‘Spring Awakening’ composer Duncan Sheik returns to pop with ‘Legerdemain’

Singer-songwriter Duncan Sheik at the Sunset Marquis hotel in West Hollywood on Sept. 2, 2015.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Duncan Sheik has experienced clear success in two creative fields.

As a pop singer and songwriter, he scored a top 20 hit in 1996 with “Barely Breathing,” a Grammy-nominated kiss-off that continues to resonate thanks to recent placements in youth-attuned TV series like “Glee” and “Girls.”

And as a composer of theater music, he won a Tony Award for his score for “Spring Awakening,” the 2006 smash about teenage sexual discovery that’s coming back to Broadway this fall just months before the debut of another of his shows, “American Psycho.”

Yet it wasn’t trophies or sales figures that Sheik, 45, pointed to the other day when describing the “nice thing about being in my position.” In fact, he wasn’t pointing to his success at all.


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“What’s great is that nobody cares now if I put out a record,” he said with a laugh. “Nobody is saying to me, ‘You really need to go make some Duncan Sheik music.’”

Even so, that’s just what he’s doing with “Legerdemain,” a smart new set of songs, many about the tension between art and commerce, written entirely outside the context of a dramatic production. Due Oct. 9, it’s the New York-based singer’s first such album since “White Limousine” in 2006, after which he largely concentrated on theater work, including the indie-rock-styled “Spring Awakening” and “Whisper House,” a musical ghost story that ran in 2010 at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego.

But if his time away has diminished his pop-star standing, Sheik has seized the opportunity to shake up his sound in a way that’s connected to his latest attack on Broadway orthodoxy.

“Duncan is someone who feels that art proceeds by transgression,” said Steven Sater, the playwright and lyricist with whom Sheik collaborated on “Spring Awakening.” “And I think he’s only gotten freer over the years.”

A South Carolina native who went on to study semiotics at Brown University (where he played guitar with a pre-stardom Lisa Loeb), Sheik said “Legerdemain” began in the wake of “Whisper House,” which despite strong reviews “didn’t have the instant-transfer-to-Broadway success” that “Spring Awakening” had. “After that I was, like, ‘I need to go back to my day job for a minute and just write some songs.’”


The first few he wrote were fine, he explained over breakfast during a recent trip to Los Angeles, but they felt stuck in a guitar-heavy vibe he described as “ye olde Duncan Sheik — this kind of alternative, slightly modern throwback thing.” The sound, he realized, no longer excited him, in part because the current craze for electronic dance music had reawakened his adolescent interest in synthesizers and drum machines.

So, working in his secluded studio in upstate New York, he hauled out his dusty gear and started dabbling. The initial results were iffy. “I sent some stuff to my friend Dave Dresden,” a DJ who’d remixed a single from Sheik’s 2002 album “Daylight,” “and he was basically, like, ‘Eh, no — not really cutting it,’” the singer said. But Sheik was inspired; he committed himself to learning to use Ableton, the music-production software, and set about “creating this weird hybrid of dance music and song.”

As assured as it is adventurous, “Legerdemain” reflects his effort in elegantly rendered tunes like “Photograph,” which features burbling keyboards over finger-picked acoustic guitar, and “Selling Out,” a gently propulsive look at the quickening churn of pop culture. Plenty of songwriters have reached for trendy electronic trimmings of late, but Sheik overhauls his style here with uncommon grace.

Singer-songwriter Suzanne Vega, who will tour with Sheik this fall (including a Nov. 7 stop at the Saban Theatre in Beverly Hills), said that’s in keeping with the artist she met in the mid-’90s, back when Sheik was opening for her before “Barely Breathing” took off.

“At that point he wasn’t well known at all, and yet he had eight guitars and a string quartet with him onstage,” Vega recalled. “It was this complete confidence in how he wanted to present the material.”

Still, Sheik said it was his achievements in theater — not to mention the influence “Spring Awakening” has had on subsequent musicals such as “Next to Normal” and “American Idiot” — that bolstered his determination to follow his songwriting wherever it leads.

On Sunday, Deaf West Theatre’s highly acclaimed revival of “Spring Awakening,” with a cast of hearing and deaf actors, is to open in New York after a sold-out run last year in L.A. And early next year Sheik and Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa’s adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’ novel “American Psycho,” which premiered in London in 2013, will bring its blood-soaked satire of 1980s yuppiedom to Broadway.

The latter production shares with “Legerdemain” a bold electronic palette, with “TR-909 kick drums and Juno-106 string pads slamming into compressors,” as Sheik described it. But where those textures signal a surprising shift in the singer’s discography, they mark “American Psycho” as a true outlier — which is precisely the point, the composer said.

“Electronic dance music has been the dominant popular music, certainly in Europe but increasingly here too, of the past 25 years,” he said. “And nobody even acknowledges it on the American stage!” Sheik mentioned his admiration for the way Linn-Manuel Miranda has brought hip-hop into the Broadway lexicon with his hit “Hamilton.”

“And I don’t mean to be disrespectful to more traditional theater composers,” he added. “I love Stephen Sondheim. But it’s my mission to make sure that the theater is paying attention to what the rest of the world is listening to.”

And what of the wider pop scene of his past? Sheik admitted there have been moments over the decades since “Barely Breathing” — years when his audience narrowed from millions to a devoted core — when “I’ve sat there in some sad-sack mode of ‘Why wasn’t I John Mayer?’”

But these days, he said, he’s not fixated on making another big radio hit. If anything, he’s grateful to have only one, as that enables him to focus on new material on the road.

“That’s the problem with being the Rolling Stones or Neil Young: You have 12 songs you have to play every night.” He laughed.

“Obviously, I’m looking at this very glass-half-full.”

Twitter: @mikaelwood