bits. Then when she was rewriting a show for Cambridge, getting ready for the out-of-town run, it was so cool to hear little demos, little snippets. When you were deciding what was going to be the opening number, she was going back and forth. I remember being in her apartment.
SB: I made a song called “Down at the Diner” that was a front-runner, and I loved it. Everyone else was like, “No, it sounds too much like a Billy Joel song.” Which, they’re not wrong about that.
GC: She played me “Down at the Diner.” I was like, “It’s an awesome song!” Then she played “the song I’m thinking about” called “Opening Up,” which is the actual opening number. My immediate [reaction] was like, “It’s that one.” It was just neat to watch it develop.
Sara, there must have been some sense of intimidation coming from a pop world to theater. Did it help having a friend who knew it well?
SB: When we were doing a benefit for the American Repertory Theater up at Cambridge, that’s when I really started to get to know Gavin and become close. I remember at our rehearsal, watching you sing versus the way I felt singing, and I felt so inadequate. I thought I would be better at it, but I’ve been really humbled by the nuance of this particular skill set, of being a storyteller onstage, how different that is than being a singer who comes on stage and sings a song.
GC: I want to know what changed. What is it?
SB: I think to me the biggest difference is the character doesn’t know what they’re about to say, but you onstage as an artist, you do. That’s something I had to be taught. Our director Diane Paulus, and our book writer Jessie Nelson are just like, “Don’t just sing the song.” I watch videos of myself doing it in concert and it’s very different than the way I sing it on stage in the show.
GC: That’s exactly what I was talking about last night. The duet. Second act. I’m still figuring what the hell I’m doing in the show, because it’s so early, but I was like, “I’m ahead of myself in that scene.” I’ve been singing “You Matter to Me for” five years now, because I love that song. Kate Baldwin always talks about that. She says to students, “You just gotta discover it. You don’t know it. You gotta discover it.”
Now, with Waitress, you’ve flipped the level of expertise a bit, with Gavin coming into something Sara already knows well.
SB: We have had an incredible history with our Dr. Pomatters. Drew Gehling, who originated the role, is a master, and incredible performer partner. Everything I’m about to say about Gavin takes nothing away from how much I love him. Henry Gottfried, who came after him, and Chris Diamantopoulos, who I did the show with, and Brandon Kalm, who is our wonderful understudy at the moment, and Erich Bergen, all these wonderful people. It does nobody any good for Gavin to step onstage and try to do something Drew does. It only sings when Gavin gets to find his own individual component. He brings such sincerity, and such warmth, and the audience is just laughing and so moved, and so in love with him by the end.
GC: What about Jessie Mueller, such a little theater goddess? I was worried for you, as your friend, of the pressure you would have put on yourself, being like, “Okay, I’m not …”
SB: We’ve had incredible Jennas come through and interpret. We’ve seen how different Stephanie Torns is from Jessie Mueller, from Katharine McPhee, from Betsy Wolfe, from Nicolette Robinson. Molly Jobe. Everybody’s gonna find their own version of it. To me, that’s really liberating.
GC: Did you find it, when you started the very first time?
SB: No, I think I did a lot of mimicking, initially. I had seen the show hundreds of times. Now I think I’m finding my own path a little bit more.
Nicolette Robinson was the first woman of color play Jenna, and June Squibb came in and played Josie, which was originally the male character Joe. Is that sort of nontraditional casting a thing you think Waitress will continue exploring in the future?
SB: One-hundred percent.
GC: It’s all her.
SB: It’s something that I have been very passionate about, but to give credit, everyone has totally onboard. We don’t have a good excuse not to be imaginative about who gets to be represented onstage. The show is incredibly diverse, and we continue to want to push into all sort of — lots of times we would have made some other choices, too, and schedules don’t work out. We definitely want to continue this tradition, because I think it’s vital to the life of the show, and the life of the community around it.
GC: I grew up in Ohio, and I’m like, “Where is this diner in southern Indiana? The most diverse. The most accepting. The most interesting.” I grew up in white whitey-ville with mayonnaise on our bread. Beautiful, wonderful people, but lack of diversity. We have to entertain that we have the opportunity to represent a world that we want to see. From the beginning when you were cast-less, Sara was like, “We have got to see more people of color. We have got to see different ages, and different sizes.”
Sara, three years in, you’ve hosted the Tonys, you come into the show three times. It feels like you’ve committed to being a theater person now.
SB: I’m gonna have a hard time going back to anything else. I just have loved my time here so much, and I really want to say a huge thank you to the theater community.
Do you imagine doing more theater projects in the future?
SB: Now that I know how much fucking time it takes, I’m gonna be a little careful about just where it lands on my schedule, but I would love to. Gavin, would you like to do more theater projects?
GC: With her! [More seriously] I mean it. You’re hungry for voices like hers. Not just wonderful voices, but perspectives and voices to put material into the theater that’s truthful, important, simple, complex.
In the press release that they sent out to announce that you two were doing the show, there was a photo of you both in bathing suits, I think on vacation. What’s the context for that?
SB: He went to Hawaii, and I crashed his party.
GC: There was a moment when she was going on her book tour, her book was coming out and she said, “I’m gonna be on the West Coast. Is this weird if I came to Hawaii?” And I was like, “Not at all!” It could have been a fucking train wreck, and it was hilarious.
SB: He drove around and showed me his favorite beaches. We body surfed. I was dealing with crazy back pain, we had a near miss with a shark …
GC: A 15-foot tiger shark! We went scuba diving, and on the way back they were like, “We’ll stop at Turtle Town!” I’m like, “Great! Turtle Town!” and swim out with 40 people. Sarah was like, “I’m just gonna hang for a moment.”
SB: Yeah, because my back was hurting. I looked over the side, and I saw this fucking enormous beast swimming into where everyone was at, and I grabbed the guide, and I was like, “Is that … is this …” I couldn’t breathe, and he was like, “Oh, shit!” Everyone made it back to the boat.
GC: She saved my life! If you hadn’t seen it, we probably would have been chum.
GC: And now we’re chums. [They high-five.]