How Duncan Sheik Went From 'Barely Breathing' to 'Spring Awakening'

"Spring Awakening" composer Duncan Sheik, left, with book-writer and lyricist Steven Sater at the 2007 Tonys after winning the award for best original score.
"Spring Awakening" composer Duncan Sheik, left, with book-writer and lyricist Steven Sater at the 2007 Tonys after winning the award for best original score. (By Richard Drew -- Associated Press)
By Celia Wren
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, July 5, 2009

The awakening of "Spring Awakening" was slow and wintry. When the rock musical premiered at New York's Atlantic Theater Company in June 2006, composer and alternative-pop star Duncan Sheik -- then best-known for his mid-'90s mega-hit "Barely Breathing" -- had been laboring on the piece for some seven years with book-writer and lyricist Steven Sater.

"It was a very difficult and arduous process," Sheik, 39, recalls recently, speaking by phone while traveling in Europe. During the musical's development, he confesses, he often "thought things like: 'I can't believe that I'm even involved in this! This is a disaster!' "

Hardly. After leaping to Broadway in December 2006, Sheik and Sater's adaptation of German dramatist Frank Wedekind's 1891 play -- about adolescents coping with puberty in a ruthlessly buttoned-down culture -- ran for more than two years and nabbed eight Tony Awards, including the best musical honor. On Tuesday, the national tour lands at the Kennedy Center, where it continues through Aug. 2.

Even before the accolades, Sheik -- whose sophisticated iridescent-toned albums include "Humming," "Daylight" and "White Limousine" -- was forging a thespian identity to parallel his Rolling Stone-keyed one. He's in cahoots with Sater on two more projects: an adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen's "The Nightingale," and "Nero" ("particularly tricky," Sheik notes), about the notorious Roman emperor. Both have received workshops and, in "Nero's" case, a festival airing; Sheik says he and Sater are "eager to get both these shows on the road" to full productions.

Closer to the finish line is "Whisper House," a tale of a boy in a haunted lighthouse during World War II. Based on an original concept by Keith Powell -- you know him as Toofer on "30 Rock" -- the show boasts a book and lyrics by Kyle Jarrow ("A Very Merry Unauthorized Children's Scientology Pageant"). Sheik released a "Whisper House" concept album in January, and the Powerhouse Theater in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., will give the stage version a concert reading on Friday and Saturday. Powell directs the world premiere next year at the Old Globe in San Diego.

And yet, Sheik -- who grew up in South Carolina and New Jersey, and graduated from Brown University -- was initially musical-theater shy. After meeting playwright Sater, a fellow Buddhist, at a New York Buddhist organization, he turned a stack of the writer's lyrics into the 2001 album "Phantom Moon."

Yet when Sater suggested appropriating Wedekind, Sheik recalls, "I was a little reticent." He liked straight plays, but was put off by the fact that showbiz scores and popular music sounded like different species.

Then, he and Sater realized they could fill a niche: craft a musical with an authentic contemporary sound, whose songs could slip onto portable media players and the radio. "I felt that, with a lot of musical theater, if you heard the song out of context, it almost wouldn't make sense," Sheik says. "We wanted to do things that were universal enough, in a certain way, that the song could exist on its own."

The duo also opted to break the rule -- in place at least since 1943's "Oklahoma!" -- that a song further a musical's story and characterization. "It was this big taboo to not do that," Sheik observes. "And Steven and I were, like, 'In fact, we're going to write an entire musical where we never do that!' " From his own adult-pop-honed perspective, a "song is one emotional moment. It's not necessarily part of this larger story. It's deepening the moment."

Of course, iconoclasm in a recording studio is one thing; it's quite another in a rehearsal hall, with a director and producers hovering over your shoulder. "If you're making a solo album, you call the shots," Sheik says. So when "Spring Awakening" was revving up, he remembers: "I was probably really pretty bratty about it. Because I was: 'It's my song, and they're going to sing it how I tell them to sing it!' But in truth, I had to learn that musical theater is a major collaboration between many people, with many diverse points of view."

Surrendering control has compensations. "Spring Awakening" taught him "the incredible power of storytelling" and "what narrative can do to make the songs more powerful. And that was my big realization over the course of that seven years: how much I really do enjoy telling stories with songs."

Sheik's narrative music is particularly suited to the stage, says Atlantic Theater Artistic Director Neil Pepe. When some rockers score a musical, he notes, "you run the risk of all the songs having a similar sound," but Sheik is able to modulate his "distinctive musical voice" to a story's twists and turns.

Powell concurs. The director and TV star -- whose credits include acting at Washington's Shakespeare Theatre Company and founding and leading a professional Delaware theater -- recruited Sheik for "Whisper House" before "Spring Awakening" went public, on the basis of his music.

"I know this sounds terribly arty," Powell says, "but when you listen to Duncan's older or newer records, it's kind of like he's talking or whispering in your ear." That intimate address, Powell says, is heartfelt "without being cloying or saccharine. And -- honestly -- that's what you search for in theater."

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