Recording artist Duncan Sheik’s career has successfully straddled the somewhat disparate worlds of pop-rock and musical theater. Sheik won initial fame for his mega-hit “Barely Breathing” in the mid-’90s, but has since expanded his success to Broadway with his work on the critically acclaimed and quite popular musical “Spring Awakening.”
Continuing his new inclination towards narrative-based work, in late January he released the Whisper House, a solo effort that is also serving as the concept-album for a theatrical piece slated to premier in 2010. Now, with a nationwide tour that brings him to the Wisconsin Union Theater this Thursday, Mr. Sheik hopes to offer audiences a single show that captures these varied elements of his career while staying true to their artistic or dramatic contexts.
In order to sample the full spectrum of his work, Sheik must reconcile the indie-pop-rock style of his solo work with the story-based “Spring Awakening” and Whisper House. To do this, the show will be tripartite, each section highlighting one of the distinct bodies of work. The first section will offer audiences various selections from his anthology of solo works, comprised of his first five studio releases.
Next audiences will be treated to selections from his musical, “Spring Awakening.” The show, written by Steven Sater with music by Sheik, ran on Broadway from Dec. 10, 2006 to January 18, 2009, earning many accolades. A modern adaptation of a 19th century Frank Wedekind play by the same name, the show is characterized by its rock-infused rhythms and anguished melodies.
Sheik will be performing the songs with original cast member Lauren Pritchard, who will also be opening the show with her own set.
“Ultimately, I’m kind of trying to connect up the ‘Spring Awakening’ fans with the Duncan Sheik fans which have tended even to this day to be slightly different camps,” Sheik said in an interview with The Badger Herald.
Finally, with vocalist Holly Brook, Sheik will perform songs from his new Whisper House, a somewhat indefinable mix of rock, pop, folk and various eclectic orchestrations. As stated above, this album, unlike his other catalogue of records, is serving as the body of songs for a forthcoming musical, and so shares a narrative quality found in “Spring Awakening.” But aside from a superficial morose similarity, the two pieces are exceedingly different.
“There’s something I enjoy about writing and performing songs with a larger narrative arc … It can be really inspiring, it can be really fun. Often times, you’re writing songs from the perspective of a persona other than yourself,” Sheik said.
The story of the show details the adventures of a young boy displaced from his home, who goes to live in a creepy old lighthouse, which the boy soon believes to be haunted. The songs themselves are commentaries, indirect or poetic perspectives offered on the main plot by various ghosts that the little boy conjures from the decrepit old building.
“You know, ‘Spring Awakening’ was certainly a step removed from traditional musical theater, Whisper House is another step away from traditional musical theater, in that the actors don’t sing. The ghosts do all the singing but speak none of the text,” Sheik explained.
Performing such a work out of its staged theatrical context offers several opportunities and poses a few challenges, namely leaving songs out or performing numbers out of sequence could become confusing.
“The main things about [performing a narrative piece] is that it gives me something to talk about between songs, but other than that it doesn’t change much. … I give bits and pieces of info to the audience and they can sort of put the rest together,” Sheik said. “But I don’t give away the farm. Ultimately, if you really want to know what Whisper House is about you’re going to have to see it staged.”
By dividing the show into three sections, Sheik is avoiding the confusion that mixing the distinctive styles of his major works could possibly create. Fans of either his solo albums or “Spring Awakening” will easily recognize what they came to see, but may earn a little appreciation for his other varied talents along the way. Those interested in Whisper House as either an album or eventual dramatic work should find the show to be a satisfying exhibition, or a titillating precursor to the stage premier.
As an added bonus, Sheik will be giving a question and answer session hosted by the Undergraduate Theater Association Thursday at 12:30 p.m. Sheik has been giving such talks for several years now, with the topics ranging from generic questions about his start in the music business, to more specific and personal questions about his creative processes and inspirations.
Duncan Sheik will perform this Thursday, March 5 , at 8 p.m. at the Wisconsin Union Theater. Student tickets are $10, general public tickets start at $18. The talk will be held in the Mitchell Theatre in Vilas hall at 12:30p.m., it is free and open to students, faculty and staff of the University of Wisconsin.