Duncan Sheik is conquering the musical theater world three shows at a time.
In the past six months, Tony and Grammy Award-winning Sheik has composed the scores for The Secret Life of Bees, Because of Winn Dixie, and Alice By Heart – all based on beloved novels. Having premiered at various off-Broadway and premiere regional theaters, these shows have found Sheik expanding his acclaimed repertoire with a new and diverse array of musical influences.
With a new cast album now available for purchase and streaming from Ghostlight Records, Alice By Heart was a unique take on Alice in Wonderland with one of the best pop-infused musical theater scores since Dear Evan Hansen. To celebrate the album’s release, I spoke with Tony and Grammy Award-winning Sheik about juggling his various projects, his reflections on American Psycho and Spring Awakening, his next three musicals, and much more.
Alice in Wonderland has been adapted into so many mediums, from film to TV to theater and more. In your opinion, what are the defining characteristics that make Alice By Heart such a singular experience?
Jessie Nelson and Steven Sater, the co-writers of the book, had a conception of this version of the show where it’s a sort of meta-narrative in which Alice is a girl who lives in London during the Blitz. Alice in Wonderland is one of her favorite books and it’s something that she goes to warm her heart. In the midst of this terrible situation in the London Underground with her unrequited boyfriend, she uses the book to get him out of his difficult state where he may possibly be dying. So that’s the sort of meta-narrative that sets us out on the story.
Then, the other kids that are in the Underground sort of become the characters that we all know and love from Alice in Wonderland. We see them transform into these other beings. A few times through the show, you see them come back to reality and then back to the fantasy land. That’s part of the journey and the beauty of it. It’s just our own take on this classic tale.
How does setting the show in 1941 against the backdrop of World War II reframe our understanding of what Wonderland is?
Steven and Jessie had very specific ideas about why they wanted to set it there. I think it has a little bit to do with the 1940s being a time where, obviously you had the Holocaust, but you also had the death of literature. They wanted to play up the idea of how intensely heartbreaking that was. But this is their conception of the story, so I’m just speaking on their behalf.
The original book by Lewis Carroll was first published in 1865. Why do you think that this story has remained so culturally relevant and timely a century and a half later?
That’s a very good question that I don’t know that I’m qualified to answer. I do think that book is amazing, and that the characters are very vivid, interesting and fascinating. It’s a very episodic tale, where Alice goes down the hole and then she goes through X, Y and Z scenarios. But there’s not really a beginning and middle and end to it. She goes down there, this stuff happens, and then she pops back up again. From a purely narrative point of view, I don’t know if it’s the most awesome book. But it clearly is a great book in terms of the vividness of the characters.
Alice By Heart is filled with fantastical characters. Who were both the most fun and creatively challenging characters to write music for? Why?
I’d have to say Dr. Butridge, who sings the song “Brillig Braeling.” That to me was always really a high point in the show. The turtles and the mock turtles are also really beautiful. Noah Galvin played the Duchess, and he sings the song “Manage Your Flamingo” that’s super fun.
It’s hard to pick my favorites. Obviously, both Molly Gordon and Colton Ryan sang the more beautiful, heartfelt ballads. But it’s those things that are the oddest and weirdest that are a little more interesting to me.
As a composer, what are the pros and cons of having your songs tell the full story and carry the heart of a musical in an album format for those who can’t or don’t see the stage production? Does this thought ever impact how you approach your writing?
Well, we made the decision to make the record at the very end of the run. I have to give our producers a lot of thanks because it was not inexpensive to make the record. The fact that they did that, despite not having the best reviews in the world, was really awesome. It was a really fun experience.
Normally when I’ve made a record, it’s a three or four or five-month process. It’s very labored in terms of cutting the band and cutting different instrumentation, and different singers. But when you make a cast album, it has to get cut in two days or two and a half days.
This was the first time I’ve ever had that experience of being like, “Okay, we’re going to go in, we’re going to set everything up. Then we’re going to cut the whole band one day, we’re going to cut all the singers the next day, and then let’s see how it goes,” you know?
That was really intense for me. But I actually think it’s a good experience, because in some ways, it’s kind of how the Beatles and the Stones made records back in their infancy. It wouldn’t have been a long process. It would be like, “Okay, let’s cut it. We’ll cut 14 versions of the songs. But once we got it, we got it. It’s in the can and then we’ll mix it later.” That was a really interesting way to make a record for me, because it was much more immediate.
Alice By Heart wrapped up its off-Broadway run in April. Are there plans for future productions and/or a Broadway transfer that you can share any details about?
I think that the record is doing pretty well, in terms of streaming and stuff like that. I’m sure there is going to be a future life for it. We haven’t had a very specific discussion amongst the creative team about where and how we’re going to do that. I wouldn’t think that we’re going to have a Broadway life or a West End life just yet, but I would think that maybe we could have regional productions, college productions and high school productions. It could go around the US and Britain, and wherever else in Europe. I think it’s a show that really would be appealing to young kids and to older people. Having that sort of the historical context that it’s been put in makes it really educational.
Shifting gears, the world premiere of The Secret Life of Bees just finished its run at the Atlantic Theater Company. The music for this show blends elements of gospel, blues, and country with traditional musical theater. How did you stretch your sound to incorporate these new influences not seen in your previous work? Where would you like to see this show go next?
I actually grew up in South Carolina, and so I lived sort of adjacent to many Gullah-Geechee communities. Though I didn’t necessarily have a lot of interaction with them, I do think it seeped into my pores a little bit. When the idea was proposed for me to write the music for that show, I was like, “Okay, I think I know how to do this.” It was four or five years of a process to write that score. But as I did get into it, I was like, “Okay, yeah, this is the sound of the music of from where I’m from.”
Even though I’m not from that community, I did sort of soak in that atmosphere. That sort of allowed me to get to a place of like, “This is blues, this is R&B, this is Americana, and this is magical, mystical, syncretic religious music that the sisters are singing.” It was all stuff that in a funny way, eventually, came very naturally to me. It just took me a minute to understand the story, and then I was able to really jump in. Some of these songs, I’m really very proud of.
You’re having quite a busy year! Also debuting this summer is the musical adaptation you wrote of Because of Winn Dixie, playing at The Goodspeed in Connecticut through September 5. What were some of the highlights of writing the music for a show that also stars a live dog?
It’s funny because there is a little bit of overlap between Bees and Because of Winn Dixie, because they both feature a young white girl who is kind of out of her element. They both have a mixture of genres, whether it’s blues, gospel, folk, rock and roll or whatever. So there’s some overlap there.
The great feature of Because of Winn Dixie is Bowdie, the dog. He’s the biggest ham onstage I’ve ever seen in my life, he’s hilarious! He justlovesbeing onstage and the audience loves him. If he doesn’t win the Tony this year, I’m going to be really upset.
Next winter, the world premiere of your new musical, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, will take place in New York. Not only are you writing this show, you’ll also be a part of the cast. How has your creative process writing the music for that show been different knowing that you’ll be the one on stage singing it? And what inspired you to want to take on this role?
Initially, I didn’t know that I was going to be asked to be in the show! I should say that I’m not going to be Bob or Carol or Ted or Alice. I’m sort of the supernumerary who’s just wandering around the stage being a little bit of an emcee and sort of explaining what’s going on in the show. So, my role is not nearly as big as the other four, I’m just a functionary. But I mean, I might sing a couple songs. We have to see how it develops.
In his latest book, White, author Bret Easton Ellis dedicates a section to what he deems as the artistic and commercial failure of the American Psycho musical adaptation. What are your thoughts on how he’s characterized the show and the process of bringing it to Broadway?
I’ve not seen that and I actually really would love to see it. I’ve hung out with Bret since the closing of the show, and we’ve talked about it publicly on radio and on a podcast. I know what his feelings are about it. I mean, my feelings are that we made a huge misstep in releasing the show in the same season as Hamilton, which was the obvious juggernaut. Hamilton was always going to get all the attention, and rightfully so. But I feel like we made a really cool and beautiful show. Rupert Goold is an amazing director.
In fact, the show has since had a couple cool productions in San Francisco, Australia, and South Korea. I think it will have a further life, and we hope to bring it back to London. But if I could do it all over again, I would have waited another 12 months.
Spring Awakening has a legacy of being a contemporary musical theater classic. What does that mean to you and why do you think its resonated with global audiences in such a big way?
There’s something about it that is universal, which is the inability of adolescents to communicate properly with teachers and parents and clergy, in a sort of bourgeois society. There’s a wall there that’s really unhealthy, and that causes unhealthy behavior.
That’s something that’s very universal. That happens in America. That happens in Europe. That happens everywhere in the world. I think that’s why the show has had so much appeal. I think young kids, and even adults who were young kids during the decades after that show was written, they sort of understand how impactful it was to not be able to have these conversations openly, and the devastation that happened from that.
Many of the original Broadway cast members of Spring Awakening have graduated to massive careers – like Lea Michele, Jonathan Groff, John Gallagher, Jr., Lilli Cooper, Skylar Astin, and Gideon Glick, to name a few. Looking back, did you ever know that the show would act as a launching pad for these performers into superstardom?
Well, Lea’s been on Broadway since she was six years old. She’s always had a trajectory and always will. But with John Groff and John Gallagher Jr. and Skylar Astin, and Lauren, they were sort of newbies in a way. The fact that they all did launch their careers, I’ll take the compliment.
Overall, how do you think the general landscape of Broadway and musical theater has evolved since Spring Awakening premiered? What’s different about writing musicals today versus in the early 2000s?
There are a lot more adventurous shows coming out every year. Look at Hadestown for example. It is a really beautiful score and Rachel Chavkin did an amazing job directing that. I’m using that as a prime example because it just swept the Tonys. There are a lot of other shows that I think are really interesting and cool, and I think people are getting a little more loose with what they’re writing about, the way that they write the music, and maybe connecting that music more closely to pop culture.
I think that’s a really healthy thing. The music business is not really doing that great but the theater business is doing great. So you want to make sure that the theater business and the music business are more well-connected. That went away for, probably from the 50s until Tommy came out. It was like they were two different industries and now they’ve come back together again. I think that’s really brilliant. I think Lin-Manuel Miranda led the charge in that. But I’ll take a little bit of credit of getting that process started.
So what’s next for you? What are some of your musical theater dreams?
Well, I’ve got a few shows in development. I’ve got a show called Ma Vie En Rose. It’s about a young girl who was born a boy in Belgium in the ’90s, again, in a very bourgeois society. It takes place a century later from Spring Awakening. It’s about the harrowing process that she goes through to find her identity.
I’ve also got a show called Noir, which is a sort of a film noir show set in LA. It’s a little bit like Rear Window. We’re hoping to get it on stage at some point in the next year or so.
Then of course, Bob, Carol, Ted and Alice, as we’ve talked about. I’ve got those three things that are fully in development. Then, you know, it’s just seeing what the future is of these three shows that I just did, and hoping that they get the lives that they deserve.
At some point, once I get finished with all this theater stuff, I do want to make a new record. I want to go out there and do some touring, just as in like the normal Duncan Sheik guy that I used to be. We’ll just have to see when that’s able to happen.
ALICE BY HEART PHOTOS | Deen van Meer Photography
DUNCAN SHEIK PHOTO | Shervin Lainez