Composer Duncan Sheik knew what Brechtian theatre was before he started composing for Brecht productions. He just didn't know that he knew.
"Saying he is an influence would be overstating it," said Sheik. "When we first started working on Spring Awakening, director Michael Mayer was always going on about the Brechtian influences in the piece" — that is, the theatrical examination of social ills in the musical's story, and the presentation style of singing to which Sheik's score lent itself. "At the time, I didn't even know what that meant. Now, I do!"
Sheik has composed songs and music for Classic Stage Company's current revival of Brecht's savage 1926 look at war and the military, A Man's a Man. It's the second Brecht play in as many seasons that he's done with CSC, the first being last spring's mounting of The Caucasian Chalk Circle.
The director of both productions is Brian Kulick, CSC's artistic director. Theatre-wise, Sheik can credit Kulick for giving him his start.
"I worked with Brian 11 years ago on Twelfth Night at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park. That was the first time I've ever had any of my music on stage. I was working on Spring Awakening at the time, but it wasn't done yet." He added, laughing, "Frankly, I didn't think what I did was all that great!" He feels differently about his work on A Man's a Man. "I have a better grasp of how to do it, having written for the theatre for a decade now."
To find the right sound for A Man's a Man, which is set in British Colonial India, Sheik employed a variety of instruments. "You have many layers of music culture, between English-style brass-band music, Indian classic music and other styles. There are all kinds of musical flavors." Sheik himself recorded the seven or so songs he created for the play. "Because of the nature of the way Brian does these shows, it's not financially possible to do it with a live band. I record the whole thing and the actors sing to the tracks. It allows me to be really specific sonically."
The early part of 2014 will be a busy time for Sheik. A Man's a Man will begin performances as another new Sheik score, American Psycho, continues its world premiere run at London's Almeida Theatre.
The musical, which the songwriter began working on in 2010, is based on Bret Easton Ellis' 1991 satire of consumerism and Wall Street greed. Rupert Goold directs the production, which stars Matt Smith as the nattily dressed serial killer Patrick Bateman.
"The music is almost entirely electronic," he said of the score. "From a standpoint of the songs themselves, people will recognize it as Duncan Sheik music. But the sonic palate is quite different from Spring Awakening — in fact, quite different from any musical I know of, in that it's all synthesizer and drum machines.
"In Spring Awakening, I was using an indie rock idiom," he continued. "Here, I'm using an electronic dance music idiom."