Duncan Sheik gets theatrical

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There was The Who and the rock opera Tommy. There was Tom Waits with The Black Rider and Elton John with Aida. When Duncan Sheik’s sensitive crooning climbed the charts in the early 1990s, who would have assumed he’d follow the rock opera route? Sheik first exploded onto the pop culture radar in 1996, when his debut album yielded the mega-hit single “Barely Breathing”—a song which still receives regular radio play and most radio listeners still know the words to 14 years later. 

While the artist, who performs at Orlando’s  Plaza Theater on March 25 and Tampa’s Straz Center for the Performing Arts on March 26, may have faded out of the mainstream for a bit, the 40-year-old composer came back strong in 2006, albeit in a different semblance and for a different audience. He won two Tony Awards, Best Original Score and Best Orchestration, for Spring Awakening the exhilarating and ambitious musical,  about sexual repression set in late-nineteenth century Germany.

DSheik_482830055.jpgThe play immediately boosted his LGBT following.

Over the course of his career, Sheik has lent his musical talents to a number of LGBT-themed productions, including A Home at the End of the World, Transamerica, Dare, and Spring Awakening. When asked if the theme of the project was a factor in his decisions, Sheik responded modestly.

“Let’s face it. The world of gay theater and cinema is a world of amazing gay audiences,” he says from his New York apartment. “I honestly don’t even make a distinction anymore.”

Sheik revealed that although he is heterosexual, he is very aware of his large gay fan base. His music has even been described as “gay-friendly.” He admits he isn’t sure what that means.

“The bottom line is that I want to make music that moves people, whether you’re gay or straight,” Sheik states. “I simply want my music to be human-friendly.”

Story telling
His latest album, Whisper House, explores the world of folk lore. It spawned a full scale musical, which premiered in San Diego in January. The melodrama, set in the 1940s World War II era, centers on a boy who is sent to live with his spinster aunt in a lighthouse in Maine after his father dies in combat. The songs weave together to create a story about grief and longing, as seen by the ghosts that haunt the lighthouse.

Sheik brings a sampling of Whisper House to Orlando’s Plaza Theatre and Tampa’s David A. Straz, Jr. Center for the Performing Arts later this month. This tour will differ slightly from the actual musical. It combines the talents of keyboardist Holly Brooks, Gary Leonard and singer Lauren Pritchard (Spring Awakening). It will feature a suite of songs from Whisper House, Spring Awakening and some from Sheik’s own catalog of albums.

Few artists have attempted to bridge the gap from recording artist to musical theater. Whisper House marks Sheik’s third production-style album.

“I feel very fortunate to be part of two parts of the music business,” Sheik says. “I’m lucky that people want to hear both parts of my repertoire. It’s a nice position to be in.”

While the stage may seem miles apart from a recording studio, Sheik says he is comfortable in both genres.

“It’s not very different composing songs for a musical versus for an album,” Sheik explains. “In one case, it’s Duncan Sheik singing the material. For music written for the stage, you’re singing from the perspective of a character.”

He says it can be quite fun stepping outside yourself.

“That character can be very different from you—terrible, mean, pure or innocent. I don’t consider myself any of those things,” he jokes.

After reading a script given to him by actor Keith Powell and playwright Kyle Jarrow, Sheik retreated to his Southern roots to compose. He says he was inspired by his childhood, growing up in Hilton Head, S.C. Over 10 days, he wrote the bulk of the music.

“Charleston has this history of ghost stories, a Southern tradition that I kind of grew up with,” Sheik states. “I wanted to recapture the feel of old folk-lore. I reconnected with it in some way and used that to write the lyrics to these songs.”

Out of the mainstream
While other singer-songwriters have struggled to find their niche in an ever-changing market, Sheik has sustained his haunting yet hopeful trademark tone. It has translated well to Broadway, revitalizing his career.

Despite only having four Billboard hits, the singer-songwriter isn’t fazed. He says it was never his intention to create mainstream music. Sheik says he grew up listening to esoteric imports from England and is more influenced by 20th century classical music. Over the years, he has infused electronic, Brazilian, Indian and stylistic tropes. 

“The fact that my first record had a hit on it—although happy and grateful—wasn’t my intention,” Sheik states. “I felt at times that it did more harm than good. People then had perceptions that I was a pop artist.”

Sheik’s staple, folk-infused, ambient sound and humble personality reflect his Buddhist teachings. A lay Buddhist since college, he has practiced a strain called Nichiren, which stresses the simultaneous nature of cause and consequence.

“This particular form of Buddhism attracted me because it is so proactive,” Sheik explains. “It is not about detachment, but getting out into the world. It is a source of creative energy.”

It was actually through a Nichiren cultural center in New York years ago that Sheik met writer Steven Sater, who he collaborated with to create his 2001 album, Phantom Moon, and 2006’s Spring Awakening.

Sheik is passionate about not only his religion but also politics and charitable organizations, which are also apparent throughout his lyrics. He says political undertones abound in Whisper House.

“Although it unfolds around a World War II backdrop, analogous situations can relate to what’s going on today,” Sheik says. “The war on terror, racial profiling, and fear mongering that’s gone on in previous administrations are definitely in the fabric of the story.”

He is active in many non-profit organizations. Currently, he has launched an eBay auction to benefit Amnesty International. He is a member of The Trevor Project and recently performed at a benefit in New York.

“James Lecesne, one of the founders of The Trevor Project, is one of my very good friends,” he says proudly. “It’s a great organization and they do important work.”

A true humanitarian, Sheik went on to say, “As long as it’s a good cause, I’ll show up with my guitar and play. I’m pretty easy that way.”

Following up on the success of his transition to musical theater, it was announced in February that Sheik will write the score for the Broadway production of American Psycho: The Musical. He says it’s too early to discuss the plot details, but he did divulge that he wants to steer clear of big song and dance numbers. He is hoping to get to use a lot more electronic music and have all the music come from electronic sources, which has never been done on Broadway before.

Sheik wants to create something “engaging, different and push the boundaries in a number of ways. The last thing we want to do is another god-awful ‘commercial,’ stage version of some bad movie. This isn’t your typical feel-good, movie-of-the-week,” he states.

“The fact that the [main character] is a murderous, psycho banker will make it that much more subversive,” he says.

Sheik will return to the singer/songwriter format on his next studio album.

“It will be 10 to 12 songs that tell a story themselves as opposed to 10 to 12 songs telling one story,” he states. “I think that, more and more, the way people will experience music is in the context of narrative—whether that be theater, film or TV.

“And that will keep music alive.”

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