PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Duncan Sheik

Brief Encounter   PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Duncan Sheik Duncan Sheik is currently on top of the New York musical theatre world.
Duncan Sheik
Duncan Sheik Photo by Aubrey Reuben

Spring Awakening, the first produced musical by the one-time pop star, is arguably the best-reviewed new musical since The Producers. The vibrant, avant-garde musicalization of an obscure 1891 play by German playwright Frank Wedekind has won the top prize at every award ceremony this spring and collected 11 Tony nominations — the most of any show this season. If it isn't named Best Musical, every prognosticator east and west of Broadway will take a drubbing. It took years for Spring Awakening to reach the stage, but Sheik is now thoroughly enmeshed in the theatre, with new projects including The Nightingale, another work with SA collaborator Steven Sater, about the Young Emperor of Ancient China and a nightingale whose song brings hope to the lives of the common people living outside the walls of the Forbidden City; and Whisper House, a show about a young orphan growing up among ghosts on the coast of Connecticut. The busy Sheik talked to Playbill.com from a seat on a Metro North train.

Playbill.com: Are you traveling to New York or away from New York?
Duncan Sheik: I'm going to Stamford, Connecticut, to go check out this theatre space, the Stamford Center for the Performing Arts, where I'm doing another piece next year.

Playbill.com: Yes, you have a commission from them. Does that piece have a title yet?
DS: It does. It's called Whisper House.

Playbill.com: And from what I understand, it's about ghosts and lighthouses.
DS: Exactly. You're very well informed. We're doing a workshop right now at NYU. Keith Powell is directing it, he's an actor on "30 Rock" and a good friend of mine. Kyle Jarrow has written the script. I just started writing the songs. I finished the first song the day before yesterday. I'm sinking my teeth into it now.

Playbill.com: What sort of music will you use for this piece?
DS: At the moment, the ghosts in the piece are the band. They kind of function a little bit as a Greek chorus, if you will. They're on stage. They're part of the play, but they're also the band and they sing these songs that are in some way commentary on what's going on. Playbill.com: What are they commenting on? What's going on in the story?
DS: Basically, it's a young boy, his father's killed in World War II, and the mother kind of has gone crazy, so he's sent to live with his aunt on the coast of Connecticut. She lives in a lighthouse. And the ghosts, they're the embodiments of all his fears but also all of his desires and his confused way of making his way in this world, having lost his parents and living in this remote place that feels very haunted. I would leave it to the audience as to whether the ghosts are real or a projection of his own making. There's a little bit of ambiguity there.

Playbill.com: In the last 12 months, you've really become this person of the theatre. Does it feel strange to you?
DS: I have! It does feel strange in a certain respect, because I never expected my career to take this run, but now that it has, it really feels very natural. I'm just loving going to shows three nights a week, and seeing everything on and off Broadway, and working on all these various new pieces. I'm really into it. I'm loving the theatre these days.

Playbill.com: Every musical that gets nominated gets to perform at the Tony Awards. Are you personally going to be involved with that performance?
DS: I was kicked out of that band a long time ago. (Laughs.) Now that the kids are rock stars, they don't need me as much anymore. I'm just going to hopefully look good in my tux and take it all in.

Playbill.com: What song from Spring Awakening are they going to do at the Tonys?
DS: Well, I will admit that they're doing a kind of — I can't even say the word — a combination of songs.

Playbill.com: You won't say the word "medley"?
DS: I won't say it. I'm violently opposed to it. But it's kind of not up to me. (Laughs) They'll do great, though. The kids will make it work.

Playbill.com: What is the status of your other project with librettist-lyricist Steven Sater, Nightingale?
DS: We're in the process of organizing our next workshop. It looks like it will be September-October. We're working with director James Lapine on that, which is very exciting. It looks like we're going to do this workshop under the umbrella of American Conservatory Theatre. It will happen in New York, but we've had a great set of conversations with [ACT artistic director] Carey Perloff about possibly working with that theatre. If that does work out, it would be amazing, because it's such a beautiful place and such a perfect place to do the show. We're going to do one or two workshops and hopefully it will make its way on stage by the end of next year.

Playbill.com: When Spring Awakening went to Broadway, it arrived with a new song, "The Guilty Ones," at the top of act two. What was the decision process that went into the creation of that number?
DS: There was a sense in the creative team that the song that was there, "There Once Was a Pirate," was beautiful and evocative and moody and cool. But it was also poetic and kind of not as directly about what was happening in the story. That song had a certain amount of distance from the specific action. They wanted something that was specifically what the kids were feeling at that moment. There needed to be a song that had a bit more propulsion and pace. "There Once Was a Pirate" didn't feel like "Oh, this is the opening of the act." Part of me misses the other song, but the new song tells the story in a much clearer way.

Playbill.com: Often, in Broadway musicals that have demanding scores, the actors have to take vocal rest from time to time. Your score is quite demanding, but your cast has really held up.
DS: Yeah, they have been holding up amazingly well. A couple of them have gotten colds here and there, but nothing out of the ordinary. Hopefully, they'll hang in there for a while.

Playbill.com: Whose decision was it to have the actors carry hand-held microphones?
DS: I think that Michael Mayer quite early on had the very inspired idea of having a very intense break between what would happen in the scenes and what would happen in the songs. In the scenes, they're very much in period and in this Germany of 1891. When the songs happen, we wanted as many devices as possible to pull them out of time. The lighting, Bill Jones' choreography, the fact that you have microphones and guitars, the fact that they're singing modern music — all of this creates a scenario where it's very clear we're not in Munich any more, Toto.

Playbill.com: What goes through your head when you hear critics saying things like "Best rock musical ever"?
DS: (Laughs) Well, it's really amazing to have those kind of accolades and of course it feels great. In some ways, I get a little bit nervous. Certainly, rock music is one aspect of what's going on in the show, but there are other kinds of music that happen in Spring Awakening. I like to call it "post rock," actually.

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