Duncan Sheik: A Troubadour Turns To Theater He didn't see it coming when his sensitive crooning launched him to pop fame in 1996. But with one Tony Award-winning musical in the books and another production on the way, his work as a stage composer has put him in the spotlight again.
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Duncan Sheik: A Troubadour Turns To Theater

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Duncan Sheik: A Troubadour Turns To Theater

Duncan Sheik: A Troubadour Turns To Theater

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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." But when Duncan Sheik's sensitive crooning climbed the charts in the early '90s, you wouldn't have assumed he'd follow the rock opera route.

(Soundbite of song "Barely Breathing") ..TEXT: Mr. DUNCAN SHEIK: (Singing) 'Cause I am barely breathing and I can't find the air...

LYDEN: Sheik's hit single "Barely Breathing" propelled him to fame back in 1996, when the song began an amazing 55-week run on Billboard's Hot 100 chart. But over the past two years, it's his work as a composer that put him back on top. Sheik's rock musical, "Spring Awakening," has earned him a whole new horde of devoted teenage fans, not to mention eight Tony Awards.

(Soundbite of song "Mamma Who Bore Me")

Ms. IRIS WATTS: (Singing) Mama who bore me? Mama who gave me no way to handle things, who made me so sad...

LYDEN: Good things can't last forever, especially in this economic climate. "Spring Awakening" closed on Broadway this month, some say ahead of its time. But Duncan Sheik has another rock musical waiting in the wings called "Whisper House." The show was set to premiere at a Delaware theater this year, but the run was canceled because of finances before it even opened. So on Tuesday Duncan Sheik will release "Whisper House" as a solo album - his first since 2006. Duncan Sheik joins us from the studios of member station KPCW in Park City, Utah. Thanks for being with us, especially when you're at Sundance.

Mr. DUNCAN SHEIK (Singer; Composer): Thank you so much. It's great to be here. I just snowboarded off the mountain into the radio studio, so that worked out well.

LYDEN: Oh, we love that event. We'll see you snowboard out. So listen, you started out in the '90s, you know, with "Barely Breathing," which was an astonishing feat for its longevity on the charts. But now people are recognizing you for something so different - musical theater. How do you make the transition?

Mr. SHEIK: Well, what happened for me is that in, let's say, 1999 - if you remember, that was when Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys kind of happened in the culture. And so, the music that I was doing really didn't have a lot of kinship with that other kind of pop music. So while on the one hand, I was like, musical theater wasn't my real house either at all, I was definitely ready to try something new and different.

(Soundbite of song from the album "Whisper House")

Mr. SHEIK: (Singing) Here are your lines. Now stick to the page. Like the wise men say, Sll the word's a stage.

LYDEN: So, "Whisper House" is an unusual story. This is a story about a young boy - Duncan Sheik, right - during the Second World War. His father has been shot down by a Japanese pilot, and he's sent to live with his spinster aunt in a haunted lighthouse in Maine. Now, how did that capture your attention?

Mr. SHEIK: You know, I grew up on Hilton Head, South Carolina, and the logo of Hilton Head is this big red-and-white lighthouse that as a kid I was running up and down all the time. And then also, you know, when I was 10 or 11 years old, myself and my group of friends would go over to Daufuskie Island on little camping trips. And one or the other of our parents would tell these ghost stories and try and completely freak us out. And so this idea of doing something with lighthouses and ghosts actually seemed very natural to me.

LYDEN: Bright memories of being terrified by the campfire.

Mr. SHEIK: Yeah.

LYDEN: Let's listen to a song from "Whisper House" called "We're Here to Tell You."

(Soundbite of song "We're Here to Tell You")

Mr. SHEIK: (Singing) We're here to tell you, ghosts are here for good. Even if it doesn't terrify you, it should, it should.

LYDEN: Now, most of this narrative is being sung by the ghosts. And I love that idea, but I also wondered why. Why an all-ghost chorus?

Mr. SHEIK: "Chorus" is a good word because the ghosts operate in a certain way as a kind of a Greek chorus. They're kind of commenting on the pathos of the lives of these human beings that they're kind of watching. I think the ghosts really are the manifestation of Christopher's internal fears, and so...

LYDEN: That's the little boy in this piece.

Mr. SHEIK: That's the protagonist of the piece. And they're kind of whimsically malevolent. And they'll sing songs like "It's Better to be Dead" and "We're Here to Tell You There is Such a Thing as Ghosts" and lots of other things to be afraid of. And so, we're kind of playing with this idea of what it means to be terrified. And, you know, if you're constantly living in fear, then it's very easy for other people to control you and it's very difficult to have agency(ph) yourself and to act responsibly in the right kind of enlightened way. And I think those are the kind of the deeper themes that are operating in the piece.

LYDEN: Let's hear another track from the CD. And this one is called "It's Better to be Dead."

(Soundbite of song "It's Better to be Dead")

Mr. SHEIK: (Singing) I present to you a story set upon the northern shore. The denizens of lighthouse during times of war, The foolish things they did, the foolish things they said, I'm sure you will agree they would be better off dead.

LYDEN: Now, "Whisper House" takes place in the U.S. during World War II. Your earlier work, "Spring Awakening," was set in late 19th century Germany. What appeals to you about these historical settings?

Mr. SHEIK: When you see a story set in a timeframe different from your own, you're kind of - you look at the world through this other lens, and it's actually, it's very enlightening. You kind of cast this light back on your own time, and I think you're able to see things differently about the reality in which you live. And also there's a richness to different time periods that I think can create something visually exciting onstage.

Certainly, in the case of "Spring Awakening," you had this very kind of stark straight-jacketed kind of woolen breeches German Lutheran environment, you know, during the scenes. And then that allowed you to have this huge shift when the songs happened and they pull microphones out of their jacket and there was neon lights and there's rock music, you know.

So that - you can play with these different aesthetic styles and create something that I think is really visually exciting. I think this idea of having a lighthouse in Maine in the 1940s, you know, there's something really bleak about that. But then when you open up and there's music and people in costumes in the context of this bleak environment, there's a lot of visual fun to be had.

LYDEN: One of the songs from it, "Whisper House," has been made into an animated music video. And that tells the story that kind of precedes the show. I'd like to listen to that with you. It's called "Earthbound Starlight." It's a really great music video.

(Soundbite of song "Earthbound Starlight")

Mr. SHEIK: (Singing) I can't dry your eyes. Say it's all right even though he might, Snd she can't kiss your cheek as the days become weeks.

LYDEN: Now, this is very interesting. You were meant to stage all of this as a musical. I mean, my understanding is that you were pretty much all the way there, but when that didn't work out, you released this as a CD and a music video. And of course, we're wondering if that is intended to help create an audience for the musical when it does get staged?

Mr. SHEIK: This used to happen quite often in musical theater where they put out the record and then later the stage production would happen, and then the people who went to go see the show would know the music already because they'd already gotten the album. So there is a kind of a precedent for this. And, you know, I was going to put out the record no matter what happened with the stage piece because, well, it was just time for me to put out a record. And, you know, I was really happy with how the material turned out.

LYDEN: So what's next after Sundance? Any other projects in the works?

Mr. SHEIK: Well, yes. Steven Sater and I have two other musicals that are very long in development. One of them is an adaptation of "The Nightingale," which is a Hans Christian Andersen short story. And then the other one is about Nero, the Emperor Nero, and it's extremely debauched and intense and, you know, I shouldn't say this, but it kind of makes "Spring Awakening" look like "The Wedding Singer."

(Soundbite of laughter)

LYDEN: OK, I'm putting dibs on that one right now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LYDEN: Duncan Sheik's new album is called "Whisper House." It'll be released this Tuesday, the 27th. Duncan Sheik, it was really fun to talk to you, and it's a beautiful album.

Mr. SHEIK: Thank you so much.

LYDEN: And if you want to see that music video we talked about, "Earthbound Starlight," then just go to the music section of our Web site on npr.org.

(Soundbite of song "Earthbound Starlight")

Mr. SHEIK: (Singing) Steal your heart.

LYDEN: And that's All Things Considered from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

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