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Rites of Spring
A chat with Duncan Sheik, the Tony-winning composer of 'Spring Awakening'
Composer Duncan Sheik met with SCAD musical theater students last fall

When Spring Awakening opened on Broadway in 2006, New York Times critic Charles Isherwood was, typically, tight–fisted with his praise. But he did manage to close with this corker of a line:

“Imprinted on the memory is the happy sensation of having witnessed something unusual and aspiring, something vital and new.”

The musical went on to win eight Tony Awards, including best musical, direction, book, score and featured actor.

This was especially gratifying for Duncan Sheik, whose original music gave Spring Awakening what the Times called a “rock ‘n’ roll heartbeat.”

It was the young singer/songwriter’s first foray into musical theater, and the task before him was daunting: Along with lyricist Steven Sater, turn 19th century German playwright Frank Wedekind’s controversial drama about adolescence The Awakening of Spring into something, well, cool.

“Our original hope against hope was that you could take this story from another century and pair it with music that’s stylistically contemporary, more or less, and maybe there would be some alchemy and some magic,” Sheik says. ”And you never know – sometimes there is and sometimes there isn’t.

“In this case, people seemed to feel like there was. That was a nice surprise.”

Indeed, the central theme of Spring Awakening — schoolchildren having their first sexual urges without any real understanding of what they are — is so universal, the show has been translated and performed successfully in more than 30 countries. In Japan, the children are Japanese. In Scandinavia, they’re Scandinavian.

It doesn’t hurt that Sheik’s music is throbbing and urgent when it needs to be, tender and moving when it’s called for. Sometimes funny, too.

The SCAD theater department opens its production of Spring Awakening at the Lucas Theatre March 29. It runs for five performances, through March 4.

“I think it’s going to be a cool production,” Sheik says. “Because of the nature of SCAD, and the nature of the student body, I think you’ll have, hopefully, a really personal and kind of eccentric take on the show. I like it when things change. I’ve seen it too many times now; I like it when it gets different.”

Fans of Rent, or Tommy, will find something kindred in the score for Spring Awakening.

“Initially, I was intentionally trying to make sure that I wasn’t changing my own musical aesthetic just because it was going to be staged as a piece of musical theater,” Sheik explains.

“I wanted to write the music that I write for my own records. Stylistically speaking. I didn’t want to jump into a whole new modality of writing, just because it was a different medium.”

Probably best known for the Top 20 hit “Barely Breathing,” Sheik was in Savannah last fall, working with SCAD theater students on a woodshed production of a new play.

The school’s production of Spring Awakening had just been cast, so he met some of the actors but didn’t have the opportunity to see and hear them in action.

Sheik says he got the musical theater “bug” after Spring Awakening was so well accepted; he’s since collaborated on Whisper House, a show about ghosts and apparitions, and is working on a musical based on American Psycho.

“The combination of my intention and my naÏveté was probably good in a way,” he laughs. “Since then, I can write things with a little bit more of an understanding of what this medium is and what it’s supposed to do, so even things like Whisper House, there is a little bit more of a story/song aesthetic going on there.

“But I think like anybody else it just has to do with developing your craft in some way.”

Not that he’s abandoned his first love. In April he kicks off a cross–country tour with Suzanne Vega, and he’s just released a new album, Covers 80s, on which he re–interprets, in his own style, classics by the Thompson Twins, the Cure, Talk Talk and Depeche Mode.

“It was a labor of love,” he says. “There were these bands that were big influences when I was a teenager, and were in some ways the things that inspired me to write music and make recordings.

“And some of these bands and artists are maybe given short shrift now, or seen as a little bit time–bound. And I think that’s kind of unfair. These are great songs no matter how you dress them up.”

Still on the table is the proposed movie version of Spring Awakening, which is being produced by Playtone, Tom Hanks’ company. Director McG (This Means War, We Are Marshall) is attached to the project.

Although Lea Michele (of TV’s Glee) originated the lead role of Wendla onstage, she hasn’t yet been offered the role for the film.

“Everyone knows that when Lea first worked on the show, she was 14,” says Sheik. “And I guess she’s probably 24. And the reality was that this girl was 14 years old, so there’s something that may not be quite right.

“Obviously, Lea is still real young and looks great, but she’s not 14 any more. I think that’s something we really need to think about.”

SCAD: Spring Awakening

Where: Lucas Theatre, 32 Abercorn St.

When: At 8 p.m. Feb. 29–March 3; at 3 p.m. March 4

Tickets: $20 General Admission, $15 with Senior, Student or Military ID, $5 with valid SCAD ID

Free with valid SCAD ID for Feb. 29th performance only