Singer-songwriter Duncan Sheik’s pop-chamber confessionals (echoing Nick Drake, edged in Rufus Wainwright, and cured in Jeff Buckley) have not only achieved mainstream radio success but critical respect as well. It was fitting that Sheik’s high-drama musical poetry be applied to theater, but few expected the resounding success of 2006’s “Spring Awakening,” a brash and poignant work (with Steven Sater) of sexual stirrings in 19th-century Viennese schoolchildren. The Tony Award-winning Broadway musical marked a new path for Sheik, who is concurrently developing three new works: “Nero,” a gleefully decadent take on the ancient ruler; an adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Nightingale,” slated to open next year at San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater; and the baroque ghost story “Whisper House,” slated for Vassar College’s Powerhouse Theater this month on July 10 and 11.
Collaborating with librettist Kyle Jarrow and director Keith Powell (Toofer on TV’s “30 Rock”), composer-lyricist Sheik has fashioned a score knowingly histrionic but engaging in its melancholy. (He recorded the 10-song score on CD this past January.) “Whisper House” is anchored in vintage artifice, just begging for a film adaptation by director Guy Maddin. The tale takes place on the Maine seashore at the height of World War II. Young Christopher has been sent to live in a lighthouse with his Aunt Lilly. As he navigates his new world, the boy struggles to understand his eccentric aunt, her tightlipped Japanese handyman, and the relentless wailings that come from a gathering of ghosts calling beyond the shoals.
In early June, while on a yoga retreat in Cannes, France, Sheik spoke about “Whisper House,” its fitful journey from the page to the stage, and why all art must contain hope. “Whisper House” will be performed July 10 and 11 at the Powerhouse Theater, Vassar College, Poughkeepsie. $25. (845) 437-7235; www.powerhouse.vassar.edu.
[The following is the original, unedited transcript.]
rewarding; it allows them to see where a work can be improved. What
was accomplished last year for your work-in-progress "Nero" by mounting
it at Powerhouse?
Sheik: An enormous amount was accomplished. We restructured the
piece; I know that I wrote a lot of new songs even in that short
period of time. Steven [Sater] rewrote a lot of the text of the
show, and I think we all had a better conception of what the piece
was ultimately supposed to be about. After the workshop, actually, we
were able to get together and, given what we had experienced there
for that couple of weeks, think about what the next iteration of the
piece would be. That iteration will probably be the real staged
production. So, it was great to figure out the things that were wrong
with it and generally it improved the piece greatly.
Chronogram: "Whisper House" was originally supposed to have its debut
at a theater earlier this year, but that was cancelled due to
financial issues –
Sheik: Well, it’s kind of nebulous. We were commissioned by a theater
in Stamford, Conn., and we wrote the piece and – Frankly, I don't
think that particular theater had the money to produce the show in
the first place. So there was a little bit of hoping against hope
that we could do it there, which wasn’t going to happen. Then we were
going to do it at another theater in Maryland. It wasn’t really the
right fit for them ultimately either. But Keith, Kyle, and I – the
collaborators on the piece – we all –
[Cellphone call drops. Interviewer redials.]
Chronogram: Where are you currently?
Sheik: I’m slightly embarrassed to say that I’m in the south of
France right now. I’m actually in Cannes.
Chronogram: But you missed the film festival?
Sheik: I was actually here the last day. I was kind of in the
neighborhood but I wasn’t attending any events. So I was around. I’m
here in the south of France for a kind of yoga retreat for the lack
of a better word and we just came to the beach for the day.
Chronogram: That sounds fantastic.
Sheik: No complaints.
Chronogram: You were talking about the Maryland theater.
Sheik: So we were commissioned by the theater in Stamford. Conn. Then
there was a theater in Maryland that was going to do it. Ultimately,
neither one really had the resources to do this kind of piece. So
ultimately there’s a theater in San Diego called The Old Globe and
it’s a great institution. They’ve brought many shows to Broadway in
the past decade. They got really excited about it, so we’re going to
do the show there in late January. But we’ve never even done a full-
blown-out workshop, ever of this piece. We did a little workshop in
New York City about a year ago – a four-day thing. So to be able to
go to New York Stage & Film and really look at the beast and fix some
things that are inevitably wrong with it, that’s really valuable and
Chronogram: Giving "Whisper House" a merciless appraisal, what is it in
the show that still has to evolve?