‘Alice by Heart’ at Aspen’s Wheeler Opera House
“Musical theater rocks,” Duncan Sheik said at the Tony Awards in 2007, accepting the Best Original Score Award for “Spring Awakening.”
The Tony win — one of eight, including for best musical — marked the culmination of the singer-songwriter’s crossover into theater and the beginning of a new era for contemporary rock musicals. But the acclaim also came at the end of eight years of “Spring Awakening” workshops, rewrites and collaboration between Sheik and lyricist Steven Sater.
The pair’s latest musical, “Alice by Heart,” inspired by Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” has taken over the Red Brick Center for the Arts during the past two weeks for its own workshops on the way to what the creative team hopes will be another Sheik-and-Sater Broadway run.
Sheik and his team are working on the musical here through Theatre Aspen’s New Play Development Program, with a performance Saturday at the Wheeler Opera House.
“The songs sound incredible, so I’m relieved,” Sheik said last week in a studio at the Red Brick, surrounded by the tools of his trade: a laptop, keyboard, mixing board and piano.
The workshop here is the first offing for Theatre Aspen’s development program, which aims to use Aspen as an incubator for new work. Sheik and “Alice by Heart” were a natural fit for the new Theatre Aspen initiative. He workshopped “Spring Awakening,” he notes, seven times before it began its off-Broadway run in 2006. “The Nightingale,” another collaboration with Sater, also has been through seven workshops. This is the fifth for “Alice by Heart.”
“I like this process a lot,” Sheik said. “It’s also nice not to be in New York, because you’re kind of like, ‘I’m just here to do this, and there’s no distractions.”
On the second day of work in Aspen, the 12-member New York-based cast was practicing the play’s songs, in what Sheik called “music camp,” while Sheik — in a separate room — worked up electronic orchestrations to accompany them.
The cast includes performers from recent Broadway plays like “Everyday Rapture,” “Newsies” and “The Burnt Part Boys.”
“They’re an interesting mix,” Sheik said. “They’re theater-oriented, but some of their voices are more theater-y and others are more rock-ish.”
That sound — “theater-y,” “rock-ish” — hints at the game-changing style of “Spring Awakening,” which was hailed as a revelation when it hit Broadway in late 2006. On memorable songs like “The Bitch of Living” and “Mama Who Bore Me,” the play thrillingly blended contemporary music with Broadway storytelling. Along with wins at the Tonys and Grammys, the musical launched the careers of “Glee” regulars Jonathan Groff and Lea Michele while also announcing Sheik and Sater as musical theater’s latest writing team to watch.
On paper, the musical looked like a long shot for mainstream popularity: Based on a forgotten 19th-century German play, it follows a dozen adolescents through their awkward, often tragic, sexual discoveries. Puberty in Wilhem-era Germany set to rock music? Not the usual ingredients for Broadway magic. Yet, in Sheik’s and Sater’s hands, it became a universal portrait of youthful rebellion.
For “Alice by Heart,” Sheik is pushing the boundaries of Broadway again, incorporating electronic music.
“Because of the psychedelic nature of ‘Alice in Wonderland,’ there’s something great about using the technology to make these crazy sounds that are kind of otherworldly,” Sheik said. “Whereas ‘Spring Awakening’ is a guitar-based, drum-and-strings trio, and it’s pretty organic, this has an otherworldly sound to it. But it’s still contemporary rock music, for lack of a better term.”
The musical offers a meta take on the beloved story of “Alice in Wonderland,” imagining Alice as an adolescent in World War II London, going down the rabbit hole, which in this case is the London Underground, where children are seeking shelter from bombing.
The kids in the Underground become familiar characters like the Hatter and the Cheshire Cat, Sheik said.
“But we also know that some of these kids are not going to make it,” he said. “So it’s also a story about growing up and letting go of your childhood.”
Sheik says he scoffed when he was first presented with the idea of writing musical theater.
As a singer-songwriter, his credits include his 1996 self-titled debut album, its ubiquitous mega-hit “Barely Breathing” and the 2001 critical darling “Phantom Moon,” on which he collaborated for the first time with Sater.
Sheik continues to write music and tour (he played the Wheeler in 2008) and calls his singer-songwriter career his “day job.” He’s mostly finished a new record, he says, which he expects to release late this year or in early 2015 — his first release since 2011’s “Covers 80s” and his first original album since 2006.
He and Sater have been teaming since “Phantom Moon,” but it took some convincing back then to get him to work on a musical.
“I looked around at what was going on in the medium of musical theater, and there was this huge glaring hole,” he said. “Like 99 percent of music being written for musical theater had nothing to do with what the larger culture was listening to. If someone were to put a cast album on their iPod, it would sound completely other to everything else on there.”
Of course, rock musicals had broken into Broadway sporadically before — “Hair” and “Rent” among them. But the show-tune tradition of Broadway remained predominant. Sheik was inspired to change that.
“It looked like a real opportunity to bring young people who listen to contemporary music — whether it’s rock music or alternative or electronic — to bring them into this great environment where you can have narrative and lighting and costumes and choreography and all this stuff you don’t get when you’re on tour,” he said.
“Spring Awakening” is generally credited with turning the tide and giving contemporary music a permanent place on Broadway, opening the door for shows like “American Idiot” and “Next to Normal.” Naturally, that’s made Sheik want to push the envelope further.
“Sometimes I feel like rock music in theater has completely jumped the shark and I don’t want to do it anymore,” he said with a laugh.
Hence the electronic-tinged rock of “Alice by Heart” and the completely electronic soundscape for his musical adaptation of the novel “American Psycho,” which had a run in London late last year and is primed for an off-Broadway run in 2015.
“I’m trying to find ways of pushing things forward stylistically so that as an audience member you walk in there and sonically and stylistically the music is as cool and interesting and progressive as the other elements of the show,” he said.
Sheik’s collaboration with Sater is mostly a long-distance relationship, he notes, dispelling nostalgic notions of the pair working side-by-side like the legendary Broadway teams of Rodgers and Hammerstein or Gilbert and Sullivan.
“People have a conception of musical-theater writing teams sitting around the piano and saying, ‘Oh, let’s try this out,’” he said. “But he’s usually in L.A., and I’m usually in New York, and he sends me things electronically, and I record them and send it back to him. We stay out of each other’s hair.”
Sheik and Sater started writing “Alice by Heart” in 2007. They finished a first-draft version of the script and score in 2010 and workshopped it in Los Angeles with high school students. (Two of the Aspen cast members — including Molly Gordon, who plays Alice — were also part of the cast in the Los Angeles workshop.)
Then the National Theatre in London commissioned them to create an hourlong version. They handed that rendition over to the National, which has since sponsored more than 30 performances of it in the U.K.
Sheik came to Aspen to perfect a draft of a full-length 90-minute version of the play. Directing the musical is Lear deBessonet, of New York’s Public Theater.
“In a way this is our first date, with Lear, Steven and myself, to see what becomes of that collaboration and to move forward with the piece,” Sheik said.
Saturday at the Wheeler, their cast will give Aspen a glimpse of what they’ve been working on at the Red Brick. It won’t be a full production of “Alice by Heart” but will include whole songs and scenes. Both Sheik and Theatre Aspen creative director Paige Price stress that it’s a work in progress. But for theater enthusiasts and fans of Sheik, it offers a rare glimpse into the creative process, including a talk-back with the cast and crew afterward.
“It’s like, ‘You guys can come see what we’re up to, and hopefully it’s interesting to you,’” Sheik said. “But I’m trying to disabuse people of the notion that they’re going to come see a production.”
Showing a work in progress can be both helpful and humbling, Sheik says. He recalls sitting in the back of the theater during the audience talk-back after a workshop of “The Nightingale” in La Jolla, California, and listening to an audience member describe how much she loved the show’s sets, story and acting but conclude that Sheik’s music was “horrible” and needed work.
“It was really funny,” he said with a laugh.
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