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In Acclaimed Broadway Production, Duncan Sheik ’88 Celebrates Music

Duncan Sheik ’88, a former pop star courtesy of his 1996 Top 40 hit “Barely Breathing,” said that he knew from a very young age that he was going to be a musician. Nevertheless, his most recent career turn has surprised many, including himself. His latest endeavor is in musical theater. In 1999, Mr. Sheik and lyricist Steven Sater met through a Buddhist group. “He had a play going up in a small off-Broadway theater at the time, and he asked me if I wanted to write the music for that play,” said Sheik. They collaborated as well on Mr. Sheik’s third album, Phantom Moon, in 2001, although their most notable project did not appear regularly until 2005. Sheik said, “Steven gave me a copy of Spring Awakening, this wild German play from 1891.” Spring Awakening, the play written by Frank Wedekind, had been banned in England until 1974 for strong adolescent sexual content and had never been performed as a musical. “Steven and I initially believed, naively so, that we could turn it into a Broadway show. We had been told so many times, though, that there were all sorts of reasons why it wouldn’t be able to go on Broadway,” said Sheik. The show opened this summer off-Broadway, at the Atlantic Theater in Chelsea. “We didn’t intend to do this as typical Broadway fare,” said Mr. Sheik. “We wanted instead to do a cool piece of theater with a great narrative and great songs.” The show began running on Broadway in December, and according to Mr. Sheik, audiences have wholly embraced the production. It has also been well-received by critics, including one lauda-tory remark in The New York Times, that “Broadway may never be the same.” Other facets of Sheik’s musical career include five studio albums, as well as film scores and other collaborations with Mr. Sater. While at Andover, Sheik was also interested in music. “I was constantly having my speakers taken away from me by my house counselors,” he said. “I had set up a little recording studio there, complete with an eight-track recorder, and I was just obsessed with music.” “It was a great time to be a music lover,” he said, “because all of the bands that inspired me were still around. English art-pop, like The Smiths, Depeche Mode, and The Cure, influenced me and is recycled in a lot of today’s music, whether it’s Interpol or My Chemical Romance.” Sheik, who lived in the recently demolished Williams Hall and Taylor Hall during his three years at Andover before attending Brown University, has fond memories of the school. “It was just an amazing place,” he said. “I have incredible memories of those three years, and I still have a lot of great friends from that time. Craig Thorn and Seth Bardo were great teachers, and I spent more time in the English Department than anywhere else, save for the music building.” “I’m not going to go into great detail,” he said, “but a lot happens to you between the ages of 15 and 18, and some of that is explored in Spring Awakening.” After leaving Brown, Mr. Sheik soon found a deal with Atlantic Records and released his self-titled debut album in 1996. “Barely Breathing” remained on the Billboard Chart for 55 weeks and earned him a Grammy nomination for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance in 1998. He also appeared in a guest spot on Beverly Hills, 90210. Sheik has mixed feelings about his early fame. “On one side of it, it’s brilliant. You’re enjoying that people are buying your record, and all is good. There was another side of it, for me, though, that was more difficult. I never really felt a kinship with other Top 40 artists.” He continued, “The reality is that early on I proceeded as a pop musician, and I’ve spent the last ten years trying to get away from that. Nevertheless, my new album, White Limousine, is grouped on iTunes with artists I enjoy. I guess it took me ten years to finally leave that environ-ment.” Mr. Sheik is going to continue in this mold, as he and Mr. Sater have penned a musical on the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, The Nightingale, set to debut in January 2008. He also plans to stay true to his roots in alternative music, as he has planned an album of song covers. “I’m thinking of doing a down-tempo, tragic, miserable, sort of album that reflects all that I was listening to when I was 16 or 17.”