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Why Two Great '90s Singer-Songwriters Are Doing an Off-Broadway Musical Now

Duncan Sheik Suzanne Vega
Bruce Glikas/WireImage

Duncan Sheik and Suzanne Vega pose at the opening night party for the new musical "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice" at Green Fig Urban Eatery at Yotel on Feb. 4, 2020 in New York City.

Duncan Sheik wrote the music and Suzanne Vega is singing it in 'Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice.'

An off-Broadway musical based on an iconic late '60s film may seem unusual creative fodder for two beloved '90s singer-songwriters. Nonetheless, it's what recently brought one-time tour-mates Duncan Sheik and Suzanne Vega together again.

Sheik -- now a prolific musical theater composer best known for his Tony-winning Spring Awakening, and recently the author of shows such as The Secret Life of Bees and Alice By Heart -- called on Vega to star in his newest project, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, based on the Paul Mazursky  film of the same name (playing through March 22 at the Pershing Square Signature Center).  Sheik wrote the music and co-wrote the lyrics with Amanda Green for the story of two couples in 1969 who test just how open they are to the era's sexually free mindset; Vega plays the Bandleader, an omniscient figure who drily comments on the action.

The two caught up with Billboard to chat about their long-standing friendship and artistic mutual admiration society, and how they're hoping to freshen up musical theater now.

Tell me a bit about how you two know each other -- had you worked together before? 

Duncan Sheik: I was in high school when Suz’s first two records came out, and they were playing a lot in the hallways of my dorm. I was a fan from the beginning.

Suzanne Vega: And I was a fan of “Barely Breathing.” When  it came out, I was knocked flat.

Sheik: Suz and I first met when we were both on tour in the mid '90s, when my first record came out. What record were you touring?

Vega: It was Nine Objects of Desire.

Sheik: We had another connection because we’re both Buddhists; we come from Buddhist families. We’ve sort of shared musicians through the years, and we actually wrote a show together. Suz wrote a show about Carson McCullers and I chipped in with some music.

Vega: It’s called Lover Beloved: Songs From an Evening With Carson McCullersDuncan really pushed me out of my comfort zone. Your idea of melody is much broader than mine, especially for my own voice.

Sheik: Well that’s very kind. If you think my melodies are broad, you should hear my comedy. [laughs]

The sound of the music in this show isn’t necessarily what I would expect the go-to sound for a ‘60s-era show to be -- how did you arrive at the sonic palette?

Sheik: I was born in 1969, which is when the show is set. So a lot of the music I soaked in in my very early childhood [influenced me] -- from the sort of obvious pop stuff to things that were more obscure. Maybe they were on the radio, but they were more like bachelor pad music, like the Fifth Dimension and the Association, obviously the [Burt] Bacharach stuff is in there too. These are white people in L.A., they’re sort of bourgeois, they’re not down and dirty. There was something kind of ... I don’t want to say easy listening, but purposefully sophisticated about it.

Vega: It’s very comfortable to sing. There are elements of pop that people don’t seem to pick up on. This song “Naked” has the organ sound, almost like the Zombies. I hear a bit of rock influence now and then. There’s harpsichord that’s very sort of Doors. It’s not so squeaky clean.

Sheik: Scott Eliott, our director, wanted the music to be very acoustic in a way.  He wanted people to kind of lean in to listen, for it to feel very intimate and real. Musical theater has gotten a little loud lately.


Duncan, why did Suzanne feel right to inhabit this really specific part? 

Sheik: I was initially going to do it, and I just had a baby so doing eight shows a week seemed impossible. [Music supervisor and vocal arranger] Jason Hart had the great idea to ask Suz, and thankfully she came in.

Vega: I had been doing the narrator part for a European version of [Philip Glass’s opera] Einstein on the Beach, so he knew I’d been doing narration work. When I saw the rehearsal, I was so impressed with the cast and the script and thought it was very funny and witty and moving. After one day of rehearsal, I thought, "Yeah, I’m going to jump on board."

Suzanne, is this very different from how you’d approach a performance of your own music?

Vega: Very much. I take each character [the Bandleader inhabits] seriously and I prepare for each character. The way each character speaks is different, the body language is slightly different. In the beginning I went so far as to give them completely different voices -- but Scott directed me not to do that, just to be the Bandleader. It’s been a lot of fun to play with.

Sheik: She’s sort of like the voice of reason -- Suz’s character is just looking sort of benignly but amusingly at the antics of these two couples. In some ways the Bandleader is provocative, but [she] looks at the characters with empathy.  

Is the movie something you’d both seen? Why did you think it lent itself to this format?

Sheik:really only knew the movie poster. I had to kind of watch the movie a bunch of times to really get into it and figure out what the musical adaptation might be. It already had a score by Quincy Jones, so it’s not like I’m trying to compete with that or ape that at all.  I wanted to do something with a different aesthetic.

Vega: I haven’t seen it yet -- I wanted to have a more organic experience of the play. But I think I’ll watch it in a couple weeks and see if I can glean anything for inspiration. My own parents had done a lot of group therapy sessions around that time [as the characters do], and I remember that -- talking about feelings was a big part of how I grew up. The idea of playing a therapist similar to my parents’ was irresistible. I was like, "Wow, this is really odd."
 
This seems like it could be a new model for a musical -- that it can be small and have this kind of sui generis feel.

Sheik: In a way, it’s the nature of the particular [theater], how the audience is already essentially right on top of the actors. The boundaries between the audience and what’s happening onstage are very porous.

Vega: I haven’t seen that many musicals except for the classic ones -- it’s not a genre I’ve kept up with. It’s really more Duncan’s world than mine. But I love the format.

Sheik: And I’m also definitely at an angle myself, even within the world of musical theater. We both have some remove from it, which is good, because it means we have our own take. It’s important to try to reinvent things. Mediums have to evolve.



Musical theater projects evolve over long spans of time, but it does seem like you’ve been very busy lately, Duncan. Are you learning concrete things from each of these shows?

Sheik: The thing about musical theater is, it takes forever to get a show onstage. This happened pretty quickly -- and it was really four and a half years. It’s not like I’m just churning them out! But in a way, I’m always looking to play with a different genre. It just gives you different harmonies and styles to play with, and that keeps it interesting for me as a composer.

Vega: I try to see everything Duncan does. I saw Spring Awakening, I’ve seen Alice By Heart. And you’ve played some of those songs on tour, right?

Sheik: I’ll play them to what I call the Normal Listening Audience. It’s funny because it really is two quite separate audiences. I was hoping there might be more overlap between the fans of our pop records and the musical theater fans, but it’s been pretty hard work to bridge that gap. But I’m still trying. It’s great that musical theater is finally no longer the red-headed stepchild of the entertainment industry it once was.

I saw recently that Stephen Sondheim came to see the show. Please tell me everything!

Vega: It was fantastic meeting him. He spent a long time sitting and talking to us. He’s a fascinating person. We were talking about the show and the audience -- he said you can tell when the audience doesn’t like it, and that they definitely liked it. He asked if we’d had a bad audience, and I said we’d had quiet audiences, and he said that didn’t mean they didn’t like it.

Sheik: I wasn’t there that night, sadly. But I have met him a few times before, and he’s always been really lovely. It’s amazing that he’s still rockin’ and writing really great music and out there coming to shows. Talk about goals.

Vega: I was so impressed. I’ve been thinking about him a lot since then.

Sheik: I’ve heard he sometimes goes to shows and walks out. I’m glad he didn’t do that the two times I know he’s come to one of my shows! He came to Spring Awakening, and he really liked it, so that was good.


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