Duncan Sheik’s 1996 hit “Barely Breathing” set a record (since broken) for being on the charts for 55 weeks. In recent years, the song has popped up on “Glee” and “Girls.”
Sheik continued to record but never returned to the Top 10. In 2006, however, the singer-songwriter scored big on Broadway, winning a Tony Award for his musical “Spring Awakening,” which is now enjoying a revival with deaf actors. Credited for bringing a pop sensibility to the Great White Way, Sheik has since been in demand for other projects, including a musical version of “American Psycho,” set to open on Broadway in the spring.
Sheik, who has recently released a new album, “Legerdemain,” is back on tour, playing the Barns at Wolf Trap with Suzanne Vega on Wednesday (his 46th birthday) and Thursday. We spoke with the L.A.-based Sheik about his about his chart success, his life as a theatrical composer and Buddhism.
Is being a pop singer-songwriter and a Broadway composer a double life?
I think of them as really pretty complementary. The great thing about being to able to write for theater and then do my day job as a singer-songwriter, is that it keeps both things a little more fresh. When I feel like I’ve had enough of writing for other people’s voices, I can write my own self-indulgent art songs. And then when I’m tired of that I can do things that are more narrative.
Do concert crowds want to hear from both worlds?
I think that the people who come to see the concerts are more the normal music-going audience. Generally, the good thing that’s happening in Broadway now is there are a lot of people who are trying to make music that’s more stylistically approachable. I think that’s a real healthy development.
The success of “Spring Awakening” is said to have led to such musicals as “Next to Normal” and “American Idiot.”
I like to think I can take a little bit of credit for that, yeah.
Was “Spring Awakening” the first thing you tried for Broadway?
It was seven years of development. It began almost accidentally, when I met my writing partner Steven Sater. We met because we’re practicing Buddhists. We struck up a friendship and started writing songs together. That evolved into this idea of adapting “Spring Awakening.” In the beginning I was pretty reticent. At that moment in my life I wasn’t the biggest fan of musical theater. But I’ve come around to it now.
Whose idea was it turn the 19th-century German play into a musical?
It was Steven’s idea. He gave me the Ted Hughes translation of the original play and he said, “Read this. Maybe we can adapt it as a musical.” I said something like, “Come on, I really don’t want to do that.” And then I read the play. It was such a strange and racy and funny and over-the-top Expressionist story. I felt like maybe there was something I could sink my teeth into there.
“Spring Awakening” has taken on a life of its own. Now it’s back in a production from the Deaf West Theater.
That was just this incredible gift. They were just doing it on a shoestring budget in downtown L.A. a year ago, and people thought the production was amazing. And now it’s come to Broadway. It doubles down on the emotional intensity of the story, using deaf and hearing-impaired actors. It sounds incredible, too. There’s the great irony of having one of the best-sounding versions of “Spring Awakening” be from Deaf West Theater.
How does the Buddhist connection between you and Steven inform your work?
There’s this idea in Buddhism: what we call the 10 Worlds. They’re kind of like the 10 states of life that any human being inhabits in the course of their day. It’s this idea that at any moment you’re going from hell to hunger to animality to anger to tranquility to rapture, realization, compassion, enlightenment. You’re always shuttling between these different states. It’s kind of like the human condition. I think “Spring Awakening” does a pretty good job hitting all of those states. For me, the art that inspires me really does that, it shows the human condition in its totality.
Do you keep that in mind when writing a show?
Yeah. With a show like “Spring Awakening,” which is about the heart and coming of age and sexuality and communication, it’s quite important stuff. With “American Psycho,” it’s much more obviously psychological and Kubrickian. It’s not so much about the heart as it is about the head. And because it’s dance music, I like to say it’s about messing with your head and making you shake your a---.
It sounds like it would be a challenge to turn “American Psycho” into a musical.
Yeah. When they first talked to me about writing the score for that show, I had read the book [by Bret Easton Ellis] 25 years ago. But I didn’t really see how you could turn it into a musical. But I reread the book and realized how prescient it is and how trenchant and how funny it is. There’s so much music in the book, because [main character] Patrick Bateman is this awful armchair music critic. I had this idea that the score would be all electronic dance music from the late ’80s.
Did that inspire the sound of the new album?
Absolutely. As a teenager I grew up listening to Depeche Mode and New Order and Talk Talk — all those U.K. synth-pop bands. When I started making records, I was more in my organic, Nick Drake stage. But I’ve always harbored this desire to make electronic music. “American Psycho” gave me the opportunity to do that. That just followed into the making of “Legerdemain.”
You and Suzanne Vega go way back.
I toured with her in Europe in 2009. Then, in 2012, we did a co-headlining thing here in the States, and we worked on a theater piece together. She wrote a show about Carson McCullers. I suppose I’m the composer of that show and she’s the lyricist and book writer. She’s going to be doing a new iteration of that in the coming year.
Did you expect “Barely Breathing” to become such a big hit?
Look, it was my first record. It was a very bizarre experience, because I had made this record that I thought was like an acoustic Radiohead record. I was listening to Björk and Jeff Buckley and things that were definitely not Top 40 radio material. When I was all of a sudden thrust into that context, there was a lot of cognitive dissonance for me personally. In a way I’ve spent the past 15 years atoning for the sins of having been on Top 40 radio. But it’s great because people still love the song. I don’t disavow it at all. It’s my mission to get people to listen to other things that I’ve been working on that I actually think they may enjoy more.
Is that how you feel? That there were other songs people should have been listening to?
Certainly there were times when that was the case. But after “Spring Awakening” became a big hit, it was all like water under the bridge. Now it’s a really fun song to play live. It’s kind of like that was another person, in another lifetime. He comes back onstage for five minutes every night.
Catlin is a freelance writer.
Duncan Sheik and Suzanne Vega Nov. 18 and 19 at 8 p.m. at the Barns at Wolf Trap, 1635 Trap Rd., Vienna.703-255-1900. www.wolftrap.org. $55-$60.