Duncan Sheik " awakening the musical theater world | AspenTimes.com
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Duncan Sheik " awakening the musical theater world

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Special to the Daily
ALL |

ASPEN ” As a child, growing up mostly in South Carolina, Duncan Sheik made theater a big part of his life. He sang in musicals, acted in straight plays. But upon graduating from Brown University ” where he majored in semiotics, the study of signs and symbols, and also took courses in modern culture and media ” Sheik distanced himself from theater. Embarking for Los Angeles in 1993, he was determined to pursue a record deal, a career option that meant putting musicals and drama aside. “Musical theater wasn’t in my consciousness for a long time,” he said.

Exactly why pop music and musical theater would be mutually exclusive pursuits ” why they would exist practically in separate universes ” was also not on Sheik’s mind at the time. But someone should have been considering it. Musicals had become stodgy and formulaic, and consequently abandoned, to a large extent, by the youth audience. Pop and rock, on the other hand, were as attractive as ever to young listeners. Moreover, with the Internet beginning its rise, far-flung forms of music were becoming more accessible, and fans were getting accustomed to having ear-expanding experiences. On the most basic level, music and music theater have an obvious fundamental connection.

Sheik got his record deal, with the venerable Atlantic Records, and the way his career launched, its little wonder he put theater in the outermost recesses of his brain. The 1996 self-titled debut, with the catchy hit single “Barely Breathing,” earned a Grammy nomination, and put the handsome, smart singer-songwriter on TV, on the Billboard charts, in magazine spreads.

But Sheik was intent more on artistic growth than in duplicating the sound and success of that first album. Subsequent albums, beginning with “Humming,” the 1998 follow-up to “Duncan Sheik,” were smarter and more sophisticated, often featuring contributions from the London Session Orchestra. Critics and other insiders continued to adore Sheik; his wonderful 2001 album “Phantom Moon” was released on the Nonesuch label, an Atlantic affiliate that has been home to such high-minded artists as Philip Glass, Wilco, David Byrne and the Kronos Quartet. But Sheik’s commercial prospects predictably slid as he became creatively ambitious.

“When you go from selling, like, 700,000 copies to selling 100,000 copies and you’re playing in venues of maybe five or six hundred people if you’re lucky, how do you even make ends meet? It was like the reality came down hard,” Sheik laments of that time in his recent, official biography.

A return to musical theater was not contemplated as a way to salvage his career, or to make a living. But in 1999, Sheik, a practicing Buddhist, met Steve Sater at a Buddhist organization in New York City. Sater asked Sheik if he would write a song for a play he has been writing; Sheik took the bait, and eventually found himself inundated with lyrics from his new writing partner. “Phantom Moon” turned out to be a full collaboration between the two Sheik composing and Sater providing lyrics.

During the process of creating “Phantom Moon,” Sater gave his partner a copy of “Spring Awakening,” a German play from the late 19th century whose content ” teenage sex, suicide, criticism of the church ” made it controversial on both sides of the Atlantic. This was not merely recommended reading; Sater floated the idea that he and Sheik put songs to the play and produce a musical theater piece. Sheik resisted ” after all, he wrote songs meant to be heard on CDs and radio and in concert, not in the theater. But when Sater proposed doing that their “Spring Awakening” didn’t need to alter the approach they were already taking, Sheik began thinking about theater in a different light.

“At the beginning of the process, I thought, There’s a huge gaping hole here,” said Sheik, from his home in New York City’s Tribeca neighborhood. “There’s musical theater, which has a great history ” narrative, costumes, scenery. And what was glaringly missing was, none of that music made sense to a 20-, 30-year-old alternative music-listening audience. Which is most of the people who consume culture. To me, it was almost too obvious of a move: Why don’t we write songs that people would go to Tower Records to buy? I made the decision that it not be stylistically different from other things I was doing. I wanted to make it as relevant as possible to a contemporary pop audience.”

Broadway being perhaps the most risk-averse artistic medium there is, “Spring Awakening” would be some six years in the making. But when it finally arrived ” first in various workshop settings, then in an off-Broadway run, and finally, in December of 2006, at Broadway’s Eugene O’Neill Theatre ” it was a bigger success than, say, Tower Records (which curtailed its U.S. retail operations a few weeks after “Spring Awakening” hit Broadway). The reviews were not just almost unanimously positive, but hailed the work as something of a savior and revolutionary. “Broadway, with its often puerile sophistication and its sterile romanticism, may never be the same again,” wrote New York Times critic Charles Isherwood. When the Tony Awards were handed out last spring, “Spring Awakening” took eight, including those for best musical and best score.

The impact of that kind of landmark achievement is both enormous, and still uncertain. No other musical like “Spring Awakening” ” built around genuine rock songs that make virtually no concessions to musical theater history ” has arrived on Broadway yet. But Sheik is feeling stirrings descending from the top of the rock realm.

“It’s very flattering,” he said. “I can’t even count on one hand ” between U2 and Aimee Mann and Green Day and the Decemberists and Rufus Wainwright, there are a dozen projects in development among my contemporaries who are tip-toeing into the theater. I’m not taking credit. I was lucky. I was the first.” The modest Sheik admits to having stolen several significant ideas for “Spring Awakening” from “Dancer in the Dark,” the musical film starring pop singer Björk.

The team of Sheik and Sater may make it onto the stage for a second time before any of the aforementioned get there at all. For four years, the two have been working on “Nero (Another Golden Rome),” which Sheik has described as a play with songs. The two are also developing “The Nightingale,” based on the Hans Christian Anderson story; that one is intended as a musical, though Sheik envisions it as an off-Broadway piece.

Sheik has obviously had much occasion to reflect on the future of the intersection of contemporary pop music and musical theater. And he sees no reason why it cannot succeed, or at least no less chance for success than musicals about Jews in a Russian shtetl, or the founding of a state on the American plains.

“They were separate worlds ” but they didn’t need to be,” he said of rock and musical theater. “Our mission statement was: ‘Why couldn’t these two worlds coexist?’ It shouldn’t work ” but somehow it did.

“But musical theater shouldn’t work. It’s doomed to failure. Someone’s onstage, and then they start singing ” that makes people uncomfortable in our contemporary world. It’s a miracle that that can work.”

Looking back a decade-plus, Sheik sees the commercial success of his first record as a fluke. “Top 40 ” that was never where I expected to be,” he said. “I wasn’t with the other people in there. I was into 20th century classical, bossa nova from the ’60s, art-rock. Being on the radio set up a number of false expectations, within the record company and within myself. I fooled myself. It took a while to realize the artists I respected were never on the radio. So that was a foolish goal.”

The triumph of “Spring Awakening” has been a redemption on multiple levels. It has been financially rewarding, and it has validated Sheik’s artistic approach to music. Now, Sheik is saddled with the dilemma of which creative road to run down. The answer seems to be several of them. He has a band, the I Love You, with singer-songwriter David Poe; a debut record is all but finished. Sheik wants to do a recording covering songs of English art-rock bands from the ’80s.

“Depeche Mode, New Order, Tears for Fears ” stuff that was important to me as an adolescent, with shiny, aesthetic production,” he said. “That was the new romantic music, with a somber, tragic side to it. But I want to do acoustic versions of those things. I’m going to try to make them more miserable.”

Put largely on hold has been touring. Sheik estimates he’s played just 30 gigs over the last year. He appears at the Wheeler Opera House on Saturday, Feb. 9, where he performs with his band, pianist Holly Brook, and a string quartet. David Poe opens the show, and will also join Sheik in his set. The material will span the solo albums, the more spare songs from “Spring Awakening,” and more.

Mostly, Sheik is looking forward to getting his music into the theater again. But he’s cautious about the prospects. Whether “Spring Awakening” knocked down the walls between pop and theater, or if it just gave an audience a chance to stand on that wall and peer down at the other side for a moment is unclear.

“I’ve realized, writing music for the theater is the most interesting for me to do,” said Sheik. “I’ve now set myself up for another decade of disappointment. But the success of ‘Spring Awakening’ ” that means I don’t have to worry how I could get the money to do string arrangements on the next record.”

stewart@aspentimes.com


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