Energized by composer Duncan Sheik

by Alicia Anstead

Duncan Sheik was just back from a post-Thanksgiving bicycle ride in New York City. The air and the buzz of the neighborhood clearly energized him. But if you know anything about Sheik's work -- he composed the music to the hit musical "Spring Awakening" -- then you know he's not short on energy. The show teems with singing young people whose steroidal emotional worlds collide and coalesce in music -- so much so that the show won eight Tony Awards in 2007, including Best Original Score, Best Musical and Best Original Orchestrations.

Sheik will be in the company of young people again next month when he teams up with singer/songwriter Suzanne Vega and director Kay Matschullat '77 for a weeklong residency at Harvard College, hosted by Harvard Office for the Arts and Arts @ 29 Garden (Harvard's newest arts space), to continue work on a new music-theater piece about the Southern writer and provocateur Carson McCullers. The artistic collaborators will share their work during a student-only informal presentation 4-5:30 p.m. Thursday Dec. 2 at Art s@ 29 Garden. (Students must bring IDs.)

"Basically, all of the pieces I've worked on have required a shocking amount of development," said Sheik, who is 41. "'Spring Awakening' had eight different developmental scenarios. So it's huge to have an opportunity to be outside of where you live and away from the distractions of your own environment to be cocooned with your fellow collaborators."

In addition to his work in musical theater, Sheik is also a touring singer-songwriter in his own right -- a multi-genre musician. Growing up, he listened to the songs of Suzanne Vega, and after his debut song "Barely Breathing" in 1996, the two crossed paths professionally. "We'd find ourselves in the same radio station doing interviews, and we'd say hello because we also knew we were both part of the same Buddhist community. So we knew each other for 15 years, but in a passing way."

Vega began the Carson McCullers project years ago and decided to unearth it more recently for development. Vega imagines herself in the role of McCullers, who presents her theory of love, while exploring and divulging the secrets of the human heart. As she speaks and sings her way through a labyrinth of love, Carson the artist, comic, sufferer and provocateur is revealed.

The story is accompaned by a guitarist and pianist who also take on characters in the life and work of McCullers.

In January, the artistic team members will be in residence at the Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York, where they will finish the piece. "Carson McCullers Sings about Love" will premiere at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater in New York City in April of 2011.

For Sheik, the time to work in a concentrated way in a dedicated space is a gift. But he also is committed to working with young people. After all, many of the performers in the original "Spring Awakening" -- including "Glee" star Lea Michele -- were in high school and college at the time. When he is on concert tours, Sheik regularly meets with students at local music departments.

"I really enjoy it," he said. "Selfishly, I get a lot of info from kids -- you hear what they're into and psyched about. And it's nice telling them stories so they have a sense of the process. But it's definitely a two-way street."

He is also ready with advice: "There's a tendency for certain kids to do things that are very, very commercially successful in the broadest way. To me, that makes incredibly boring art. I encourage students to find out what's eccentric and strange and unique to them. When one does that -- at any age -- they tend to be the things that matter and have a better shot to stand the test of time. Be unique and please yourself in the most profound ways. That's first and foremost."

[Caption: Duncan Sheik (photo courtesy the artist)]