Those who know Duncan Sheik as a one-hit wonder (“Barely Breathing,” anyone?) may be surprised that he not only continues to churn out folk-pop but is now a Broadway composer. His music energizes the year’s most surprising transfer, a pop-rock adaptation of Spring Awakening, Frank Wedekind’s racy 1891 play of teen sex and suicide. Sheik talked to Boris Kachka about his initiation into the land of musicals.
You met your lyricist, Steven Sater, through a Buddhist sect?
There’s an interesting connection between Buddhism and musicians. I think it makes sense because of the chanting and stuff.
How did you react when he handed you a translation of Spring Awakening?
I said, “I don’t really know that this is where I want to go right now.” It just seemed like the genre can be aesthetically problematic. I’m trying to be diplomatic.
In other words, you didn’t like musicals.
Jazz hands! Despite the fact that people consider me a pop musician, I still feel like music needs to have some kind of gravitas.
It’s hard to talk about your own music in any way that sounds remotely reasonable. There’s a thing in musical theater which can really rub me the wrong way, where it’s like, “Why is this person singing?” But our concept was that songs were meant to be interior monologues.
But now the show’s being touted as the next Rent.
I don’t have a single bad thing to say about Rent, but I do think the shows are very, very different. There’s recitative in Rent. And that’s cool, but I’m a singer-songwriter, for lack of a better word.
Did you have any theater experience before this?
I was the Artful Dodger in Oliver.
In high school?
No, elementary school.
Did you ever think your career would take this strange turn?
The problem with my strange career is that I made what I thought was this kind of weird folk record, and I was put in the middle of a top-40 contest, and it was not a place I was comfortable. But the reality is it was completely frustrating to go from selling 700,000 records to selling 100,000. It sucked. So in a way, Spring Awakening has been a big relief.
What was it like hanging around teenagers for so long?
Sometimes I have to remind myself that I am 37, as of yesterday.
Happy birthday. Have the kids been turning you on to the new music?
I actually have my brother, who’s 26 and lives in Williamsburg, so I find all of this stuff before they do. Look, a lot of them are still listening to Kelly Clarkson.
Are you working on any more musicals?
Steven and I have another show called The Nightingale, based on the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale. It’s a little more—I don’t want to say kid-friendly, but it doesn’t deal with incest and abortion and masturbation.
At the Eugene O’Neill Theatre; in previews for a December 10 opening