Duncan Sheik

by Thomas Hauner

11 December 2008

On this particular night Duncan Sheik confirmed his seat at the musical theatre head table.
Photos: Thomas Hauner 

After suffering the consequences of the one-hit-wonder label—at the hands of “Barely Breathing” on his eponymous 1996 debut—Duncan Sheik shifted gears and took shelter in the melancholy and more politically charged songs of Phantom Moon. Helping him write lyrics for the album was fellow lay Buddhist, poet, friend, and collaborator Steven Sater whom he had recently met. Not fully expunged of his pop tendencies, Sheik returned, once more, to the saccharine melodies that so easily defined him earlier in his career, releasing Daylight and yielding his first number one hit, “On a High”—its ethereal electronic sound a common denominator on the entire album.

For an eight-year span, throughout much of this time, Sheik and Sater had been collaborating on a musical version of Frank Wedekind’s play Spring Awakening. The story of sexually oppressed adolescents and their exploration of socially proscribed affection during the German Empire, Sheik’s and Saters’ adaptation, when finally produced in 2006, was lauded as an innovative and fresh arrival to Broadway. Accolades confirmed the critics’ response, including numerous Tony and Drama Desk Awards and a Grammy for Sheik.

Duncan Sheik

13 Nov 2008: The Town Hall — New York, NY

Sheik has undergone another paradigm shift it seems. On this particular night Sheik confirmed his seat at the musical theatre head table, and he did this in several ways. For one, he almost entirely eschewed his early repertoire, save for a few recognizable tunes he started with, e.g. “For You”, “Wishful Thinking”, and “Such Reveries”. Instead the first half of his set revolved around “Spring Awakening” entirely, reconstructing some of its candidly anguished ballads in a more behind-the-scenes type atmosphere. He accomplished this by mocking the predictability of musical theatre’s pacing (“They then feel guilty about what they’ve done, and so they sing a song. I’ve got this musical theatre thing down”), having original cast member, and opening act, Lauren Pritchard sing some duets, and also by entertaining the crowd with charming banter on the intricacies of his band members’ drink preferences and good looks.

Overall his voice was clear and composed, like the Broadway singers singing his melodies but minus the drama and overacting. Sheik sings with remarkable intonation which allows a natural and effortless tone to permeate his sound. Surrounded by an agile four-piece band, his refined clarity was at once soothing and powerful, especially within his tightly composed songs.

A secondary-instrument section, if you will, featuring clarinet, French horn, and cello played beautifully rich arrangements that made the show’s original accompaniment seem sparser. They were particularly forceful during “The Guilty Ones”, realizing the underlying tension of the characters’ insubordination. Most evocative was band member Holly Brook’s solo version of the musical’s opening number, “Mama Who Bore Me”.

The second half of Sheik’s set was devoted to Whisper House, a new album slated for release in early 2009. Like “Spring Awakening” it is a musical to which Sheik wrote the music—and this time co-wrote the lyrics with librettist Kyle Jarrow. Unlike “Spring Awakening”, though, the accompanying album is to be released as a solo project for Sheik.

The story itself revolves around a World War II era haunted lighthouse in Maine. The protagonist Christopher interacts with ghosts and his own fears of death and loss, and the song titles easily reflect these ideals: “It’s Better to be Dead”, “We’re Here to Tell You There is Such a Thing as Ghosts”. The haunting “Salomon Snell” painted grim pictures of fated deadringers and had an eerie melody line twisting throughout.

Sheik also poked fun, again, at the dependable structure of musicals (a song for every change in plot or mood) and his own novelty with the songs—he was obviously still “on book”, relying on a music stand with lyrics to all the songs. At one point he had a dramatic realization, exclaiming, “Oh my God! We just went totally out of order”. Chronologically intact or not, his new songs were more hauntingly melodic than the generally minor-toned and emotionally repressive subject matter of “Spring Awakening”. The show’s finale, “Take a Bow”, however, is a clever guise for efficiency: Curtain call, applause, and song in one.

Perhaps the best song of the night was “On a High”. For his encore Sheik rearranged the originally electronic-based rhythm line to the song, letting the bass-clarinet, French horn, and cello play it, bringing out its harmonic subtleties. It instantly lent the song intimacy, if not a dose of musical-theatricality. The lightness of it all, including Sheik’s laissez-faire attitude, made me comfortable that he’s not becoming a full-blown drama queen any time soon.

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