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Spring Awakening composer Duncan Sheik: ‘I wanted to write a score you would have on your iPod’

Duncan Sheik. Photo: Shervin Lainez

As the recording industry has changed beyond recognition over the last decade or so, pop performers have had to go on the road far more than before. Whereas touring used to be to promote an album, it is now an end in itself. And from performing live, it is increasingly just a short hop to those live performances where you don’t have to actually show up – namely, penning the scores for musicals. One performer, Sara Bareilles, has just stepped into her own show Waitress on Broadway.

Elton John is the composer of the world’s most successful single entertainment of all time: the stage version of The Lion King has now outgrossed anything else in any medium in history. He’s since gone on to write scores for the stage for Billy Elliot (a hit, now touring the UK again), Aida (not yet seen in London) and the Broadway flop Lestat.

While jukebox shows based on old pop repertoires have often proved popular, writing an original score sometimes proves more challenging: Phil Collins (Tarzan), Paul Simon (The Capeman), U2’s Bono and the Edge (Spiderman – Turn Off the Dark), Tori Amos (The Light Princess), Damon Albarn (Wonder.land) have all come unstuck in the process.

So a successful crossover is by no means guaranteed. But one singer-songwriter who has made it work is Duncan Sheik, who in 1996 made his recording debut with an album that topped the charts and included a Grammy-nominated single, Barely Breathing – it remained on the Billboard Hot 100 single charts for 55 consecutive weeks. A decade later, his debut musical, Spring Awakening, went on to Tony-winning success, earning him Tonys for best original score and best orchestration.

He looks at the transition he’s made thoughtfully: “After the mid-1950s, the pop music world and the musical theatre world really did diverge – stylistically, they became something for two different audiences. I did not feel that I was part of the musical theatre one as a 20-something; it was not something I was interested in. But that was also where I saw an opportunity: is there a way to create a score that wouldn’t be out of place on someone’s iPod?”

Chatting in the bar of the Other Palace Theatre, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s attempt to create a theatre dedicated to workshopping and showcasing new musical theatre, Sheik (a beneficiary of an annual development programme at Vasser College in Arlington, New York) couldn’t be happier that this venture exists here. “I’m very grateful to Andrew for doing this. I’m a big believer in the development process. There was a moment when Roundabout Theatre Company were going to do Spring Awakening in 2003, but I think that had we done it then it would not have been a success. It wasn’t ready. It took nearly six years to get it to the place when it was.”

It was created out of a violent clash between two styles: the period of Frank Wedekind’s classic drama was honoured, but the young cast would launch out of that setting into vibrant contemporary rock songs with such titles as The Bitch of Living and Totally Fucked. The show ran for nearly three years on Broadway, but when it came to London in 2009, it lasted less than three months, despite winning that year’s Olivier for best musical. His next musical was a stage version of Bret Easton Ellis’ novel American Psycho that premiered at London’s Almeida in 2013. The production that starred Matt Smith in the title role of Patrick Bateman, the American yuppie banker and serial murderer.


Duncan Sheik: top tips for aspiring composers

1. Find a unique voice for yourself. It’s awesome to understand how Stephen Sondheim or Lin-Manuel Miranda writes. It’s great to be able to unpack that and understand what they’re doing, but you have to find your own voice and be distinctive.
2. Secondly, don’t write for other people. It has to move you, and if it doesn’t, no one will care. And if it’s exciting to you, that means there’s something good there.
3. Don’t go on too long.

When he was approached by an American producer who had secured the rights to adapt American Psycho, Sheik says he was initially terrified, but then he re-read it. “I’d not read it since college, and enjoyed it much more as a 40-year-old than a 21-year-old. I could see the prescience of it in a wonderful way.” He’s referring to its lead character’s obsession with food and clothing and the way he looked. But that prescience has only increased now. Talking of the show’s short-lived Broadway debut last year – where it opened in the same season as Hamilton – Sheik says: “I think we’d be a bigger part of the conversation if we were on now instead of last year. Not that we’d have necessarily won more awards, but because American Psycho is a critique of late-capitalism and the Trumpian ethos.” He reveals that the day before we met he’d lunched with director Rupert Goold: “We’re hatching plans to bring it back to London, knock on wood. It’s not dead yet.”

Sheik is now in London with the European premiere of Whisper House, which had a previous life as a concept album he recorded in 2009 and a different production in San Diego in 2010. The plot revolves around an 11-year-old boy whose father is killed in the Second World War. When his mother has a breakdown and is institutionalised, he goes to stay with his only living relative in a lighthouse in Maine. There, he becomes haunted by ghosts who sing to him and inspire him to make questionable moral judgements. “It’s a little bit of a meditation of how fear can create in us the need to do things that are probably wrong and morally off the mark,” he says.

Sheik’s musical theatre career has been about bringing things together that haven’t necessarily co-existed before. “Im trying to bring art rock and prog rock and pop music and musical theatre into some sort of amalgam. It has been my mission to see if I can pull it off.” 

We are about to find out – it opens officially at the Other Palace on April 18.

CV: Duncan Sheik

Born: 1969, Montclair, New Jersey
Training: Brown University
Landmark productions: Spring Awakening, Broadway (2006) and West End (2009); American Psycho, Almeida Theatre, London (2013) and Broadway (2016)
Awards: Tony Awards for best orchestrations and best original score (2007)
Agent: Olivia Sultan, CAA

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