Before Jason Mraz‘s debut album Waiting for My Rocket to Come dropped in 2002, launching a career that has won him millions of fans and a series of accolades (including two Grammys), the 40-year-old singer-songwriter planned for a career in musical theatre.
“Many young people in the performing arts, when you’re in high school, you have show choir, musicals, and drama. And because I like to sing and perform, those are the classes and programs I took,” Mraz tells PEOPLE. “I assumed musical theatre would be the route I would take.”
But when he moved to New York City in his late teens to explore the industry, Mraz quickly learned musical theatre wasn’t for him. “It was going to be very, very competitive and there was a risk I wouldn’t be able to get a job,” he said. “I didn’t want to audition to be able to sing, I just wanted to sing.”
“Writing my own original music, I could take it to Central Park, I could take it to a sidewalk, I could take it to a subway stop. I could sing anywhere, I had ultimate freedom,” he continued. “So that made my decision and I removed myself from musical theatre. I honestly never thought I would go back.”
All that changed, though, when Mraz’s friend Sara Bareilles reached out and asked him if he wanted to join the cast of Waitress — the hit 2016 musical she composed about a waitress in a small town named Jenna who enters a pie contest in hopes of using the prize money to escape her unhappy marriage (The story is adapted from Adrienne Shelly’s 2007 movie of the same name.)
Mraz had a connection to Waitress, having sung a few songs on Bareilles’ “What’s Inside: Songs from Waitress” concept album. Moreover, those songs were the same written for Dr. Pomatter – the role Bareilles asked him to play.
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Still, that wasn’t exactly the reason he decided to do Waitress.
“It felt like the universe was giving me a raincheck and calling me back to musical theatre,” he says. “I never expected to be in the show, never once. But when she called and asked, I knew immediately that I wanted to do it. Which is weird because my stomach and my nerves said ‘No way,’ but I took this as a sign that I have to do this. I have to challenge myself as a performer and feel that experience once and for all.”
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Mraz has been in the show since Nov. 3 and will remain in the production through mid-January. Besides being able to flex his musical theatre muscle again, Mraz says he’s been able to grow his performance by bringing his touring experience to the show.
“My musical theatre gave me tools as a singer-songwriter and gave me more diversity in my showmanship, allowing me to weave my songs into a narrative night after night so there would be purpose for my songs and stories,” Mraz explained. “Now, I’m able to take my 20 years of playing original music and put that into a musical production. It’s only helped and enhance my performance.”
It’s worked out so well that when he’s done with the part, Mraz said he’s open to other opportunities in the artform – perhaps even a musical he’d compose himself.
“I love writing, I love creating music,” Mraz, whose debut album was recently rereleased on vinyl in honor of its 15th anniversary. “When you break down just the songs of Waitress, it really is a great album. So if I could ever get my head around a narrative or get invited to particular story or concept, I would probably entertain the idea of bringing songs to life for a musical. I wouldn’t throw it out.”
Waitress is now playing at Broadway’s Brooks Atkinson Theatre.