Interview with ‘Spring Awakening’ composer Duncan Sheik
Serena Zacharias | Monday, April 9, 2018
Duncan Sheik is a recording artist and a theater composer, and according to him, a performer by accident. While he initially found success in the ‘90s as a pop singer, he has since made a name for himself in the world of musical theater, winning eight Tonys in his career and a Grammy for “Best Musical Show Album” in 2007 for his debut musical “Spring Awakening.” Sheik has also composed music for the musical adaption of “American Psycho,” “Because of Winn-Dixie” and most recently, “The Secret Life of Bees” — to name a few — and continues to record as a solo artist. Notre Dame’s Film, Television and Theatre department brought Sheik to campus to have a public conversation in DeBartolo Performing Arts Center and meet with the cast of the upcoming production of “Spring Awakening.” Scene Writer Serena Zacharias was able to meet with Sheik beforehand to talk about “Spring Awakening,” his other works and his creative process as a composer. Editor’s note: This interview has been condensed for length.
Serena Zacharias (SZ): So I know you didn’t start off in musical theater. Can you tell me about how you got involved in “Spring Awakening” to begin with?
Duncan Sheik (DS): I met Steven Satar who was a playwright, and I met him because we were both practicing Buddhists. We hung out one evening and had a big conversation about our career. He was writing straight plays and I was making nominally pop records. At that moment in 1999, the Backstreet Boys, NSYNC, Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera were happening, and I felt very little kinship with that genre of music. I was really looking for a new context in which I could kind of do the work I was interested in.
While we were writing and recording my third album, “Phantom Moon,” he gave me a copy of “Spring Awakening” and he said, “Read this play and maybe we can adapt it to a musical.” And I was like, ‘Oh, Steven, I hate musicals.’ I was literally rolling my eyes, but I read the play and I thought it was really cool. It’s a fascinating play just in terms of when it was written and how controversial it was at the time, and even throughout the whole twentieth century continues to be controversial. And that’s what I loved about it.
SZ: So, how much would you say your own personal musical interests influences the musicals you write for?
DS: I have a love of different genres of music. Lately I’ve been into electronic music, and so that’s how “American Psycho” came about and some other shows that I’m working on currently reflect that. When I was writing “Spring Awakening,” I was in a more organic mode. I think that there’s a few different spheres that I’m interested in — folk music, nominally rock music, electronic music and then twentieth century classical music. But there’s a lot of overlap, and it’s the story and the narrative that’s driving what the genre of music is like. For example, I’m working on the adaptation of “The Secret Life of Bees,” and it’s set in South Carolina in 1964 and has a young white girl protagonist, but most of the other characters are black. So the score is kind of a conversation between white southern music and black southern music of the sixties. It’s very much driven by the context of that story … I sort of do a deep dive into the music of that time, and then I go off into the studio and do my own take on it.
SZ: Since you mentioned a bit about your creative process, can you tell me a little more about the differences in writing musical theater versus your songs as a solo artist?
DS: When you’re writing songs as a solo artist interested in making a record under your own name, in the beginning there was this aspect of it, that’s like, ‘Dear Diary, why doesn’t this girl like me?’ There was some stupid stuff and some romantic nonsense.
What was cool about moving into the world of theater is that you’re writing for a character, and you’re writing in the persona of someone else who has a whole other set of needs and wants and agendas. It expands the palate enormously.
SZ: With regards to your own methods of songwriting, what advice would you give to an aspiring songwriter?
DS: The important thing is that you find your own unique voice, because that’s what’s going to be what makes you interesting to an audience. It’s about finding the thing that you’re most excited about internally and then expressing that in the best way you can.
SZ: So I know “Spring Awakening” deals with some heavy themes. Why do you think those themes are important for people to hear?
DS: In terms of the history of the show, Steven Satar got really inspired make the show right after the shootings at Columbine. He really felt “Spring Awakening” was a valid response to the fact that you have these kids who have all this anger, rage and negativity inside them with no outlet and no one communicating with them in a way that can help. Unless there’s a real open line of communication, there’s going to be tragedy. And that’s what the play says, and that’s why I think the play has impacted so many kids so intensely — because it shines a light on that fact.