Duncan Sheik & Steven Sater on Their New Wonderland-Inspired Musical 'Alice by Heart': 'It Feels a Lot Like 2018'
The duo behind one of the modern era's most game-changing musicals, Spring Awakening, are back at it again. Singer-songwriter Duncan Sheik and lyricist and book writer Steven Sater -- who both won Tony Awards for the hit 2006 show (together for best original score; Sater also won for best book) -- are giving another pre-existent tale a bold and provocative makeover in Alice by Heart, a new musical repurposing Lewis Carroll’s Alice's Adventures in Wonderland to tell the story of the titular character, who, along with an ailing pal, seeks refuge in an underground tube station during World War II's London Blitz.
Longtime collaborators Sheik and Sater call the show an “exploration of love, loss and the transformative power of the imagination," and it's going up in a workshop production with a cast of Broadway stars (School of Rock's Alex Brightman, Dear Evan Hansen's Noah Galvin, Matilda's Lesli Margherita) as part of Vassar College and New York Stage and Film’s 34th Powerhouse season, in advance of a major off-Broadway production at MCC Theater in early 2019.
Before the Powerhouse run (July 5-7), Sheik and Sater spoke to Billboard about their longstanding artistic partnership, how Lea Michele indirectly inspired their new musical, and why it's a perfect show for this political moment.
Alice in Wonderland is a favorite for stage adaptations -- what drew you to it?
Steven Sater: Someone proposed that Duncan and I look at Alice in Wonderland, so we began developing it as a piece of music at first. It's just a series of fantastic incidents. There’s no beginning, middle or end, really. Then I went with Lea Michele to see a troupe of young actors called Theater Geeks of America perform Spring Awakening songs at a concert in Los Angeles. As I watched these kids, I looked at Lea, who was in her early 20s and starting Glee at the time, and I remembered meeting her at 14. Then it hit me: This piece could be about how to leave childhood behind. I started to think about incidents that make you leave your childhood behind -- leaving home and dealing with loss, death and war. It evolved from there.
Musically, what can we expect from Alice by Heart?
Duncan Sheik: The score has a more heightened, psychedelic feel than Spring Awakening, but I don’t think people will be surprised that it comes from the same writers. For me, it was about finding different colors to bring these outrageous characters to life. We’re doing some orchestrations with winds, brass and strings … like military bands of the 1940s, but with contemporary music. It has a lot of fun layers.
Would you say there’s a common denominator in the projects you’ve worked on together?
Sheik: They all live in a historical moment, and yet they’re very much a reflection of our contemporary world. In the case of Alice by Heart, our Alice has a huge heart and a lot of compassion, but she’s in an insane situation where people have been traumatized and literally gone crazy. She has to navigate totally insane characters. It feels a lot like 2018 to me!
Sater: We like to use the past as a metaphor for the present. We began Spring Awakening in the wake of the Columbine shootings. Alice by Heart feels timely when we’re living in a world where politics feel out of control.
Why did you opt to present the show at Vassar instead of a traditional out-of-town run?
Sheik: [Being here] allows us to focus on the score, the book and other core aspects of the piece, and it allows us to do it intensely and without a lot of other distractions. We’re not dealing with choreography, staging, lighting or costumes, which we’ll obviously get to in our next incarnation.
Sater: Artistic director Johanna Pfaelzer is the unsung hero of the American theater. She has a real vision for theater in this country and she supports the artists she believes in. I feel like I’m coming home.
What’s the best part about collaborating with one another?
Sheik: We have a shorthand, a similar sense of humor and a common way of using language that’s fun, atypical and poetic.
Sater: Our shared understanding of the world. I can be my deepest self in what I write with Duncan. I can hear Duncan’s music in words when I’m writing. I feel like I have a good friend in the world, so that informs what I write for him and with him.