Jason Mraz is a singer with a deeply romantic streak, composing and performing hummable hits such as “I’m Yours,” “I Won’t Give Up,” and “Lucky.” Now the two-time Grammy Award winner is prepping for a new and exciting challenge: his Broadway debut on November 3, as Dr. Pomatter, an obstetrician who falls in love with one special patient in the heartwarming musical Waitress.
“I’m feeling very excited, very honored, and occasionally a little nervous,” says Mraz, chatting with Broadway Direct just before starting rehearsals for his 10-week engagement. Friendly and relaxed, the 40-year-old pop star already boasts an intimate knowledge of the musical’s score, having sung “Bad Idea” and “You Matter to Me” with composer Sara Bareilles on her 2015 concept album, What’s Inside: Songs From “Waitress.” “I was hired on faith,” he says of his Broadway bow, “purely on Sara’s recommendation. But this is something I feel ready for.”
In fact, Waitress brings Mraz full circle to his teenage dream of a career in musicals. While in high school, he played the title role in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at a community theatre in his hometown of Richmond, Virginia. And he spent a year at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York before pivoting away from stage acting. “During my second semester, I fell in love with the guitar and out of love with the possibility of auditioning for the rest of my life,” he quips. “I decided to move home to Virginia to focus on original music. You might say I took the long way back to Broadway.”
Sara Bareilles’s Tony-nominated score achieves a perfect balance between the classic musicals Mraz grew up with and the personal music he has pursued as a singer-songwriter. “There’s a crisp, clear style to the musicals of the ’50s and ’60s,” he observes, “and I ended up taking the path of a more relaxed pop form of singing. Now, here come musicals like Hamilton and Waitress, in which you have permission to add your own voice to the musical landscape. I love the fact that Waitress has one foot in classic musicals, with characters like Ogie [the comic foil played by Tony Award nominee Christopher Fitzgerald], and the other foot in modern musicals.”
As Mraz points out, pregnant heroine Jenna (Betsy Wolfe) and Dr. Pomatter share duets that are both story-driven and radio-friendly. “I can hear Sara’s voice in so many of these characters, and that tickles me,” he says, “first, to be a part of the [Broadway] experience of a friend who has been on a similar path as mine, and also because there’s a relaxed feel to this music that is so refreshing.”
The star-crossed romance in Waitress appeals to Mraz’s sensibility as a composer of love songs used for marriage proposals, first dances at weddings, and, as he noted in a comedic short video on his website, “baby-making.” He traces his lifelong romantic nature to the music he was surrounded by as a child. “My mom listened to crooners — Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra — and my dad listened to doo-wop songs like ‘Blue Moon,’ so I grew up thinking that songs in general are love songs,” he explains. “Add to that the musicals I did in high school, filled with songs that say ‘I love you’ or ‘I want love’ — as a writer, I’ve always been drawn to that.”
When Mraz saw Waitress for the first time, he was wowed by the marriage of Bareilles’s score, Jessie Nelson’s book, and Diane Paulus’s direction, particularly in the depiction of Jenna and Dr. Pomatter’s relationship. “When I first read it, I thought, How can this guy be liked by the audience? Is it because he’s a little bit clumsy, a little bit charming? Is it the magic in Jenna’s pies?” The sincerity of the show’s writing and performance, qualities that have earned Mraz a loyal fan base during his 15-year pop career, keep audiences invested in the story.
Beyond that, Mraz believes theatergoers respond to the camaraderie and friendship Jenna experiences at work. “It feels so comforting to enter the world of this waitress and this diner,” he says. “It’s a little bit Happy Days, a little bit Alice’s diner. It’s a delight for the eye and the ear, plus pie smells when you walk into the theatre! This is what Broadway does best. You feel like you’re not just watching something, you’re part of the experience.”
At a time when pop singers such as Josh Groban, Jennifer Hudson, and Brendon Urie are making Broadway debuts and stars such as Cyndi Lauper and Sting have joined Bareilles as musical composers, Mraz cites a simple reason for the trend: Broadway’s history as a mecca for audiences. “People flock to the Theatre District to see live performances,” he says, “and that’s what singers like me signed up to do. On Broadway, I get to stay in one place, perform eight times a week, and take people on a transformational journey that I hope will be emotional and entertaining.”
Mraz’s enthusiasm for Waitress prompts an obvious question about his own ambition to write a musical. “It would depend on the idea and the creative team, but I’m interested to see what’s possible,” he says. “I figure that when the right project comes along, whether it’s an old story that wants to be adapted for the stage or a new idea, it’s something I might try. I enjoy creating shows and telling stories.”
For now, Mraz is more than content to make his Broadway bow in his friend’s hit musical, even if it means setting aside his extensive collection of hats. “I always thought theater would be part of my future, and I’m very, very glad that it’s this project,” he says of Waitress. “I love Sara, I love the songs, I love the story, and I love my character. There’s so much about it that suits me at this time in my life. This is something I can do, and do proudly.”