Inner dialogue rocks out in 'Spring Awakening'

Duncan Sheik is a fresh voice in musical theater. Starting out as a rock and pop singer-songwriter, he had a hit single with Barely Breathing from his first album in 1996 and went on to release four more studio albums in the next decade.

But nothing in Sheik's career could forecast what came next: Spring Awakening, the smash Broadway musical he wrote with playwright and lyricist Steven Sater, adapted from an 1891 play by Frank Wedekind about German adolescents. The national tour of the show, which won eight Tony Awards, including best musical, opens Tuesday in Tampa.

Sheik, 39, grew up in New Jersey and went to Brown University. He and Sater have another musical in the works, The Nightingale, based on a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale. Sheik also has a new album out in January, Whisper House.

When the St. Petersburg Times spoke with him by phone last week, Sheik had just returned to New York from Cambodia, where he had performed in a concert at the Angkor Wat temple that was filmed for a documentary by MTV's EXIT (End Exploitation and Trafficking) campaign.

For a musical, Spring Awakening comes from such an unlikely source, a 19th century play set in provincial Germany. Do you remember when you first started thinking about it?

Steven gave me a translation of the original and said, "Read this play, I think there's something that could be really cool there as a theater piece.'' He thought there was a lot of music in the play. So I read it and said to him that it was interesting but that I would not want to change my style simply because it was going to be on stage. Early on we had this discussion about what if we had this really strange German story, and then we had this music that for all intents and purposes was indie alternative rock? That was the initial conversation, and obviously we stuck to our guns in terms of that conception, but believe me, it was not easy getting to where it landed.

The breakthrough must have been this idea of having the dialogue take place more or less in 19th century Germany, while the songs are very much now.

Yeah, they're singing as if they're contemporary kids, rocking out in their bedrooms. It was a very specific choice. The way the lines are delivered can be quite formal and period, and then when they sing, it's an interior monologue. They're not necessarily singing to each other or the audience. They're just kind of going into their own mind. It's a bit of a conceit that was stolen from Dancer in the Dark.

I'm not familiar with that.

Dancer in the Dark is the Lars von Trier movie that Bjork starred in. It's set in the Northwest in the '60s. Bjork is a factory worker, and she goes into reveries where she becomes part of these fabulous musical theater numbers. So the songs are only happening in her head.

It was a good solution to what both of us felt was an issue in musical theater. What was frustrating to us was this idea of breaking into song when the words being sung are just text musicalized. A lot of times in musical theater, you're just taking plot information and singing it. That wasn't what we wanted to do, obviously.

How familiar were you with other musicals like Rent?

Rent was a big blind spot for me. I guess it was because at the time Rent happened, it was when my first record came out, and I was on the road for three years straight. I was just really focused on making records and touring and being a rock musician. In high school, I played guitar in a production of Godspell. In grade school, I was the Artful Dodger in Oliver! But it wasn't a part of my musical upbringing the way that rock music was.

Does your approach to writing a pop song and a theater song differ?

The short answer is that it's exactly the same. Certainly when I was writing Spring Awakening, it was essentially like I was writing a Duncan Sheik song, and we hoped that it would work in a character's voice. Now I'm more cognizant of narrative when I'm writing songs for theater than I was then.

Well, you don't want to get too conventional.

Sure, and Steven and I talk about this quite a bit. What we want to do is create a body of work. For example, The Nightingale is not a rock musical at all. It's actually a chamber piece, and it has this eccentric mix of instruments: harmonium and harps, ethnic woodwinds and percussion. The last thing I would want is for people to say, you know, "Oh, that's Duncan Sheik, the rock musical guy.''

You mention the harmonium, which is part of the band in Spring Awakening. That is probably a first on Broadway.

Is it? Well, I'm glad to have pulled that off. I started using it when I made my second record, Humming. It has these constant, reedy tones that I really like. It's a pain in the butt to keep in tune, but that may be part of the charm.

The cast album of Spring Awakening, which you produced, won a Grammy. What was that like to do?

It was very contentious. I had to put my foot down about certain conventions of cast album production. What usually happens with a Broadway musical is that the cast and the band go into the studio for two or three days and perform the material together. If what you're doing is Rodgers and Hammerstein, then that makes sense. If you're doing something that is a rock band, and the singers are meant to be contemporary rock singers, that approach is horrible. So I insisted that I was going to make a rock record. I was going to record the band the same way I would record my own records, and then I was going to bring in the kids one by one and have them sing. It took like 45 days and 400 hours of recording. I feel like it's a hybrid of a rock record and a cast album.

How have sales been?

They've been, relative to theater records, incredibly great. I think they're coming up on 200,000. By the end of the tour I'd like to see a gold record.

However, that being said, there has been some frustration. If you go into a record store, Wicked is front and center, while Spring Awakening is not easy to find. There has been a little angst between the Spring Awakening team and the Universal (record label) team. We wished that after winning all those Tonys and having the critical response that we had that there would have been more of a robust promotion of the CD. But it is what it is.

Spring Awakening is about teenage sex, among other things. Some presenters are nervous about how audiences will respond and gave subscribers the option not to include it as part of their ticket package. What's your feeling about that?

I think it's a shame, mainly because if you turn on MTV at 4:30 in the afternoon, it's five times as prurient as Spring Awakening ever gets. Granted, there's some nudity onstage, but if you ask me, it's very subtle and it's handled very gracefully. And granted, the people in the show use the f-word a lot, but where in the culture don't you hear that? I think that people who would have a problem with the way sexuality is evoked in Spring Awakening are people who really have pretty deep problems with their own sexuality.

Look, I've seen the show about 400 times, and I can't tell you how often I've walked out at the end and there were some 75-year-old ladies with big smiles on their faces, saying how cool they thought it was, and moving and beautiful, and how it brought them back to their adolescence.

Which songs do you like best in the show?

The songs that I go to are Touch Me and Left Behind and The Mirror-Blue Night. Certain sonic things in The Word of Your Body I continue to be happy about. And then there are other songs, like My Junk, that now feel like girly pop music to me.

John Fleming can be reached at fleming@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8716.

>> IF YOU GO

Spring Awakening

The show opens Tuesday and runs through Jan. 4 at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, 1010 N MacInnes Place, Tampa. $38.50-$67.50, plus service charges. (813) 229-7827 or toll-free 1-800-955-1045; tbpac.org.

Inner dialogue rocks out in 'Spring Awakening' 12/24/08 [Last modified: Friday, December 26, 2008 9:09am]

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