The last time singer/songwriter Jason Mraz had a paid acting gig, he was 21 years old. “It was a community production,” he recalls, “of something no one saw.”
Two decades later, Mraz — whose laid-back, soul-inflected, positive-minded pop has earned him a legion of fans in the interim — is enjoying a spin as a Broadway trouper, playing, of all things, a gynecologist. Mraz’s stint as Dr. Pomatter in the hit musical Waitress was recently extended through Febrary 11 (though he’ll miss the February 1 and 2 performances due to prior obligations).
Through February 25, he’s being joined on stage by another acclaimed troubadour, Waitress’s composer and lyricist, Sara Bareilles. In her second engagement as the show’s title character, Jenna, Bareilles plays the maestro of pie-making who, while pregnant and in a troubled marriage, finds a friend, and potentially more, in the good doctor.
Bareilles had enlisted Mraz previously for What’s Inside: Songs From “Waitress,” a concept album released shortly before the show’s opening in 2016. Mraz appeared on a pair of tracks, including the song “You Matter to Me,” which he later performed with Bareilles at the Hollywood Bowl — though not quite to his satisfaction.
“I had invited Sara out for that,” Mraz remembers. “I didn’t rehearse the song very much, though, and I ended up missing the harmony on the second chorus. I was so embarrassed that I couldn’t sleep that night. I thought, I invited this girl to come out from New York to sing one of her songs, and I screwed it up. But two weeks later, I got an email asking if I wanted to be in Waitress.”
Bareilles first met Mraz, she says, at the Grammy Awards in 2008: “He was with his mom and I was with my mom.” Some of her friends had collaborated with him, and a bond was formed. “I’ve always imagined his voice as ideal for Dr. Pomatter,” she says.
Though somewhat ambivalent about musicals, Mraz was drawn to Bareilles’s score. “You’re never hit over the head with a flashy song and dance that seems to come out of nowhere,” he says. “Every song is intimate and personal, and things evolve naturally, so you really believe that these characters are singing their truth to you.”
Mraz adds that Dr. Pomatter “doesn’t feel like a huge stretch from who I am, vocally or in the context of what I’m singing about: joy, humor, love.” He also feels a personal connection with the character. “I was a bored professional at one point, when I walked into this café and met the baker and barista there, and she turned my world upside down,” he says. “You think you know what your life is, and then you meet someone who disarms you and you’re happy to change your routine and accommodate that other person.” That other person? She’s now Mraz’s wife.
Having had to move to New York for Waitress, the California boy also “gets to bring that uneasiness to Dr. Pomatter.” Despite the parallels between his life and his character’s, Mraz is also finding it “enjoyable and therapeutic to go from singing my own narrative to singing the songs in this story.”
Bareilles, a musical-theater enthusiast since her youth, has felt similarly empowered. “The exercise you do as an actor is to find yourself in someone else,” she says. “Jason said it beautifully: It’s about bringing truth to each moment. This show has truly reoriented my life; it’s been one of the greatest things I’ve done and the thing I’m proudest of in my career.”
During her first engagement as Jenna — a role introduced to the stage by Tony Award winner Jessie Mueller, who returns to Broadway this year in a new revival of Carousel — Bareilles “cried so hard my last day, I was just bawling. The theater community is unparalleled in terms of how welcoming and encouraging everyone is. For me, it’s been a reawakening to what it’s like to be madly in love with what you do. Even when rehearsals have gotten tedious, I’ve wanted to pinch myself: ‘Am I really working?’”
Regarding Mraz’s performance, Bareilles says, “I think I always saw the generosity and playfulness of your spirit — I’m talking directly to Jason right now — but it was so immediate in front of an audience that I felt like I was seeing it for the first time.”
For his part, Mraz “has had to relearn how to communicate with Sara, because we were really acquaintances. Then this show was created and offered to me, and — I’m going to talk directly to Sara — you were the creator, and it humbled me before you. Sara’s become an inspiration as a friend and a collaborative artist. She’s reminded me that I can still grow, and that I can color outside the lines, which is really nice.”
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