How to Sing Sondheim Like Sara Bareilles

Photo: Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade

For the past half decade, Sara Bareilles, best known as a pop singer and songwriter, has secretly taken up a life in musical theater. After I wrote the score for the 2016 Broadway debut Waitress Bareilles later landed a starring role on the show and was back on the boards this summer, starring in a revival of In the forest, the dark fairy tale blend by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine. She is appearing on the show through September 4 and will be featured on the cast recording, which was taped in July. Sondheim’s intricate, pointillist songs can be a challenge for any trained stage performer, and yet Bareilles, as the baker’s wife in this production, manages to play both with a precision that might appeal to the late composer and with a sonority that is unmistakably her own . “I feel like I can sing these songs, not necessarily as ‘pop songs,’ but as ‘Sara Bareilles as a baker’s wife,'” she told me. It is powerful alchemy.

Ask anyone well versed in music to describe that particular Bareilles sound and they usually bring up the word ‘ease’. Before the pseudo-concert style In the forest came to Broadway, Bareilles starred in a short Encores! Engagement of the show at the City Center in May. She was preparing with her friend, the composer André Catrini, how best to think about getting involved as a singer of Sondheim. “Her voice doesn’t seem to have a break, which is crazy,” Catrini said. With most singers, you can find an extra strain when they move between registers. “She goes from the depths of her chest to her mix and soprano with seeming ease.”

Ease, however, is not something you consider native to Sondheim. Like much of the canon of musical theater, In the forest is written towards a more ‘legitimate’ style of vocal performance which, with exceptions, tends to mean more vibrato and a lack of modern styles such as riffs, runs and other forms of melisma (the tying of several notes together in one syllable). Think of it as your head voice rather than your chest. Pop performance generally goes the other direction, favoring a clearer sound and often a lower range. When pop musicals go high, they tend to have the kind of belting you might hear in something like this Evil or Naturally blond. Bareilles had to open the upper registers of her register, but she does not let her down, especially in the ensemble numbers, in which she joins in repeated refrains like ‘into the woods, and out of the woods’ that reach into the woodwork supported timbre. Rob Berman, the show’s music director, who works at City Center, “was really encouraged that I’m bringing in more of ‘Sara Bareilles,'” she says, “and the parts of my voice that are more resonant.”

This approach comes together in the bravura act II solo “Moments in the Woods” of Baker’s Wife. Back in the woods and looking for a way to stop a vengeful giantess, the baker’s wife meets Cinderella’s prince. He kisses and seduces her and then rushes off, leaving her dazed, likening this lovemaking to the prince in the forest (Sondheim loves the double meaning of ‘forest’ and ‘dignity’, the magical forest and one’s own fantasy life). her ordinary life with her husband the baker – she is trying to decide on one and wonders if she can have both. Berman suggested taking the song down a half step from the original key, a fairly common adjustment, so that it would best land in the sweet spot of Bareilles’ voice. There she is able to weld the character’s self-blame at the bottom, “Back to life, back to purpose/back to child, back to husband,” with the higher ifs in lines like “Why not do both instead?”

“I love this kind of interval singing,” Bareilles told me. “I love the melodic dance it creates.” There’s a sort of resemblance between “Moments in the Woods” and one of their own songs like “Gravity,” which contains its own deceptively tricky jumps between registers. That said, she already had a lot of technical preparation that allowed her to focus on acting and seeing what her voice was doing naturally. “If you stick with it, just tell the story,” she said, “your body follows the intention.”

There’s a line near the end of the song where the baker’s wife sings, “Let go of the moment, but don’t forget it for a moment” that rises to the top, but Bareilles manages to place it with warmth and regret. That’s one of the phrases, Berman told me, that the two focused on in detail, considering whether it should be full or soaring or full of vibrato. What worked was giving her a little space to take the moment wherever it would take her. “Night to night she varies it,” Berman said. “Even on cast recording, she did a few different takes.”

Before, when she is seduced by the prince, the baker’s wife says: “This is ridiculous, what am I doing here? I’m in the wrong story.” Her voice soars to high notes on “Story,” as if taking on Cinderella’s vocal range along with her lover. The baker’s wife and her husband are relatively modern characters compared to the other characters in In the forest, early modern harbingers of the middle class with a quarrelsome marriage that feels contemporary to the 1980s, if not the present. Maybe that’s why Bareilles’ voice suits the role so well – she sounds modern herself. In the wrong story, but also right at home.

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