Sometimes, a song takes on a life of its own.
Sara Bareilles says that when she wrote “She Used to Be Mine,” the 11 o’clock number from her Broadway musical “Waitress,” it seemed so insanely specific (“she is all of this mixed up and baked in a beautiful pie”) that she felt self-conscious performing it in concert.
But audiences have a way of making decisions for themselves. The song, written for a pregnant, abused waitress, reflecting back on the dreams she did not achieve, has been claimed, unexpectedly, by men, by children, by singers of all sorts.
“The range of who this song speaks to is much broader than I could have anticipated,” Ms. Bareilles said. “The chasm between who we are, and who we thought we would be, is always something we’re negotiating.”
Covers of the song caught my attention when a video of a gut-punching version by a 14-year-old boy from western Pennsylvania went viral in the fall. Then I started to notice it popping up on set lists. Heather Headley, a Tony winner for “Aida,” put her version on a new album alongside standards like “Over the Rainbow.” Just last week, Kathryn Gallagher, an actress in the cast of the Broadway-bound “Jagged Little Pill,” performed her own take, accompanied by a cello, at a Midtown bar, encouraged to do so, she said, by fans online.
I asked my colleague, Jesse Green, the co-chief theater critic for The Times, what makes the song so coverable. Its emotional content, he said: “It has a classic arc from sadness and self-criticism to acceptance and triumph.” And the music offers singers a chance to show off their voices. “You get breathy confessional head-voice moments building to a belty chest-voice climax,” he added.
Ms. Bareilles, who just finished her third stint leading the “Waitress” cast, clearly pays attention to the way the song has traveled since the musical opened nearly two years ago. “I think of my songs as my little children, and I want them to have big lives,” she said. “This one is having a big life.”
Here are five of her favorite versions:
Adrian Matthew, the 14-year-old ninth grader from Blairsville, Pa., was working on the song with his voice teacher, when his mother pulled out her phone and started taping; she put the video on Facebook, and it caught fire — it has now been viewed more than 3 million times.
The video grabbed the attention of “Waitress” alumna Betsy Wolfe, who shared it on Twitter. In turn, it impressed the actor Zach Braff so much that he has arranged to pay for Adrian to go this summer to Stagedoor Manor, the Catskills theater camp Mr. Braff attended. In the weeks since, Adrian has seen his first Broadway show, met Ms. Bareilles and appeared on the “Today” show.
Ms. Bareilles said she had been in tears watching the video of Adrian sing. “Sometimes with children, we take for granted that they’re not able to process a certain level of depth, but I think they are,” she said. “I love that he was so free in his interpretation.”
How it is possible for a teenage boy to connect with the life experience described in the song? It’s a question Adrian has been thinking about.
“You don’t have to be a middle-aged woman who is pregnant and abused — you can still feel it,” he told me. “The way I relate to it — there’s been school bullies, or people making fun of me. I thought going from middle school to high school was going to be so easy, and I’d make so many friends, and then you get there and it’s the opposite. The song made me feel that.”
Like many New York performers, Tiffany Mann wasn’t making enough money acting, so for four years she had a survival job at Ellen’s Stardust Diner, the Times Square tourist destination where the servers sing. It was there that she performed a version of “She Used to Be Mine” that a friend recorded and put on social media.
“I had just ended a chapter in my life, and it was rough,” she said. “In that video, I wasn’t singing ‘cause it was my job, I was singing my way through heartache.”
The clip led to an appearance on Steve Harvey’s television variety show, followed by a role in the “Waitress” cast. Next up: She’s in “Be More Chill,” which starts previews on Broadway on Feb. 13.
“It’s such an awesome story,” Ms. Bareilles said of Ms. Mann. “She’s singing, and people are busing tables around her — it’s so indicative of what is beautiful and unwieldy about New York City, where there is all this talent tucked into every corner.”
The first time Alba Reche was able to choose her own song on “Operación Triunfo,” a televised singing competition in Spain, she picked “She Used to Be Mine.”
“It was easy to see myself reflected in her words,” she said in a telephone interview. “We all have stories in our past, and this song connects to some parts of my life.”
Ms. Reche, a painter from southeastern Spain, wound up becoming the runner-up on the show; her version of the song was released in a collection of her performances; and she is about to tour Spain with her castmates. Among those who saw her interpretation online was Ms. Bareilles.
“I just found her version and couldn’t take my eyes off her,”
she said. “She was so exposed and so raw.”
Ben Platt, the Tony-winning original star of “Dear Evan Hansen,” filmed his version of “She Used to Be Mine” in his childhood home. It was a tribute, he said, to Nicolette Robinson, an actress, whose performance in “Waitress” he was sorry to miss.
“The song is such a beautifully perfect meeting of pop and genuine musical theater,” he explained in an email, “which is no surprise because emotionality and vulnerability has always been one of Sara’s super powers.”
His take is just an excerpt, but for Ms. Bareilles, it symbolizes something about the theater world she long idolized and is now part of. “I love the generosity of someone who is so beloved in this community singing a song from a different show,” she said, adding, “It was incredible to be so embraced.”
Once a month at “Waitress,” there is a post-show karaoke night, when audience members put their names in a tote bag for a chance to sing a number from the cast album.
The name drawn one night in September was Matthew Darren, who, it turned out, is no stranger to singing in front of audiences — he was a contestant on Season 10 of “American Idol,” then using the name Matthew Darren Nuss. He knew one song from the show — “She Used to Be Mine” — and felt it spoke to him.
“That feeling of having lost myself in the routine of each day is all too familiar,” he said. “Getting caught up in the unexpected curveballs life throws at us is so easy.”
Ms. Bareilles said Mr. Darren’s version is a reminder of how the song can move beyond its initial confines. “In the life of ‘Waitress,’ people make an assumption that it’s a very feminine show, and it is, and I love that,” she said. “But these themes go so far beyond gender.”
She added: “It was so unexpected to see this powerful, soulful performance come out of this man.”
Follow Michael Paulson on Twitter: @MichaelPaulson.
Charo Henríquez contributed reporting.
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