In the annals of great comebacks, few have been as fun to watch as the recent triumph of Duncan Sheik.
After hitting big with his 1996 debut album, which spawned the hit single “Barely Breathing,” Sheik continued making music with nary the success or commercial appeal of that debut. But if his subsequent releases failed to capture the public’s imagination, Sheik was fanning his own imagination with an under-the-radar foray into theater, collaborating with poet and writer Steven Sater on several musical projects. Their major collective effort, eight years in the making, was “Spring Awakening,” which — after numerous workshops and starts and stops — finally hit Broadway late last year and since has done nothing less than revolutionize the form.
After opening to some of the greatest reviews in Broadway history, many of which credited the show with bringing modern music and sensibilities to an institution badly in need of both, “Spring Awakening” was nominated for 11 Tony Awards, and walked off with eight.
Bankrate spoke with Sheik three days before the Tony ceremony, a period of time he described as “exciting, nerve-wracking and its own weird kind of torture.”
Bankrate: How did you connect with “Spring Awakening?”
Duncan Sheik: Steven Sater, the writer of the show, is a fellow Buddhist practitioner, and we met through the lay Buddhist organization we belong to. We had a conversation about what we were up to in our creative lives and Steven had a play called Umbrage in a little theater in my neighborhood. He asked me to set to music a lyric he had in the play, and after that he started faxing me lyrics that were related to this piece. That material became my third album on Nonesuch Records called “Phantom Moon.” While we were writing and recording that, he gave me a translation of the original “Spring Awakening,” and said he had an idea of making a musical out of it. So I read the play. I thought it was very strange and eccentric and fascinating and intense, and a lot of it very beautiful. We proceeded to talk about how we might create songs in the context of this narrative, and what type of songs they might be, and then we got together with (director) Michael Mayer. We did our first workshop in 1999 in La Jolla, Calif., and it’s been an eight-year saga with many twists and turns. We were going to be on the season for (New York’s) Roundabout Theater in 2003, but for a variety of reasons they took us off their schedule. We thought the show might never see the light of day, but we were very lucky in that Tom Hulce came along and resuscitated the piece, organizing a one-night-only concert version of this at Lincoln Center in early 2005, which led to the Atlantic Theater production last summer.
Bankrate: Was this your first foray into writing for theater?
Duncan Sheik: Yes and no. It’s the first major project that was undertaken, but over the course of the past eight years I wrote music for “Twelfth Night” when the Public Theater did it in Central Park in 2002. Steven and I have had two other musical projects. One was “Nero,” which we did in San Francisco last year and which we’re going to workshop at the Public later this summer; and then another piece called “The Nightingale,” which we’ve workshopped three times already. So I was working on many other theater projects concurrently with “Spring Awakening,” and in a way, working on these pieces has informed how I think about “Spring Awakening,” and what that piece has become.
Bankrate: Do you have any traditional theater background or training?
Duncan Sheik: That’s a gray area. When I was a kid I did a lot of musical theater and a lot of theater in general. I was The Artful Dodger in sixth grade. I was in “Barnum.” We did “The Muppet Movie” as a musical and I was Gonzo. Then later, in high school, I was in the pit band for “Godspell.” So I wasn’t part of the theater crowd, per se, but I was always tangentially involved.
Bankrate: How are the sales for “Spring Awakening?”
Duncan Sheik: After the Tony nominations, they kind of went through the roof. I think our sales almost doubled that week, and the box office continues to grow very healthfully. Here’s the thing. What had happened before was, we had these amazing audiences in the theater, but they were younger and couldn’t always spend $100 or $200 on a ticket. Now that the show has been lauded in this way, the existing theater audience is coming to see it as well, and those folks can spend $100 or $200 on a ticket. So it’s helping our show move into the black a little quicker.
Bankrate: What has the show’s success meant for you financially compared to your earlier pop music successes?
Duncan Sheik: I had a lot of success with my first album and as a songwriter, and where I was able to make money in that stage of my career was in publishing, because I wrote all the material on that record. So that was where the real income was coming from. But even though the record went gold, a gold record didn’t mean you would recoup and receive royalties from album sales. To this day, I’ve never received a royalty from an album sale.
Bankrate: Does that mean you’ve never received a royalty from “Barely Breathing?”
Duncan Sheik: No. That’s why I talk about publishing. I’ve absolutely received royalties from “Barely Breathing” and from many other songs from soundtracks or television shows, but that’s all publishing income — master and sync uses and mechanical royalties, things of that nature. That’s really the way I’ve been able to keep a roof over my head and a warm meal in my belly. That being said, I did go through a period — which was kind of the past eight years, and one of the reasons I started doing stuff in theater — where it was kind of tricky to make ends meet. Because if I’m touring with a full band in a bus, it costs me $30,000 a week. So I have to be getting pretty good guarantees in these rock clubs to be able to afford that, and it’s very hard with where I’m at as a touring artist. Sometimes I made money, and sometimes I didn’t. But that can be true of Bruce Springsteen. And in terms of records and record sales, the way the business is set up, of course I’d get an advance. I’d be able to put some money in the bank. But unless you’re selling a million records every time, you’re not going to see a lot of royalties from albums. And I wasn’t — so I wasn’t. The revenue stream had to continue to be from publishing and ancillary things, like public appearances, or one-off shows where you might get a really good guarantee because it was a special show. That’s how I kept the ship afloat. But it was not easy, and it hasn’t been until this year with “Spring Awakening” on Broadway, where I had a consistent income. Things are more comfortable now, and I don’t have to always go from show to show to pay my mortgage. And when “Spring Awakening” recoups, and when it goes on the road and happens internationally, Steven and I and Michael stand to do really well. So all of us are crossing our fingers that that happens.
Bankrate: At this stage — where the show is a hit, but a new hit — have you seen any of the benefit from it yet, or is that all looking forward?
Duncan Sheik: I do, of course, because as the composer of the show there’s a certain amount of money per week, a minimum, that I get paid. I’m not going out and buying Ferraris, but it’s definitely better than what I was getting. There’s a saying in musical theater: You can’t make a living, but you can make a killing. It’s really kind of true. Here’s one scenario. We could have done “Spring Awakening” at the Atlantic — and I love the Atlantic, they’re amazing — but from that whole process, and the seven years leading up to that, I think my entire income from that run was less than $10,000. Think about working on a piece of theater for seven years and getting paid $10,000. It’s crazy. But then, once the show goes to Broadway, and certainly once the show recoups, then you’re talking another order of magnitude of income.
Bankrate: Up until now, what was the hardest time for you?
Duncan Sheik: It was touch and go for a while. I remember when (his album) “Daylight” came out, which was like, 2002, and I was doing the music for “Twelfth Night” right after I finished recording that album. I had been able to buy a loft in TriBeCa (a neighborhood in Manhattan, N.Y.) in 1999. So I had a piece of real estate which was now valuable, but I still had a pretty big mortgage, and like I said, there wasn’t a huge amount of consistent income. So at that moment I was waiting for a couple of decent-sized checks, but they hadn’t come in yet and I wasn’t sure when they were coming in, and I literally had no money in my bank account. Zero. That was pretty scary, to have done your fourth record on a major label and be gearing up to go on tour, and to not have any money in the bank. That’s a bad scene.
Bankrate: Seeing how well “Spring Awakening” is doing, do you think the success for you will be greater than your success from “Barely Breathing?”
Duncan Sheik: Far, far greater. No question about it. It’s also the fact that the success of “Spring Awakening” has made it possible for Steven and I to get our other shows rolling. The momentum for these shows is really great right now, and it seems like the work I’m doing in the theater will continue to be a great thing for me financially.
Bankrate: Overall, have you done a good job of saving or investing, other than your home?
Duncan Sheik: It really has gone into my home, and into various things I’ve been doing. I have a recording studio in my loft, so I’m always investing back into my means of production. I’m constantly upgrading my studio and buying different instruments and guitars and outboard gear and microphones, and esoteric things that sound really great. That’s kind of where I’ve spent my money when I’ve had it. Look, I’m 37 now. It’s time to be an adult and start having proper investments, so I think Steven and I really want to start having a financial stake in our own shows. So I’m sure in the future, I’ll be investing in myself in that way.
Larry Getlen is a freelance journalist in New York.