Duncan Sheik hit the Top 20 in 1996 with “Barely Breathing,” a moody, catchy song from his homonymous debut album. After that, his profile faded. But the 39-year-old Brown University grad came back strong in 2006, albeit in a different guise and for a different audience, as he won two Tony Awards for the hip, hot musical Spring Awakening (Best Original Score and Best Orchestration). The show, which also won the Tony for Best Musical, comes to the Colonial Theatre on April 28 and runs through May 24. Sheik has two more musicals in the works: The Nightingale, which is based on the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, and Whisper House, which, based on Sheik’s latest CD, is a ghost story set in a Maine lighthouse. Sporting a book by Kyle Jarrow, the latter should open on the West Coast next January.
People first knew you as a brooding singer-songwriter. On your MySpace page, your stated influences include Nick Drake, Jeff Buckley, The Smiths, and Björk. Did something happen to move you in a different direction?
You mean into theater? It was a combination of things. I met [lyricist/playwright] Steven Sater in early 1999 through Buddhist circles in New York City. We had a conversation about our respective frustrations and dissatisfactions with the mediums in which we were working. That was the moment when the music business was still bubblegum pop, and I didn’t feel any kinship. So the idea to do something in a different medium was really appealing. At first blush, musical theater seemed like the worst idea of all ideas. But when we talked about how the music might function in the show, I was really up front about what, stylistically and æsthetically, the music would sound like. We were reimagining what musical theater would look like and sound like.
What didn’t you like about musicals?
I’ll try and be diplomatic. This whole idea of turning text into music just for the sake of having music was always anathema to me. For me, songs should be songs. For somebody who grew up going to rock concerts and then experiencing music in film or TV, I feel the songs should have almost an underscore quality. There can be ambiguity, and the song can exist in the context of the narrative and outside the context of the narrative. These were criteria that was important to us. And I had a stylistic thing about how the singers performed the songs. My hope — and I didn’t always win this argument — was that there wouldn’t be this overly emotional style of singing.
There is some of that in Spring Awakening.
Yeah, musical-theater kids will be musical-theater kids. We kind of struck a nice balance of kids who were from that world and kids who weren’t. I did what I could to encourage them to imagine they were Björk or Fiona Apple and not Ethel Merman.
Spring Awakening changed your life in a big way.
After my first record came out, I made four other albums, and I kept feeling they were not reaching the audience that I was hoping they would reach. There were moments where I felt: can I continue doing this over and over again? It felt like this Sisyphean task. And then when Spring Awakening happened, it was such a relief. Whether people liked it or not, it was part of the cultural argument. There was something that people could discuss, get angry about, get excited about. That’s huge. It also it helped me realize I really do enjoy writing music that exists alongside or within a narrative.
Frank Wedekind wrote Spring Awakening in 1891 and set it in Germany in that time period.
It was written as a piece of contemporary theater, a critique of bourgeois, repressed Lutheran morality.
This production keeps that play’s setting, but songs like “The Bitch of Living” are, of course, contemporary. There’s a lot to do with adult repression and frustrated teen sexuality. Teen angst: a bitch in 1891, a bitch in 2009.
[Laughs] That’s exactly the impetus for doing it today. The quality of the emotion remains the same even though they’re dressed up in different ways.
The play is both edgy and mainstream.
There are things in there that are racy, and it’s nice to push people’s buttons. But if you watch MTV at 4:30 in the afternoon, it’s way more prurient than Spring Awakening. Sexuality is a huge component of the human condition. You can treat it in an elegant way, in a painful way. I think [director] Michael Meyer did a very good job of rendering that aspect and made it, frankly, entertaining. People say a lot about how dark and depressing Spring Awakening is — and there is a tragic aspect to it — but there’s also so much that’s funny and joyful.
Editor's Note: In a previous version of this article, the play Spring Awakening was said to be starting its run at the Colonial Theatre beginning this Friday, April 24. The correct start date is April 28, and runs until May 24. The correction has been made above.