Duncan Sheik scores with ‘Awakening’

Songwriter's unfamiliarity with conventions an asset

“Spring Awakening” didn’t come together easily, at first, for singer-songwriter Duncan Sheik. At an early workshop in La Jolla, Sheik found himself in the unfamiliar position of having to teach his music to others. “(Director) Michael Mayer said, ‘All right, teach them songs,’ ” says Sheik. “Well, what am I supposed to do? I had no idea what I had gotten myself into.” 

But Sheik’s unfamiliarity with theatrical conventions proved an asset, according to Mayer. Sheik was insistent that the songs “weren’t meant to be performed with a whole lot of acting going on, but in a kind of radio performance,” Mayer says.

This sensibility turned out to be a key feature of the show, an innovative Broadway musical based on the 1891 play by Frank Wedekind. Sheik, along with Mayer and lyricist/book-writer Steven Sater, worked for seven years to bring “Spring Awakening” to Broadway, where it has been hailed as a triumph of youthful energy in an often conservative medium. 

The show’s songs defy a long-held Broadway convention: They don’t further the plot. It was a conscious decision that the group reached early on. 

“Duncan didn’t like it in musicals when people were talking and then they were singing,” Sater says. “He felt they could just as well be singing the things they were talking or talking the things they were singing. My first thought was that the songs could function as internal monologues.” 

Though Sheik is finishing a tour in his singer-songwriter role, he has no plans to give up theater. He and Sater have another project in the works, “The Nightingale,” and Sheik is about to begin workshopping a children’s show in New York. 

He says that “Spring Awakening” has opened his eyes to a new medium. “I’m going to see a lot of theater now,” he says, “and it’s probably more me opening up to the possibilities than theater changing itself. But I do see a lot of really great things that are happening, and that’s inspiring and very healthy.”