Back in 2006, singer-songwriter Duncan Sheik surprised the musical theater world when he wrote one of the most revolutionary scores of the decade, for Spring Awakening — a story of sexually repressed 19th Century German teens who spoke in the parlance of their time but sang like indie rock stars. Shiek won two Tony Awards, for his orchestrations and score.
The show has since become a modern classic — which enjoyed an acclaimed revival incorporating sign-language in 2015 — and last year, Sheik made a return to Broadway with American Psycho.
His next project: a still-in-development musical take on the bestselling Sue Monk Kidd novel The Secret Life of Bees, about a young white girl in 1964 South Carolina who explores her deceased mother’s past with the aid of her African-American caretaker. The show — directed by Tony-winner Sam Gold and with a book by Pulitzer-winner Lynn Nottage and lyrics by Working Tony-nominee Susan Birkenhead — will debut in workshop form July 27-30 at Vassar College’s Powerhouse Theater, in collaboration with New York Stage and Film. Orange is the New Black actress Uzo Aduba and Sophia Anne Caruso, from the David Bowie musical Lazarus, will star in the production.
Sheik spoke to Billboard about the project in advance of the premiere.
The musicals you’ve worked on have all had very different stories. What appealed to you about this one?
To be really blunt, I knew Secret Life of Bees was a great piece of literary fiction that was also commercially very successful. I knew a movie had been made, I knew people really loved this story, but frankly I didn’t know [the book] before I was approached about working on it. Of course, I did then read it and loved it.
Taking place in South Carolina in the mid ’60s, I grew up maybe a decade later in South Carolina, so I knew that universe, and I felt really connected to the story, to the archetypes of these characters. It just felt like something that I could dig my teeth into.
The other thing I felt really strongly about — I don’t want to be overly grandiose, but it’s a story about how white privilege needs to be looked at and checked and understood in a way. People who are white in South Carolina in 1964, or today, really need to understand better the history of their own place and what that has kind of wrought in our country. We still have a real massive problem with race in our culture: It didn’t go away with Obama, it’s just gotten worse with Trump, and I think this story dives into these issues in a lovely emotional and kind and vital way, and also a slightly intense and painful way.
It also feels super timely to have this story that’s about female friendship, starring a young woman and a mostly female cast.
Exactly. Look, I feel like somehow I’m getting more intense about race and gender politics than I want to, but that’s really the thing that’s come up as I’ve been working on it. That’s where I’ve felt the ability to tap into something powerful.
Almost every single show I’ve worked on in the past 12 years has taken on some new meaning given the political realities of America in 2017. It’d be unfair to say this show is any different. We’re just living in crazy, crazy times. It’s our duty as artists to confront these things.
At this point, I’ve talked about Donald Trump so much I’m almost tired of it. Trying to find a way of creating art that makes people feel whole and human and loving and understanding toward one another — that’s the really important thing the show needs to accomplish.
Your last show, American Psycho, was firmly planted in the ’80s, and this is in a different world entirely. What kind of sounds were you exploring as you wrote the score?
There’s definitely a Southern thing going on, but it’s an interesting conversation between what I’d call white Southern music and black Southern music, and how those things intersect and relate to each other. So, for example, there’s a song called “I’ve Got a Right to Know,” which has a very R&B drum and bass groove but a really intense Southern-fried Allman Brothers guitar sound coursing through it. I’m definitely playing with these genres a little bit and trying to mix and match and hybridize them.
Did anything you’ve been listening to lately influence the score?
The things I’ve been listening to are like, the new Kendrick Lamar record. It doesn’t seem like the right reference point for this show, but what can I say? Thematically, there’s a lot of stuff in that record that’s very powerful about belief and faith, and there’s a thread there about protest music.
Tell me about working with stars Sophia Anne Caruso and Uzo Aduba.
Sophia is  now, but she literally is the most sophisticated person in the room. As an actor, she’s above and beyond. I saw her doing the David Bowie thing [Lazarus] downtown, and instantly I knew she was a star in the making. And Uzo and I have had a long history. We just did a workshop last month of this show [Alice By Heart] that’s an adaptation of Alice in Wonderland, and she was extraordinary. She’s got a very big voice that’s really present, really intense; you don’t need to worry about putting a microphone on her.
Are you working on non-theater music at the moment?
I do plan on making another record next year. Legerdemain came out in 2015, and I think my last non-theater record before that was like, 2006. So hopefully it won’t take another 10 years for me to put a record out.
It’s this funny thing where I feel like of course I want to make records and I want an audience to hear them but it’s very much a labor of love for me. Whereas I think the work I’m doing in the theater really gets an amazing kind of broad audience and I’m really grateful for that.
It’s incredibly strange that I’ve found myself in this place where much more people hear my compositions in the context of theater than on a record or on the radio. So be it! But I still love doing both. And I will always do both.