Tony Week! Chatting with Duncan Sheik

As we head toward the Tony Awards telecast on Sunday, June 10, I will be offering interviews with folks from my favorite musical of the season, Spring Awakening. Up first, composer Duncan Sheik.

Last time I interviewed Duncan Sheik it was February 2006, and we were sitting in his bedroom at the back of his tour bus in front of San Francisco’s Independent concert venue.

Sheik was in full-on rock-star mode, sipping a glass of wine next to a giant pile of laundry that partially obscured the big flat-screen TV on the wall. He had a play with music about to open at San Francisco’s Magic Theatre (Nero, Another Golden Rome) and there was big buzz about his and Steven Sater’s impending musical version of the Wedekind play Spring Awakening.

A lot has happened in the last year. Nero, another collaboration with Sater, didn’t generate much buzz, but Spring Awakening became the most talked-about new musical of the year, with the Atlantic Theater Company’s off-Broadway production transferring to Broadway, becoming a big hit and scoring 11 Tony Award nominations.

On the phone from his New York home, Sheik says he’s OK with being called a “theater guy.’’

“I’m feeling like a jack of all trades, and that’s not a bad thing,’’ he says. “I really do enjoy working in different mediums – film, theater, recorded music. They all have their different challenges and different aspects that are fulfilling creatively. Obviously, it’s the theater stuff that has kind of taken off for the moment. We’re enjoying that ride.’’

It’s a ride that will likely give him the “Tony Award-winner’’ prefix for the rest of his music career come Sunday’s Tony ceremonies.

The pre-Tony award ride has been, in a word, smashing for Spring Awakening. At the Drama Desk Awards, the show won best musical, Michael Mayer won best director, Sater won for lyrics and Sheik won for music.

The musical also scored major awards from the Lucille Lortel Awards, New York Drama Critics Circle, Outer Critics Circle and the Drama League, leaving Sheik and his cohorts with high hopes for the Tonys.

“It’s been sort of fun the last couple of weeks,’’ Sheik says. “We’ve done well with the awards leading up to the Tonys, but the problem is your expectations get higher than they should be. I have to keep a lid on it internally. I need to go into the Tonys thinking anything can happen. I’ll cross my fingers and hope for the best, but with 11 nominations, I don’t have enough fingers to cross.’’

Having been called the best rock musical ever and even the best musical adaptation of a play since My Fair Lady, Spring Awakening is getting the kind of praise and attention that Sheik first received when he burst onto the pop charts in 1996 with “Barely Breathing.’’

“I’m not going to say I don’t enjoy all the congratulations and everything,’’ Sheik says. “It has been really great. The Tonys are a big deal because they do have an effect on how long the show runs on Broadway and whether the show will tour extensively through the U.S. or overseas. It’s important for all of us that we do well at the Tonys. We all want to see the show continue to grow and have a long life.’’

Speaking of the Spring Awakening tour, there have been rumblings about the tour starting in San Francisco. Sheik has heard those rumblings as well, but he acknowledges, “That’s not my department.’’

“It would be great if the tour started in San Francisco. The Bay Area would be an excellent place to start the tour. There’s an amazing theatergoing audience there that would probably respond really well to the piece.’’

When Sheik and Sater were in San Francisco working Nero at the Magic, they saw American Conservatory Theater’s production of The Black Rider,the Tom Waits-William S. Burroughs-Robert Wilson musical.

“That was an extraordinary show, and Steven and I sat in that theater saying, `This is such a great Spring Awakening audience here in this room.’’’

ACT artistic director Carey Perloff is reportedly a big fan of Spring Awakening and approached Sheik about composing a score – mostly underscore, though there may be a song or two – for next season’s production of Tis a Pity She’s a Whore.

“She wanted to do something that was kind of edgy and intense and out there,’’ Sheik explains. “It’s more instrumental and scene transition music, which I’ve done before in the Public Theater’s Twelfth Night in Central Park. I’m interested in jumping into a different side of music for the theater, where it’s not necessarily a musical.’’

Not that Sheik is anywhere near abandoning his burgeoning musical theater career. In fact, the success of Spring Awakening is making people listen to Sheik’s work a little differently these days.

“Before, the things Steven and I were working on were long shots, but now they have a chance to see the light of day,’’ Sheik says. “That means people have a certain amount of respect for our vision, how we work on these shows. We do take a different approach to musical theater than most folks. It’s an eccentric thing we’re doing, breaking quite a few rules and looking the other way from certain conventions and formulas. It’s nice that people seem to respond to these different approaches in a more positive manner.’’

Sheik and Sater continue to work on Nero, which after a number of title changes, is called (or so Sheik thinks at the moment) The Golden Rooms of Nero. There may be a workshop at the Public later this summer.

Another musical project in the works a commission from the Stamford Center for the Performing Arts in Stamford, Conn., is Whisper House, with a script by Kyle Jarrow. It’s about a boy whose father is killed in World War II, so he goes to live in a lighthouse with his aunt and deals with ghosts, fears, grief and confusion.

“I’m just getting started on that one,’’ Sheik says.

A project that’s farther along is his next collaboration with Sater, The Nightingale, a sort of musical fairy tale set in ancient China. The next workshop of that show may be under the auspices of ACT.

“We’re going to do a workshop with (director) James Lapine later this fall, probably here in New York but possibly in San Francisco,’’ Sheik says. “ACT would be an amazing theater to work with on that show. We’re hoping everything comes together to make that happen.’’

Amid all the Spring Awakening Tony Award hoopla, one writer described Sheik as a “former pop singer.’’ But don’t believe it.

In September, Sheik is going into the studio with David Poe (who performed onstage with Sheik at last year’s San Francisco concert) and other downtown New York singer-songwriters. He says he also has a covers album concept he’d like to record this year.

“Then, next year, I think I’ll start getting together material for a proper Duncan Sheik album,’’ he says.

If you trawl around YouTube (or look below), you can find video of Sheik singing songs from “Spring Awakening,’’ and he says demo recordings exist of him singing most of the score’s songs. He may eventually record his own show tunes for an album encompassing Spring Awakening, Nero, Whisper House and The Nightingale.

“That’s something I still have to think about,’’ he says. “It seems I’ve released a lot of records in the last year and a half. Don’t want to glut the market. There will be more albums and more film scores. At the moment, I’m enjoying my theater moment.’’

Visit the Spring Awakening Web site here.

Here’s Sheik singing the final song in Spring Awakening, “Song of Purple Summer”

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