Eight years ago, when he arrived on Broadway as the composer for the new musical Spring Awakening, Duncan Sheik's name was little-known to theatergoers — unless, of course, they'd heard his pleasant tenor singing the mid-nineties Hot 100 top 20 hit "Barely Breathing."
That changed pretty quickly: Sheik's music for the show, which had its characters — sexually-confused 19th-century German teens — expressing their frustrations through his rock and folk-tinged tunes, won him two Tony awards (for best original score and best orchestrations), along with a whole new fanbase who eagerly awaited whatever his next project might be. Sheik found a new home, along with a great deal of creative success, in musical theater, and went on to write scores for shows including American Psycho, Alice by Heart, and, most recently, the new stage adaptation of Sue Monk Kidd's bestselling novel The Secret Life of Bees (playing at the Atlantic Theater Company in New York through July 21).
On this week's episode of the Billboard on Broadway podcast, Sheik stops by, along with lyricist Susan Birkenhead (Working, Jelly's Last Jam) and actor Eisa Davis (who plays June in the show, and is also a writer who worked on Spike Lee's She's Gotta Have It for Netflix) to talk about creating Bees and his career in theater so far. Transforming a book into a stage show presented its own challenges from the start. "A novel can go in so many different directions; when you're telling a story in a musical, you need to have a central thrust," Sheik explains. "It was tricky to find what that was. It took me a couple years to find my way into what this show was about both musically and story-wise." "
You have to read it, create your own version, and put it aside," Birkenhead adds.
When it came to integrating both the music and the musicians into the stage show (the band plays onstage among the actors), Sheik followed director Sam Gold's vision. "He had his idea that the whole show was like a ritual," Sheik says. "I love that — the musicians kind of become actors in a way. Even when you have a band onstage and they're back in the corner, it's not that interesting. To have them surrounding the whole space is kinda cool."
Sheik's songs "go straight to your heart," Davis says. "People are just blown away by what the music does to them….the texture and the chordal euphoria you can go into in Duncan's songs are there, but we're all like, 'Which song was in your head last night?' He can write some hooks."
In their chat with host Rebecca Milzoff, the trio discuss the subtleties of Sheik's score, the importance of the musical's story right now, and Sheik delves into his own influences and how they show up in his music.
#BillboardonBroadway is a weekly podcast devoted to all things musical theater and their overlap with pop music. Click here to subscribe to the #BillboardonBroadway podcast on iTunes, and let us know what you think on Twitter (@rebeccamilzoff) or by rating the podcast on iTunes.