Sugar, Butter, Flour: Sara Bareilles and ‘What’s Inside’

Becca Damante ’17
Arts Editor

“Sugar, butter, flour. Sugar, butter, flour,” a recorded voice echoed through the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass. Within the first two seconds, I knew it was the voice of Sara Bareilles. Sitting in the front row, I turned to my sister, as I did frequently throughout the remainder of the show, and said: “This sounds just like Sara.”

This was my introduction to “Waitress,” a soon-to-be Broadway musical for which Bareilles composed the music and lyrics. The show is based on the 2007 indie classic of the same name and follows Jenna Hunterson, a waitress at a local diner who is trapped in a loveless marriage with an abusive husband. Bareilles’s fifth studio album, “What’s Inside: Songs from Waitress,” debuted earlier this month and features songs from the show reimagined for the recording studio.

“What’s Inside” begins just as “Waitress” did, with “sugar, butter, flour” alternating from the left to the right ear when listened to with headphones. In true “Kaleidoscope Heart” fashion, this first song is just under a minute and a half and transitions seamlessly into “Opening Up.” This is no surprise, as producer Neal Avron worked with Bareilles on both albums.

“Opening Up” is probably my favorite song on the album, at least as far as the upbeat tracks go. The song has a driving beat that makes me want to dance around my room with a hairbrush as a microphone. Its doo-woppy feel and a capella harmonies remind me of Bareilles’s hit “Gonna Get Over You.” The lyrics to the bridge, “It’s the heartbeat. / The center. / The lifeline,” represent the song perfectly. Not only does the song have a dynamic heartbeat, but it is the centerpiece of the record and a lifeline for those who need a pick-me-up.

What’s interesting about this album is that, through these songs, Bareilles takes on the persona of many different characters from “Waitress.” Her voice changes from poetic and mature in “Everything Changes” to bold and powerful in “I Didn’t Plan It” based on the characters she is channeling. “When He Sees Me” is notoriously quirky, as it’s sung from the perspective of Dawn, Jenna’s co-worker who starts to worry about an upcoming date. As the song explains, with a stroke of bad luck, her date could eat the Oreo cookies before he eats the inside filling or could be a “psychopath who escaped from an institution somewhere where they don’t have girls.”

The album also features two duets with Jason Mraz in an effort to show the developing relationship between Jenna and her doctor. “Bad Idea” is candid and witty, while “You Matter to Me” is heartwarming with its moving strings section.

Other songs involving multiple characters are arranged just for Bareilles. For instance, while the show version of “Soft Place to Land” is sung by leads Jenna, Becky and Dawn, on the album, Bareilles layers her voice to sing the harmonies and the melody, as she has done on previous albums. The song’s storytelling quality, soft inclusion of “sugar, butter, flour” and lyrical guitar make an authentic Sara song straight out of the singer-songwriter genre she and I both know and love.

For me, the album’s single “She Used to Be Mine” is the standout track for its emotional power. The song chronicles Jenna at her darkest moment, and Bareilles has remarked that she connected with that feeling of melancholy. The ballad is strikingly bare of any instruments, other than the piano, until the intensity of the bridge hits. Combined with a haunting melody, the song has a beauty that is both understated and powerful, similar to fan-favorite “Gravity” from Bareilles’s second album.   

In an industry that often forces artists to sacrifice integrity, Bareilles doesn’t lose herself in the process, as she mixes the genre of pop, singer-songwriting, and Broadway to create something that is truly authentic. “Waitress” begins previews March 25 at the Brooks Atkinson Theater in New York City, and it will open in late April. Though I may not be in the front row this time around, I will certainly be there to tap my foot and sing along to the sugar, the butter and the flour.

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