Last week I had the distinct pleasure of speaking to Tony Award-winning SPRING AWAKENING songwriter Duncan Sheik all about his staggering spate of upcoming stage projects - the musical stage adaptation of the controversial Bret Easton Ellis bestseller AMERICAN PSYCHO, as well as his Steven Sater collaborations on THE NIGHTENGALE, WHISPER HOUSE, MR. CHESS and ALICE included - in addition to all about his upcoming concert appearance on November 23 at the Gramercy Theatre. Additionally, the Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter also expounded upon his career thus far and we took a look back at some of his favorite scores and composers, as well as the individuals to have the most impact on him and how that has played out in both his theatre and recording career. Plus, in today's summation of our exhaustive discussion, Sheik also shares exciting exclusive news on the development of the forthcoming film adaptation of SPRING AWAKENING, directed by McG, to potentially begin filming next summer if all goes as planned, as well as opens up with his feelings on GLEE's recent homage to his hit 90s single "Barely Breathing" and his original SPRING AWAKENING leads Lea Michele and Jonathan Groff, as well as reveals news about his upcoming solo album and the many, many stage projects he currently has in development. All of that and much, much more!
Also, more information about Duncan Sheik live at the Gramercy Theatre in NYC on November 23 is available here.
You Are What You Write
PC: The impact of SPRING AWAKENING is something being felt on Broadway to this day. Are you particularly thrilled with the effect that that show has had on the kids coming up?
DS: Oh, yeah. I mean, it was obviously a really thrilling time for all of us, coming after a tough and long development process, but when it landed and did its thing it certainly made it all worth it.
PC: Did you ever have it in the back of your mind to explore theatre in your music?
DS: You see, I was someone who went to see quite a lot of theatre, but it was mostly straight plays - not so many musicals. I mean, I had done musical theatre as a kid, when I was ten, eleven, twelve, in Hilton Head, South Carolina, where I grew up. I was kind of disconnected from the musical theatre world from the ages of 12 to 29, so, the short answer is: no, I didn't think this was ever going to happen. [Laughs.]
PC: An unexpected path.
DS: Yeah, but, you know, I did sort of have a feeling when I was first talking to Steven Sater about this SPRING AWAKENING project that there might be an interesting way to score a piece of theatre where the music was stylistically closer to what the wider culture-at-large was listening to.
PC: Something contemporary.
PC: Your sophomore album, HUMMING, was pretty risky and quite unexpected. Did you learn from that experience?
DS: Oh, yeah - I mean, keeping with that tradition, though, with the exception of "Barely Breathing", my first album is pretty arty, too.
PC: It is.
DS: I mean, I do all these songs in mostly falsetto with these big string arrangements and woodwind orchestrations and it's not straight ahead, typical 90s radio fare by any stretch. So, I didn't feel I was doing anything that totally different on my second album than the first, but I guess a lot of other people do. [Laughs.]
PC: "A Body Goes Down" is a masterpiece. That was written for Jeff Buckley, yes?
DS: Wow - thanks for that, man. Yes, it is for him - absolutely.
PC: So, you met Steven right after the release of that album, yes?
DS: Right. Steven and I met in 1999. We very quickly started working together - I set one of the song lyrics in one of his plays to music and we started talking about SPRING AWAKENING shortly thereafter; it seemed like the next logical thing. The saga began.
PC: PHANTOM MOON was a project you worked on with him, as well, which was an album project that followed soon after HUMMING.
DS: Well, how PHANTOM MOON started was that I had set a lyric of his to music, which was a song called "The Boat On The Sea" which didn't even land on PHANTOM MOON ultimately. So, Steven started faxing me lyrics that were related to the play that was called UMBRAGE, but is now called MR. CHESS - they were these song lyrics that were kind of related to the play and out of those thirty or so lyrics there were eight or nine that ended up on PHANTOM MOON. Then, the last three songs on PHANTOM MOON are from another play of Steven's called LUNAR CHILDREN. I mean, we're getting very obscurest now, but I want to get the right information out there about it all!
PC: This is the place to do that if there ever was any, Duncan.
DS: Good! [Laughs.] So, my point is, I didn't really think of PHANTOM MOON as a concept album just because there really wasn't so much of a narrative connection between these songs, even though a lot of them were inspired by the same source material. It was almost like, these were songs that happened as underscore in a movie version of the thing rather than musical theatre songs that were going to musically dramatize a play.
PC: It was commentary on the piece ala the nightclub numbers in CABARET or most of the songs in COMPANY, then, in a way.
DS: Exactly. Exactly.
PC: "Sad Stephen's Song" is a beautiful piece. Did that lyric come first? I assume many of them do when you work with Steven since he is a poet, yes?
DS: Yes. I would say that ninety-nine percent of the time when I am writing with Steven the lyric comes first and then I will set it to music - which, in terms of writing my own songs, is exactly the opposite. It's usually the other way around for me when I write music for myself - I will write the music and then the lyrics will either happen or they will not happen… [Laughs.]
PC: It must be inspiring in a way to have a collaborator, then.
DS: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah - it's huge; it's huge. And, frankly, it allows me to write a lot more music - in some ways it is the lyrical aspect of it that can be the most painstaking and time-consuming for me, so it frees me of that responsibility.
PC: Are you two considering pursuing MR. CHESS in the future?
DS: Yeah - we've workshopped it three or four times in the last couple of years, with Peter Askin. Steven and I would actively love to see it happen.
PC: What is MR. CHESS about?
DS: It's an incredibly cool two-hander. It's sort of like a late-80s MIDNIGHT COWBOY - it's really beautiful and hilariously funny and a great opportunity for two great actors to really take you on this wild ride. We really do hope to do it someday.
PC: Who do you see as the two to take it on ultimately in the lead roles?
DS: Well, we've had lots and lots of conversations, obviously, about who we want these two actors to be, but we've had some really good people do it in the workshops.
PC: Have you considered Jonathan Groff for either role?
DS: I think actually Jonathan could be really interesting in one of the roles. I think the Smith character is somebody who is very beaten-down - even though he is sort of handsome and this wannabe musician, he is a bit of a hustler and a little edgy and Jonathan is just so pure, it would be kind of a change-up to see him do something like that, I think! [Laughs.]
PC: Without a doubt.
DS: We'll have to see what happens - it could work. Michael Esper did the last reading as Smith and he did a really awesome job. I don't know who I see for the other role yet, but there have been a lot of great actors in that role in the workshops. [Pause.] I don't want to play favorites!
PC: Nor should you. SPRING AWAKENING had the two biggest crossover breakout stars since WICKED, needless to say - Lea Michele and Jonathan Groff.
DS: You know, part of me feels like I saw that coming a million years ago from miles away - especially in Lea's case because she is so focused and ambitious and intense. She really wanted to make it happen and she did. And, again, Jonathan Groff is such a lovely, sweet human being, so I can only be happy for all his success, too.
PC: GLEE recently featured your 90s hit "Barely Breathing" - did you catch the performance?
DS: I did, actually.
PC: What did you think of Cory Monteith and Darren Criss's interpretation of it?
DS: I think they actually did a really good job with it. I had one minor complaint, which was that they had a kind of unnecessary R&B melisma before the final chorus, but otherwise I thought it was pretty great. [Laughs.]
PC: When Jonathan Groff did this column, we discussed the possibility of GLEE taking on SPRING AWAKENING someday. Is that something you would enjoy finally seeing come to fruition?
DS: Well, I think this is a conversation that has actually taken place - obviously, Ryan Murphy was a big fan of SPRING AWAKENING and obviously that's part of why he knew about Lea and Jonathan, but I don't know for sure; for some reason it hasn't happened yet, mysteriously. I would be psyched to see it, though.
PC: Your score for A HOME AT THE END OF THE WORLD is superb, as is that film's use of some classic Laura Nyro material.
DS: Oh, thank you - that's so nice.
PC: Are you a fan of her work yourself? She is so underrated - a total genius.
DS: Oh, totally underrated and, yes, you're right, totally a genius. I remember growing up in the 70s and being a young kid and her stuff was probably a little over my head or a little too sophisticated for me when it first came out, but, of course, I knew that music, and, then, in talking to Michael Mayer about the score for the film it was something that he wanted to include - he wanted her music to be a kind of touchstone.
PC: It's so elegantly interwoven - "Desiree" especially.
DS: Oh, yeah. And, the two songs that Steven [Sater] and I wrote for that movie are certainly informed by her whole thing, as well.
PC: You took her as inspiration.
DS: Yeah, yeah - like I said, with me it's something instinctual; when I hear it, I know it. My canon starts a little bit after her and I'm really an Anglophile, mostly. To be honest, it's sort of trickier for me to talk about any artists in particular before 1981. [Laughs.]
PC: Who are your formative influences, would you say?
DS: The big touchstones for me are David Sylvian, who was the lead singer of Japan, and Mark Hollis, who was the lead singer of Talk Talk. You know, I've just recently released this COVERS 80s remix album and it's all there - the Smiths to Depeche Mode to New Order to Tears For Fears; really, a lot of these people I continue to listen to and also I continue to listen to these records. They're just really fantastic records. They hold up.
DS: They're really great rock artifacts that stand the test of time.
PC: And all of those influences are playing heavily into your score for AMERICAN PSYCHO.
DS: [Laughs.] Absolutely! Oh, absolutely…
PC: Tell me everything.
DS: Well, my concept for that score is for the band to be completely electronic - you know, use synthesizers and drum machines and maybe even laptops. So, yeah, it's very tricky - with that score, if it happens how I want it to happen, the pit band will be like Depeche Mode.
PC: So, really, WHITE LIMOUSINE and its DVD-rom component and now COVERS 80s were all building to the AMERICAN PSYCHO musical.
DS: Exactly. You see, I was working on these things concurrently and both of these projects were a way for me to really kind of explore all of the incredibly varied kinds of electronic dance music that is out there in the world now and also the history of dance music and where it came from. So, lately, I have been really deep into the obscure YouTube videos of all the bands and artists that kind of created this specific genre of music.
PC: One of the top songwriters of that era was also the theatrical rock songwriter Jim Steinman. Were you a fan?
DS: Oh, yeah, I remember having the BAT OUT OF HELL album growing up - let me see, when did that come out, '78?
PC: You know your stuff!
DS: Yeah! Again, a little before my cut-off of '81. Unfortunately, I just saw Meat Loaf singing at one of those Romney events and it was just hilariously bad. [Laughs.]
PC: You're not alone in thinking that.
DS: Not to gloat, but… [Big Laugh.] when you show up at one of those things like that, I guess you get what you pay for.
PC: Bret Easton Ellis has also caused a bit of a stir in pop culture recently with his outrageous Twitter comments. Are you a fan of his novels in general? Patrick Bateman appears in a few of his different works, not just AMERICAN PSYCHO, of course.
DS: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah - I know, he's like a character in RULES OF ATTRACTION and everything, too. I remember reading LESS THAN ZERO when it came out and I must have been sixteen - I think it was my second year at Andover - and I just loved that book so much. And, then, when I was at Brown, AMERICAN PSYCHO came out and there was such a huge controversy around it.
PC: It was a huge deal at the time.
DS: It was. And, I remember that I read the book and I actually really didn't like it too much because, now that I think about it, it probably hit a little too close to home. [Laughs.]
PC: It was the 80s, after all…
DS: Well, I mean, some of the characters were a lot like some of my friends at Brown!
PC: I bet.
DS: It was scary! Yeah, so, it really kind of took me having a second reading of that book twenty years later to make me totally get into it and enjoy it and love it for what it is - which is this sort of amazingly prescient document about materialism and solipsism and soullessness.
PC: Time offers perspective. Will you be employing some camp into the playing of it all? It's especially difficult to avoid given the trendy fashions of that era even if done appropriately.
DS: Oh, yeah - sure. Again, that's probably a little more Roberto Aguirre-Sarcasa's department rather than mine, but, certainly, there is some of that. There are some songs that are really intense and I guess earnest, for lack of a better word, and, also, there are things that are meant to be very funny. I mean, I don't know if I am so good at doing camp, but I will certainly do my best. [Laughs.]
PC: Will you do the rat scene?
DS: You mean…
PC: The scene where he sews a live rat into a woman?
DS: [Laughs.] Oh, my God - I have to say that that is something that is in the director's hands at this point. I can't make that determination myself - and I'm glad that I don't have to.
PC: If you can make songs with titles unlikely as "The Song Of Purple Summer" and "The Bitch Of Living" into catchy Broadway anthems…
DS: It's my range - it's just my range, Pat! [Laughs.]
PC: Will there be some source music employed in the AMERICAN PSYCHO score, as originally reported?
PC: Phil Collins in particular is such an integral part of the narrative of the novel and film.
DS: Absolutely. We are definitely considering using some source songs - definitely some Phil Collins; definitely some Huey Lewis & The News; possibly something from New Order or Howard Jones; there are a few other things we are tossing around, too.
PC: How intriguing.
DS: Another thing about it, though, is "Can we get the rights to use them?" and some of these people may be happier about their songs being used than others, but we haven't figured that all out yet. I am hoping - I am crossing my fingers - that both Phil and Huey would think it would be really awesome to have their songs be a part of this show.
PC: Both have had their hands in Broadway shows in the last few years themselves - Collins with TARZAN and Lewis in CHICAGO.
DS: That's right. That's right. I am hoping that they will be cool about it.
PC: What was the reception to the most recent workshop production?
DS: Well, we had a workshop of the two acts a little while ago and Ben Walker was our Patrick Bateman and he was just fantastic.
PC: What an unbelievably talented guy!
DS: Oh, yeah! He was really, really good. My sister was in it, too, so that was cool to get to work with her for the first time professionally.
PC: What role did she play, the socialite friend?
DS: No, actually - she played one of the prostitutes. [Laughs.]
PC: No way!
DS: Yeah, she did! So much for my brotherly protection! [Laughs.] But, you know… it's showbiz!
PC: It is. So there are scenes set in the office, as well? It is somewhat realism-based?
DS: Absolutely. You know, it's definitely an adaptation of the book, and, as with any adaptation, there are some differences, but I think that we are hewing fairly close to the story that the book tells with the musical version.
PC: You are doing both music and lyrics for this, correct?
PC: So, can we expect pretty edgy lyrical content?
DS: Well, I think that saying "F*ck" in AMERICAN PSYCHO is about the least offensive thing that we will be doing, so… [Laughs.]
PC: It's not a major concern that it will be too rough, then.
DS: No, I'm not too worried about it - in fact, there are some lyrics that go way beyond "Totally F*cked", trust me; there's this song called "Hard Bodies"…
PC: From the man who wrote the wildest Broadway show of the new millenium...
DS: Well, Steven gets most of the credit for "Totally F*cked", but I did have a hand in it, you know! [Laughs.]
PC: So, what's the next step for AMERICAN PSYCHO now?
DS: Well, we expect to do it at The Almeida Theatre in London a year from now and so there will probably be another workshop before that production kicks in. So, as it stands, we are going to open it in a really fantastic theater over there with Rupert directing and I just can't wait to get down to work, back into it.
PC: What song are you currently looking forward to seeing with an audience the most?
DS: Well, right now, we are at that point in the process where different songs might get moved to different places, so I am not so sure which song is going to happen where in the show, but I can tell you that there is a song called "You Are What You Wear" that could be really fun - it's set in Barney's; just name-dropping every cool, hip clothing designer whose clothes that I wished I could have afforded to buy when I was eighteen. [Laughs.] It was a lot of fun to write that.
PC: So, casting is still up in the air, then?
DS: Oh, Ben was so fantastic, as was the rest of the cast from the workshop. I think that at the Almeida we will use mostly Brits, though, when we do it over there next year. We'll see.
PC: The book is surrealistic in many places and the film takes it even step further with the twist ending showing it as all having been a dream/nightmare, more or less. What direction are you taking with all that?
DS: Right. We've had many conversations about that at this point and we're still deciding how we are going to end it, but I think that, in terms of the tone of the piece… look, it's not going to be THE WEDDING SINGER! [Laughs.]
PC: Decidedly not!
DS: It's just not an evening of light entertainment. But, it is really funny at times, I can tell you that - of course, it needs to be; it is satire, on some level.
DS: There's another level to it, too, though - a sort of really intense indictment of a certain way of thinking about what it is to be a human being and what it is to be a human being living in the period of late capitalism. [Pause. Sighs.] So, there it is.
PC: It's going to be something incredibly exciting.
DS: Yeah, we are all really excited about it. It is going to be interesting.
PC: So, is ALICE the next piece you are working on after that?
DS: Well, we did ALICE - we did a performance of it at The National Theatre with a sort of high school-age theatre group. So, you know, we are looking for a producer for that piece right now so we are not sure when that will see the light of day again. There is another thing Steven Sater and I are working on, though, which is THE NIGHTENGALE, which we did with Moises Kaufman.
PC: What can you tell me about that?
DS: We did it at La Jolla this summer and I think that that will probably be the next, you know, Sater/Sheik collaboration that will happen. We are talking to a couple really good regional theaters about doing that piece right now and hopefully we can bring it to Broadway before, you know, 2018. [Laughs.]
PC: There's also WHISPER HOUSE that is yet to make it to NYC.
DS: Right. With WHISPER HOUSE, we did a production at The Old Globe in San Diego and we're not sure now when we're going to do it again. I, personally, would like to see it as an animated movie one day, but those things cost a lot of money...
PC: What can you tell me about the development of the SPRING AWAKENING feature film?
DS: We are working on it - we are really working on it. There are teams being put together and I guess that if everything goes as we hope we might be shooting as early as next spring - but, there are a few things that need to fall into place before that happens.
PC: Who is directing?
DS: Well, McG is the director and the person spearheading the charge of making the movie and as of right now we are hoping to start shooting in Eastern Europe next spring.
PC: Will it be an entirely new cast, do you envision?
DS: Yeah - probably.
PC: Inevitably, given that the original cast are all mid-20s or more at this point.
DS: Yeah, especially with the movie, even more so than the play, you want them to be around the real ages that the kids are in the actual story.
PC: It has the potential to be a groundbreaking property as a film. There is a whole new generation of theatre fans out there thanks to GLEE and SMASH and performing arts-based entertainment that is available to them now, as I'm sure you are aware.
DS: I am and I think that is so fantastic. You know, here is the thing: there are shows like WICKED, JERSEY BOYS and MAMMA MIA that have infiltrated the culture in such an intense way that so many people saw them and loved them; and, also, people made enormous amounts of money on them. [Laughs.]
PC: You can say that again.
DS: So, of course, really, you just jump into this sphere because it is a really vibrant art form and it's really exciting to be a part of it all.
PC: And as someone composing contemporary scores, you are influencing a whole generation yourself.
DS: Thank you. That's nice to hear.
PC: What are your thoughts on the big composers of the last era: Stephen Sondheim, especially?
DS: Well, with Stephen Sondheim: he was very kind and came to SPRING AWAKENING. And, I believe he really liked it. I have had a very nice chat with him since then, also - I saw him at an event and we spent about twenty minutes talking about various and sundry and he was just great. So, certainly, he is someone who had a big impact on me - I mean, I saw SWEENEY TODD when I was ten years old and it completely freaked me out! It made a huge impression on me. And, then, when I got back into theatre again, I went back and sort of listened to his whole body of work and I realized how it is just extraordinary. He is awesome.
PC: What about Kander & Ebb and Andrew Lloyd Webber?
DS: Kander & Ebb is not so much in my consciousness too much - stylistically, it is even one degree further away; of course, I have enormous respect for them and what they did for theatre, though. Likewise, the same goes for Andrew Lloyd Webber - total respect. Of Lloyd Webber's work, I really love EVITA the most - I think there is some incredibly cool music in that show.
PC: Was JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR influential at all on you?
DS: I think that SUPERSTAR was a little before my time, so it didn't quite come into my field of vision until it was a little too far after the fact.
PC: Did you ever experience a theatre score that inspired you to investigate attempting a musical someday, even way back when?
DS: Well, that's the interesting thing - I didn't know that I wanted to do this until I did it. Of course, there were many things that I saw that made a big impression on me, but I didn't know that I wanted to do this until I kind of hunkered down and did it - and, even then, I was like, "Tell me again why I am doing this?" [Laughs.] But, now, I totally love it and I am really happy that it is a huge part of my creative process - a huge, huge part of it.
PC: You have also tried your hand at a musical setting for a Shakespeare adaptation - TWELFTH NIGHT in Central Park.
DS: Oh, yeah - that was really great. Actually, speaking of that, I am going to do a Brecht play at CSC with Brian, who directed that production of TWELFTH NIGHT. It's a slightly similar sort of process - it's [THE CAUCASIAN] CHALK CIRCLE.
PC: Will you be doing a "Smoke Song"?
DS: Well, there are a couple different translations that Brian is working from - so, you know, obviously, I have read the play and I know it, but they have another person doing the lyrics, too, and they are all coming from different sources. So, we wrote seven songs for the piece and I have recorded two of them so far, so I am really excited to sort of finish that project and see it on its feet.
PC: Will the songs be made available to the public at some point?
DS: Well, once the play opens in February they might be ready for the world - I think it might be cool to release them on an EP or something when it is all said and done, but we'll see.
PC: How do you view the pop music scene today versus the late 90s when you had your big mainstream pop success?
DS: Well, listen: the wind blew the way that it blew and here we are; people consume music now in a different fashion. The truth is that people still buy music and people still need music and it is still a huge part of the culture, so people just need to re-orientate to the new way of doing it, I think.
PC: What are you doing on tour these days? What can we expect from your NYC show at the Gramercy on November 23?
DS: It's a mixture of things….
PC: Can we anticipate a little "Barely Breathing"?
DS: Oh, yeah. A lot of it is devoted to the remix album that is out and I am also doing some new new material that is going to be on my next record, which is just going to be a normal Duncan Sheik record, by the way - it won't be theatre-related, it will just be three-minute, self-contained songs; which, as you know, I haven't done in a really, really long time! [Laughs.]
PC: You've written six musicals in between, though!
DS: Right! Right.
PC: Do you play with a combo?
DS: I am touring with this fantastic drummer and keyboard player and we are a power trio. So, yeah - Sunset Sessions at the Gramercy will be a lot of fun on the 23.
PC: Are more people aware of you since SPRING AWAKENING do you find when you are out touring as you are now?
DS: You know, it depends on the night and the city where I go. I think that there are the kinds of people who know I release singer-songwriter type records and then there are the theatre fans - they are not quite as intercut and overlapping as I hope they would be, but I am lucky to have both.
PC: The theatre people are always the coolest though - it's a great community.
DS: It is - they are always the best. Always.
PC: We have so much to look forward to in the next few years from you, Duncan! AMERICAN PSYCHO is going to be something.
DS: Something is right! [Big Laugh.]
PC: This was awesome. Thank you so much.
DS: Thanks so much, Pat. This was a lot of fun. Bye.
Photo Credit: Walter McBride, etc.