Steven Sater is heading into Sunday’s Tony Awards ceremony with two nominations of his own and 11 total for his show, Spring Awakening. Sater is nominated as lyricist, along with composer Duncan Sheik, for best score and for best book of a musical (which he based on Franz Wedekind’s play of the same name).
On the phone from his New York home, Sater says he’s been walking through the busy awards season in a “semi-delirious state.’’
“I truly haven’t been thinking about awards a lot,’’ he says. “I usually live in an absorbed state, focused on the thing I’m working on, which, right now, is about five things. But when I’m in front of other people accepting an award, I find myself surprisingly moved. This has been such a long, hard journey. To have the kind of reception we’ve had, to win these awards. It’s completely remarkable.’’
As a playwright, Sater is probably best known for “Carbondale Dreams’’ and “Perfect for You.’’ Buddhism, aside from any spiritual benefits, has been good to Sater. Through Soka Gakkai, a lay Buddhist organization, he met his wife, Lori, and Sheik.
Sater asked Sheik to collaborate on a play called “Umbrage,’’ and their collaboration was born. Their work can be heard on Sheik’s contemplative album “Phantom Moon’’ and then in the play with music, “Nero (Another Golden Rome),’’which was the title when it opened last year at San Francisco’s Magic Theatre. Now that still-being-revised work is simply called “Nero.’’
The duo was only warming up for what would become “Spring Awakening,’’ a musical based on an 1891 German play about the repression of teenagers and their sexual, intellectual and spiritual urges.
In the 8 ½ years they’ve been working together, Sater and Sheik have learned and grown.
“Duncan and I were close right away,’’ Sater says of his collaborator. “We have a connection, and it’s really profound. To me, it’s kind of mystic. We have this relationship based on faith. We have created these things of such beauty together. That’s the only way I can describe it. What we’ve done together neither of us could have conceived doing on our own. I certainly didn’t ever see myself writing musicals or even writing song lyrics.’’
The two New Yorkers spend a lot of time together and, earlier this year, attended a TheatreWorks writers’ retreat in Mountain View to work on their next musical, “The Nightingale,’’ a loose adaptation of the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale set in Ancient China in the Forbidden City.
“Duncan and I are close friends,’’ Sater says. “We’ve both grown in what we’ve learned about the musical form, and this new life opened up for each of us. Duncan had a different kind of success than I had in the pop world. I was more of a writerly guy. Still am. We’ve gone through a huge life experience together – a number of them, really. We still talk about everything.’’
“Spring Awakening’’ is a bold musical – both a period piece and completely contemporary – that is sort of a mash-up of concert and heavy-duty play dealing with sex, abortion, suicide and friendship. It’s not exactly Rodgers and Hammerstein, and that’s what Sater says he and Sheik were after.
“From the beginning we wanted to do something different,’’ he says. “Duncan wanted to do something different musically, and I wanted to do something different both with the lyrics and the book. The songs we love and that remain part of us, take us into the heart and soul of the singer. The singer becomes the song. That’s what we wanted to write — not songs forwarding the plot of the story. That is writing the surface instead of the depth.’’
That doesn’t mean they could throw just any song into any scene.
“We still had to find a way for the songs to tell the story, serve the dramatic moment and, yes, move the story forward,’’ Sater says. “There’s easily an album, if not a double album’s worth of songs we wrote for the show that didn’t make it in, any number of which are as good as the ones in the show.’’
The central idea became the creation of a play – not simply a book linking songs – that took place alongside, as Sater describes it, “an incredible concert of the same material unfolding in your heart, deepening your investment in the story. I was inspired by great plays I love and by `West Side Story,’ `Carousel’ and `Porgy and Bess.’ ’’
A published version of Sater’s book and lyrics was supposed to be out in time for the Tonys but won’t be out until about a week later from Theatre Communications Group.
Thinking about Sundays’ Tony Awards, Sater says he has his suit picked out (he bought it with Sheik when they were meeting in Los Angeles), but he hasn’t written a speech.
“I’m nominated in two categories, and you don’t want to set yourself up,’’ he says. “Will they divide the wealth? Hard to know. I have things in mind I’d like to say. As we get closer I’ll have to think more about it.’’
Here’s Sater picking up a Drama Desk Award (his last line is classic):