Duncan Sheik Interview

Modern Musicals from a Pop Maestro



Duncan Sheik, 90s pop singer-songwriter and Broadway composing fixture is about 15 minutes late to our interview, and for good reason. He’s on his bicycle riding through Times Square, a bit ironic since one of his new songs is entitled “Bicycle Thief.” “It’s my preferred method of riding through the city,” said Sheik, who is a Grammy winner and Tony winner for the modern rock musical Spring Awakening (original 2006 version won Best Musical) being revived this fall on Broadway. “I’m a little gun-shy ’cause a couple months ago I got knocked by a pedestrian so the wreck was a bit catastrophic. It’s very painful and embarrassing. When you can’t make it on Broadway, it’s a bad feeling, it will crush your dreams.”

The only thing Duncan Sheik is crushing is the box office, with a new 18-week production run of Spring Awakening, which opened September 27 at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre starring Academy Award winner Marlee Matlin, Emmy winner Camryn Manheim and a number of Los Angeles-based Deaf West Theatre performers, with American sign language integrated into the choreography and spoken English in a powerful new telling of a story of teenagers grappling with the challenges of adulthood. Years from now, Sheik will be mentioned in the same sentence as other iconic musical composers like Andrew Lloyd Webber, Stephen Sondheim, Rodgers & Hammerstein, George Gershwin, Elton John. Sheik, whose “Barely Breathing” was the most-played radio song of 1997 (and went on to win a Grammy) is also busy riding his bike around town putting final touches on the stage adaptation of cult film American Psycho, which comes to Broadway in 2016 (previews as early as February) starring Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson star Benjamin Walker as the despicable love-to-hate 80s Wall Street character Patrick Bateman. The production comes off a successful run in London, and Sheik is yet again the musical composer, with both electronic music and some of the tunes from the film. Sheik’s next six months is certainly one for the history books – he will also release his first original material since 2006’s “White Limousine” with the album “Legerdemain” available worldwide October 9, followed by a U.S. tour that stops at Carnegie Hall November 21 and Tarrytown Music Hall November 22 (co-headlining with Suzanne Vega). Sheik spoke with New York City Monthly about the music of his current Broadway projects, the young stars who were groomed from his breakout show and the rewarding, fulfilling feeling of collaborating on a stage musical.

NYCM: Many may not realize you have worked on about six musicals, but Spring Awakening really made you a Tony and Grammy winner in one shot. Spring Awakening won 8 Tony Awards including Best Musical, Direction and Score in 2007 – your score (which also won the Best Musical Show Grammy in 2008 which you produced). When did the conversation come about to revive a relatively new musical again for 2016?

Duncan Sheik: It all happened very quickly. This production that opened in downtown LA, like on skid row a year ago just had a kind of magic about it and I knew it from the minute I walked in the room that there was something really really powerful about this version of the show. Deaf and hearing impaired actors. Deaf West does this thing where you can be a hearing or deaf person and even if you don’t hear every note you kind of experience the show in your own way. The sign language becomes its own choreography. The band is really great too, and I’ve seen a lot of productions. The production moved to Beverly Hills and then there was discussion from producers to bring it to Broadway. For me personally, it’s so much cooler to have a revival that has such a strong point of view. It’s essentially the same show, the score. But the layer of emotional intensity from this collection of actors and how this idea relates to the deafness towards their children. There are deaf performers in the show, including Marlee Matlin. It’s her Broadway debut. Half-a-dozen hearing impaired young kids are in the show. When they’re on stage and their characters sings, there’s a doppleganger who voices their character for them. There are more guitars, there’s a harpist. It’s actually a really great band in that way. The show Big River was done in 2003 by Deaf West and won a Tony for Best Revival. There has been a great history of this company bringing shows to Broadway.

NYCM: How exciting is it to you to be a part of a new chapter for this show, with the potential of a whole new generation latching on? 

DS: It’s amazing, it’s just the gift that keeps on giving. It’s really cool that when it first came out you had 16, 17, 18-year-old kids coming to it, and the kids who couldn’t see it ’cause they were 11, but they knew the score really. Well maybe they have the record in their house and now they can come see the show without getting in trouble with their parents.

NYCM: Spring Awakening was a huge platform for relatively unknown talents like Lea Michele, Jonathan Groff, John Gallagher Jr., who have now gone off to be superstars of film, television, theater and beyond. At the time, did you know these young talents would rise to the top?

DS: Yeah, I mean I think for example I knew Lauren Pritchard would have a recording career. I think she’s got a new record coming out. I knew Skylar Astin was going to have a huge career ahead of him. Jon and John was a no-brainer, what’s awesome is they are both really nice guys. Lea, I feel like everyone knew that Lea was going to go extremely far by hook or by crook. That’s someone that was going to be a force of nature in the entertainment business, since she was age of 6.

NYCM: American Psycho is your next project, coming in the spring. The 90s film was a cult classic, it’s definitely a bit of a genre piece. Adapting this story to music has got to be a whole lot of fun. Over the years theater-goers have seen popular darker musicals like Jekyll & HydeInto The WoodsPhantom of the Opera and Sweeney Todd. What can you say about the mood of the music, the tempo or the range of music that Broadway fans can expect? 

DS: It’s pretty much an all electronic music musical. A lot of the music references in the book was late 80s electronic or dance-pop music. I am more of an Anglophile, so I did a little bit more of the English side of electronic dance music. It’s the music that those bankers might have been listening to going out to MK or The Tunnel, the nightclubs during that era. I was a little younger at the time but I was attempting to hang out at those places. I had a very clear vision for what the score should sound like. It’s very different from all the musicals you mentioned, in that it’s not traditional musical theater music. There are some connections to Sweeney Todd, but there are also points of connection to Kubrick movies, it’s very Eyes Wide Shut in a way. The tone is very kind of black humor and cultural stigma about these materialistic, completely shallow people. There’s a critique of capitalism.

NYCM: This is a musicians-in-theater trend question. Sara Bareilles is working on a newly-announced adaptation of the film Waitress. Gloria and Emilio Estefan have a new show On Your Feet! Carole King has Beautiful. There’s Jersey BoysMamma Mia!, Kinky Boots. The list goes on, and in that list I’m talking the music of The Four Seasons, Abba, Cyndi Lauper and more. It’s one thing to be performer singing someone else’s song, but to be able to write an entire score is a whole other talent. Since a musical score is not entirely your own project to sort of indulge in or escape into, is it more challenging to write a stage score? 

DS: You’re right that it is a much much more collaborative process. If you’re working with a book writer and a director and a choreographer and producers, all of whom are going to have input and opinions about how the music should function and even what it’s supposed to sound like and whether it’s working or not. It’s much more of a team effort, and I had to learn that the hard way; there were definitely some uncomfortable moments the first time around with Spring Awakening. I think I have matured though hopefully and I also understand if you are able to collaborate well with many different people the outcome can be so much better than the sum of the opinions so to speak. Hopefully you’re working with really smart people who have the aesthetic and ability to tell a story – with the right spirit it makes the music a lot better. But that is hard to do. There are famously a lot of pop musicians who have tried to write musicals who have not always been successful. I think I sort of got lucky in that I had the right people around me. It’s a bloody hard thing to do.

(Photo Credit: Shervin Lainez)