Podcast Episode 38 Transcript – Duncan Sheik

Ken: Hello, everybody. Ken Davenport here. Welcome back to the Producer’s Perspective Podcast. This is Week #3 of Spring Awakening month. We’ve already heard from director Michael Arden and book writer and lyricist Steven Sater, and this week I’m thrilled to have the composer of Spring Awakening himself, the maestro, Tony Award-winner, Grammy Award-winner, chart-topping Duncan Sheik. Welcome Duncan!

Duncan: Thank you so much.

Ken: Now obviously you had this hugely popular music career before Spring Awakening, so before we even get into this Spring stuff, let’s go way back. How did you get started writing music, playing music, in the first place?

Duncan: Well, to make a very long story very short, I stared playing guitar when I was five years old. And my grandmother was a pretty fantastic pianist. She was born in Scotland and she was this very dramatic, artistic woman. And she was very supportive of my various musical endeavors. So I started playing guitar when I was five and there were always pianos in the house, so I was always banging on the piano in some kind of aggressive and not very rigorous way. But I was always encouraged by her. And then kind of when I was 12, 13, 14 I started to get into the electronics and gear, so to speak. So I started playing with analog synthesizers and drum machines and guitar pedals and all that kind of stuff. So as a pretty young kid I was using a lot of the technology and I was a very unruly music student in terms of, like, sight reading and playing other people’s music. But I really had fun kind of creating my own stuff using the various kinds of technology that I could get my hands on in the ‘80s.

Ken: And when did you write your first song?

Duncan: That’s hard to say.  I did also sing a lot as a young kid, and I was in musicals when I was in grade school. So I was in Annie and I was in The Muppet Show and I did Barnum and I did the Artful Dodger in Oliver! when I was 12. So I sang kind of up to that point, and then I think when my voice changed I got incredibly self-conscious about my singing voice and I stopped singing for probably seven years or so, and I was just kind of making music, instrumental music. And then really my freshman year of college . . . I was going to Brown. I had bought a decent microphone and I had a four track recorder and in the secrecy of the recording studio at Brown I started singing again as a 19 year old and so I guess that was the first proper song I wrote, was at 19. And actually that song, again very long story, but it made its way to a music publisher in LA, this guy named Dick Rudolph, and he really liked it and he invited me out to Los Angeles to go talk about getting a publishing deal together. So it was sort of like first shot best shot, and actually the deal didn’t happen when I was 19, but it gave me the kind of impetus to say I should keep doing this.

Ken: I’m sure it was a long story, but how, just in brief, how did it get there? Because so many people try to . . . the only business I can think of that’s harder than Broadway is actually the music business.

Duncan: Yeah, it was nepotism.  Dick’s son was one of my classmates at Brown, and people actually know Dick’s daughter really well, Maya Rudolph, who’s been on Saturday Night Live. But anyway, Maya’s dad, Dick Rudolph, was a very big music publisher.  He was married to Minnie Riperton. I had written a song. Dick’s son, who was my classmate, heard the song and he just like, loved it, and he sent it to his dad. He said, “Dad, you’ve got to sign my friend who’s at school with me.” So that was the beginning of that whole process.

Ken: At 19.

Duncan: At 19. And then ultimately, again, totally nepotistic, but my other really good friend was Tracee Ross, who’s Diana Ross’s daughter, and when I finally did get signed to a proper label in Los Angeles it was sort of through Diana Ross and her lawyer that I was able to do that. So there definitely is a little bit of a “who you know” factor in all of this, but the weird thing is I wasn’t really making music that was similar to Diana Ross or Minnie Riperton in any way, but somehow it all worked out.

Ken: So you get signed and you release your first album, and how old were you on that debut album?

Duncan: I was 26. I made it when I was 25, and it came out when I was 26.

Ken: And then boom, something very special happens. “Barely Breathing” hits the charts, 55 weeks on the top 100 charts.  What was that like?

Duncan: It was great, but I . . . my memory of that time is really a lot about being in a van with four other kind of not very hygienic musician friends of my same age and staying in really horrible hotels. And I was selling a lot of records and I had a song on the radio a lot and people were like, “This is amazing! You’re famous, you’re rich!” And I wasn’t. It didn’t really work that way. And so it was a lot of cognitive dissonance, to be honest, of people thinking you were much more successful than maybe you actually were. And I think that kind of fed into my discontent with the pop music world in general that kind of sent me down this crazy road where I ended up writing music for theater.

Ken: When you wrote “Barely Breathing,” did you know?  Were you writing it and were you like, “Oh this is great. This one is going to take off?”

Duncan: No, it was very much a case of I had written a set of songs that I was excited about, Atlantic was excited about, and my producer Rupert Hind really liked. And this is a very almost cliché music business story where at the end of the process, Ron Shapiro, the guy who was the head of Atlantic, who had really signed me, he was like, “We need one more up tempo song on the record.” And I was sort of rolling my eyes and going, “Ugh, okay.” And I was going through some very typical 26 year old relationship shenanigans, and so I wrote this very heart-on-my-sleeve song about this particular girl. And I felt that it was a little bit . . . I’ve always felt it was a little bit throwaway and not particularly that cool or that great, but it sort of worked, and I was like, “Okay, let’s put it on the record.” But then when we had recorded it finally all the kind of business people . . . because we made the record in France and London, so all the Atlantic people from New York and the Warner Brothers people from London, they were all like, “Cha-ching!” They were all saying, “It’s a hit, it’s a hit, it’s a hit.” And I was like, “Okay, go with God.” I don’t know what to tell you. And weirdly . . . again this was the beginning of my kind of struggle with being a pop artist versus being somebody who wants to write art songs . . . I wasn’t that interested in being on top 40 radio. I was happy to take the checks, I was happy to get all the benefits out of it, but I wanted to be Jeff Buckley or Björk or Radiohead. Those were the things that were inspiring to me. So it was odd to be on top 40 radio at that particular moment, because I didn’t feel that kinship with a lot of those other artists.

Ken: So last I heard, Radiohead has not written a musical. Although there was something with Jeff Buckley songs a couple of years ago. So how did you go from wanting to be Radiohead in that world to transitioning to writing for musical theater?

Duncan: Well in fact Thom Yorke has written the music for the Roundabout’s Pinter play that’s going up this season. So actually he’s biting my steez.

Ken: I love it.

Duncan: No, but I’ll get back to that story. So around 1999 I had finished my second album cycle, and I was very disillusioned at that point. That was the moment of Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera and the Backstreet Boys and NYSNC. And no offense to any of those artists or their fans, but it just had nothing to do with the music that I was into and I just felt like, “What am I going to do?” And I’m a practicing Buddhist and have been since 1989, and I happened to meet another Buddhist, this guy Steven Sater, who was a playwright, and at the time was also in a way I guess a struggling playwright, you could say.  He had some successes, but he was trying to get his next thing going. And again, very long story very short, he handed me a copy of maybe the Ted Hughes translation of Spring Awakening, and he said, “Read this play, and maybe we should try and adapt it as a musical.”

Ken: And when you read it did you go, “Oh yeah, this is all me, I’ve got this.”

Duncan: Well, I was not at that moment . . . I feel bad about it, because I’ve told this story nine million times . . . but I was not particularly a fan of musical theater in 1999. Even things like Rent, which I know was nominally a rock musical, to me it was like this is musical theater dressed up in rock clothing. And it’s not really for me. But when I read the play I thought, “Well there is something cool here. And it’s a weird play. It’s sort of . . . it’s expressionistic and absurdist, and it’s racy, and it’s very kind of cutting.” And it’s a rebuke of late 19th century German society and the hypocrisy and the ridiculousness of their belief systems and their behavior, and especially the behavior of parents and teachers and clergy toward the kids that they interact with. And so that aspect of it, that kind of punk rock aspect of it, for lack of a better word, that appealed to me very much. And that, I thought, “Well, you know, if it’s okay that I write music that stylistically is interesting to me, and has nothing to do with what’s going on in the rest of the musical theater right now, then let’s do it.” So that was my answer to him. And Steven was cool. He was good about it. And very quickly Michael Mayer came aboard, and I have to say Michael Mayer was great about it. And he’s the biggest musical theater aficionado of them all. But he was very much in support of it having a totally modern sound. So that was great.

Ken: I remember seeing it for the first time and thinking I have never heard music like this on a Broadway stage before. But what was the first song you wrote for it, do you remember?

Duncan: There were four. “I Believe” was one of them, “Mama Who Bore Me” was one of them, I think “Mirror-Blue Night” might have been one of them, and there was one other song that was called “Comet On Its Way,” which is a metaphor you can probably figure out if you want, that was since cut from the show, but it’s a pretty good song.

Ken: Ooh, any tracks of it anywhere?

Duncan: It exists somewhere. Steven probably has it.

Ken: I’ll have to hit him up for a bootleg. So in the last 20 year a lot of artists from the “pop world” have tried to come over, and you’re one of the very few that have actually pulled it off successfully. Why do you think that at is?

Duncan: I think my . . . a combination of naivety and bravado and kind of obnoxious self-righteousness in some way I think is really what made it work. And also just being lucky to have really the right set of collaborators during that process of me learning how to play well with others. You know, I didn’t go to college and study musical theater composition. I didn’t even know what those rules were to begin with, so it wasn’t like I was trying to break the rules. I just didn’t know what they were. I just wanted to write really good songs and I wanted to help tell the story. But I wasn’t interested . . . to me I don’t care if the songs forward the action or the story of the plot. I didn’t come from that world. To me it was just, “Can I hear a really great song that emotionally moves me and gets me more attached to this character and understand this character more?” So that was sort of the naivety part. And then also just my doggedness of saying, “No, please, the drums should not be mic’ed this way. The guitars should not sound this way. The synthesizers can’t be cheesy fucking synthesizers from the 80s.” You need to be aesthetically rigorous about this stuff so that it makes sense to an audience of teenagers and 20 somethings and 30 somethings and it’s not just music that just kind of is like, “it’s (rock) music.” You know, in parentheses. I forced myself and everybody else to be really strict about that stuff, and I think that did have a good effect on the show overall. But it was really hard to do that. There were many battles fought.

Ken: Do you think Broadway as a whole has gotten better at this?

Duncan: Very, very, very much better. And I can point to a ton of things, but specifically, Once, where it was like, “I loved the movie.” And they did a really respectful job of turning that into a show that respected the aesthetics of what those songs really are meant to be. And obviously Hamilton has been this huge juggernaut, and it’s a very smart thing that Lin has done where he’s found a way . . . again it’s almost like the opposite thing of what I did . . . where he’s found a way of using the kind of hip hop vernacular to have dialogue in the music where it doesn’t sound cheesy and stupid, and that’s completely genius. I was talking to another producer recently and they said, “It’s clear the audiences out there do not want the standard musical anymore. They want really interesting, cool different things now.” So whether it’s Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time or Let the Right One In at St. Ann’s . . . again these are plays, but they’re really very progressive very different ways of doing theater and telling stories, and also with really cool scores. To me, theater has becomes this very exciting medium.

Ken: Yeah, we’re really outgrowing this Rodgers and Hammerstein, Arthur Miller, fourth wall . . .

Duncan: Yeah, and don’t get me wrong. Steven and I, one of the first shows we went to when we decided to do Spring Awakening was Porgy and Bess at Lincoln Center, and I think we got a lot out of that. So I’m not disrespecting the past at all. It’s just you do need to always be moving things forward, and if you move things forward, then you’re going to create new audiences and I think that’s what Lin has done amazingly well, and it’s certainly what Steven and I are trying to do, and we’ve got to fight the good fight for the theater

Ken: So here you were, this writer from the age of five and 12 and 19 in the studio at Brown all by yourself writing songs, and then all of a sudden you’re writing with someone else, a story and a lyricist.

Duncan: Yeah.

Ken: Was that mind blowing? Was it difficult?

Duncan: It was weirdly very easy. I always found writing lyrics to be the more painstaking part of the process, so having somebody kind of just hand me a lyric and give me a context for that lyric was a huge leg up in a way. It was like immediately you’ve got all this information to play with. And in Steven’s case, it happened to be really beautifully written and eccentric but awesome information to play with. And enigmatic and odd and all the things that can be inspiring as a composer. So it was great to have lyrics and not have to . . . because when I write music for myself I always write music first, then I kind of graft the lyrics onto the music. And that could often be really just not fun in the sense that I wasn’t often clear what I wanted to say. It was very in code, and I was just sort of like, “I like this vibe of the song and this is a cool melody and these are cool chords and these are cool sounds, ” but I wasn’t always so clear about specifically what I wanted to say, certainly when I was making records as a 26 year old. But having somebody whose life is words, who literally just is in love with words and the relationship with words and the sound of words, having somebody like that to work with was a real gift.

Ken: So it took you guys a while to write it.

Duncan: Yes. We wrote a few songs, Michael Mayer came on board very quickly, and we had a first workshop at La Jolla in maybe it was 2000. 1999 or 2000. And I think by the time we finished La Jolla was had maybe ten songs, which was sort of half of the show. And then the next year we were able to go to Sundance in 2000, and at that point we’d probably finished the first full draft. So version one of the show was kind of two years into it. So that’s pretty normal, I suppose. And at that point then the Roundabout got involved and they gave us a couple workshops. And so we did two workshops in New York that were pretty fancy, blown out workshops, and we had Michael Cerveris and we had all kind of cool people involved and it seemed like it was really going to happen, and then it didn’t happen. It fell apart as these things sometimes do. I remember getting a phone call from Steven . . . maybe this is like 2003, 2004 . . . he was just like, “Well the Roundabout has said that they’re not going to do the show.” So at that point it was five years of work that was just, “Okay, we’re done. I didn’t know what to say.” I was off trying to make my next record at that point, it was probably my fifth record. So I was like, “All right, well, I’m not sure what to say,” and then Tom Hulce kind of came around. I think Michael Mayer got Tom Hulce to come around, and Tom kind of came in and said, “Why don’t we do a concert version at Lincoln Center?” So that was like 2005. We had a one night only concert version we did there. It was the American Songbook series, and we played that one show, and at that show Neil Pepe and Ira Pittelman were there, and at the end of it I think Ira and Neil shook hands and we had our spot at the Atlantic.

Ken: So from the Sundance production to the eventual Broadway production, how much of it changed, just to give us an idea of the rewriting process over a number of years?

Duncan: Yeah, I think probably 70% of the songs were there at Sundance. If I think about it, “Mama Who Bore Me” was there, “Touch Me” was there, let me go through it . . . “I Believe” was certainly there . . . kind of going through it . . . “Purple Summer” was certainly there.  A lot of the big songs were there from the beginning, but I think many things got written around the time between . . . let’s say Lincoln Center and Broadway. Many things did get written.  So I don’t know, maybe it’s like 50% existed and 50% was developed over that kind of two years. It’s a little bit of a blur, and some of these things, they evolve and they change and the go through different permutations, so it’s hard to specifically remember which songs got written when. And Steven rewrites like crazy. And Michael would demand a lot of rewriting. So you know, it was a ton of work, but it eventually became really fun.

Ken: And when the curtain rose, metaphorically, on the Atlantic production, I’ll ask you the same question I did about “Barely Breathing” . . . not even on the opening night, so there was no audience . . . the dress rehearsal, were you like, “Oh shit we crushed this. This is going to be good.”

Duncan: Let me back up one second. I will say that there were a couple moments in the development process where we would do a workshop presentation and I would shake my head and say, “Oh my god this is awful. This is so godawful and so bad, really what have I gotten myself into?” So there were many of those moments. But I will say at the Atlantic, it was the first day they were in costume and Christine Jones’ sets were up and then they did the bitch of living with the full band and I don’t know if it was the sitzprobe or whatever it was, but it was like the first day you saw the whole thing kind of put together . . . but it was maybe before tech. It was right before tech and they did “The Bitch of Living” with Bill T.’s choreography and that’s when Steven and I went like, “Ahh!” We elbowed each other and said, “Holy shit, this could really work.” But that was the first moment. It really was like after five years of working on it where I finally felt like, “Oh yeah, this is what this is supposed to be.”

Ken: So those moments where you thought it was godawful . . . I have them all the time. I go through this every show I’ve ever done, I go through this, “I hate my show day.” “I love my show, I hate my show.” But how do you get through the, “God, I hate this?”

Duncan: Yeah, I mean that’s the thing. Look, this was my first rodeo. So I didn’t know how to deal with that feeling. Now I’ve developed many other musicals and I sort of know how to kind of manage my emotional responses. But at the time I didn’t, and I would just be like, “Ugh, this is a complete waste of my time.” But I think there was something inside both Steven and myself where we kind of harbored this hope that there was a real kernel of something there that would really affect people, and we held onto that. I think when Steven was super down, I think I was sort of like, “We’ll keep working on it.” And when I was like, “Ugh, this is terrible,” Steven would say, “No, there’s something really great here.”  So we sort of propped each other up.

Ken: Well, thank goodness you did, because obviously the results were unbelievably extraordinary, not just in terms of its “success” and awards, but you moved a lot of people and changed a lot of lives, and changed the face of musical theater for sure. And now here it is back again.

Duncan: Yeah.

Ken: Did you ever think it would come back so quickly?

Duncan: Definitely not. When I saw the show in downtown Los Angeles a little over a year ago, I thought it was amazing. I loved it. I was a big fan of it from right off the bat, but nowhere in my mind did I think, “Oh, we’re headed to Broadway.” At all. But I thought, “This is an incredible version of the show,” and I didn’t expect to be as moved as I was, and I don’t want to reiterate all of the stuff that we’ve said about the ASL aspect of it, but that was just, I’ll just say it once, it was a hugely, surprisingly beautiful revelation to have that layer in the show. So that happened, and then I think Michael being Michael, and you know the Deaf West producers, they had the opportunity to do it at the Annenberg, and I went and saw it there and I have to say, it was a tough transition to that theater because it was like going to a real, proper regional theater space, and this was a show that was in a black box with an upright piano moving around and you know, it was very kind of hand-made. And then all of the sudden it was in a proper space. And it was tricky. During the previews there were major issues. But Michael got it together and the cast and the musicians were always great, but it took a minute for the show to settle in there. But then when it did it was like, “Oh.” It revealed itself to really work even in a more kind of “pro” context.

Ken: In Beverly Hills, of all places.

Duncan: In Beverly Hills, of all places! Yeah!  No, it’s still . . . I think by the time they sorted out the problems it was like, “Oh, this thing is still really fantastic.” And then, not to get too inside baseball, but once there was this idea that we were coming to Broadway, I think there were also like, “Oh, this is a great version of the show but is it ready for Broadway?” A lot of us were asking that question.

Ken: I was too, I’ll tell you a little secret. I said, “Yes, I want to move this show,” and then I was like, “What did I just say?”

Duncan: But anyway, I also knew there was something incredibly special about this band and this set of actors. I’m sort of attached to the band because I’m the composer, but also these actors. And so when it all worked out that we had this opportunity to come to the Brooks Atkinson, I was in support of it right off the bat. I have to say I was like, “There’s going to be challenges. Who knows what’s going to happen? But it could be amazing. It could be amazing.” And in fact, and I take zero credit for this, once we did get into that theater and I saw the first preview, it was just like . . . Michael knocked it out of the park. The cast knocked it out of the park. I take zero credit for it, but it was like, “Whoa, this thing’s really beyond my wildest dreams good and affecting,” and part of me was a little like . . . this is going to sound horrible . . . but part of me was like, “If I never do anything again, at least I’ve done this.”

Ken: Listen, I’ve said that myself to many people. It’s just a very special thing that I’ve very proud to have produced for sure. But this is a busy year for you. Spring now, American Psycho this spring . . .

Duncan: Yeah, February, we start previews, I think.

Ken: You’re writing some more shows, you’ve got an album coming out. Do you switch hats between writing theater and pop music? Is there a switch, or just whatever comes out comes out?

Duncan: This year has been a lot of going back and forth just because I had to finish my record, Legerdemain, and I’m going on tour in November and I’m playing at Carnegie Hall at the end of November, so I kind of have to keep my eye on that ball, too, more than usual. But it’s been good. I actually really like being able to move back and forth between the two worlds, and it kind of keeps me sane and it gives me a good perspective. Because you can kind of get wrapped up in musical theater-ese, in some ways. And you can also get wrapped up in pop music BS, and so the two things are good correctives of one another in a certain way. So it’s been nice to be able to do both.

Ken: Do you do Spring songs in concert?  Do you do any musical theater?

Duncan: Yeah, I’ve played “Bitch of Living” quite a bit and “Touch Me” a fair amount, and if I have a girl singing with me we’ll do “Mama Who Bore Me,” and sometimes I’ll play shows . . . like I played a show . . . where was I? Somewhere in northern California.  And there were a bunch of kids who were theater kids from the college and they had done a production of Spring Awakening, and I said, “Does anybody here know ‘Touch Me?’” And a gaggle of kids will come on stage, and we’ll play a song in the show, which is great, which is really incredibly fun.

Ken: How cool.

Duncan: So yeah, I’ll do a little bit of that. But I don’t overdo it.

Ken: So when you’re touring . . . I took my wife to a Chris Young concert for our anniversary, and I just found it very interesting to sit back and watch a rock concert, country rock in that case. Anything that you think Broadway can learn from the touring rock world that you guys are doing much better than we do?

Duncan: Well, I’ll give you the converse, the obverse of that first. I think there’s a lot that the rock world can kind of learn from Broadway. Or certainly that I’ve learned from Broadway. Which is that there’s an amazing thing of having a group of talented people who are handling costumes and choreography and lighting and movement, and in a rock concert you don’t necessarily have narrative, but this idea that you have really smart people who are helping you create a show. I came from a rock world where it was just like four guys getting on stage with their instruments and playing and that’s it, and if the music is good then I think that’s okay, but ultimately it’s not that compelling as a multimedia event. So for me, coming into musical theater was amazing to have that ability to work with those kinds of people. I do think . . . I’m not going to name names, but to this day I go to shows, I go to musical theater shows, and I’m scratching my head as to why . . . gosh, I’m going to get myself in trouble. I don’t want to get myself in trouble. But I do feel like when you go to a rock concert there’s an intensity and an immediacy to the sound and there’s kind of, you know . . . the sound of the instruments is usually hopefully with the right kinds of rock bands, really luxurious and awesome and great, even if it’s four musicians on stage. And I often unfortunately go to musical theater where everything just sounds so small and thin and not interesting. And I think maybe there’s a sense that, “Oh, we need to hear every syllable of every lyrics, because you know, this is the song,” and there’s kind of this weird inability to just be muscular about how a musical is supposed to sound.  And again, I shouldn’t generalize, but I often feel like sound design is where you have really, really awesome people in the rock world, and it’s been like pulling teeth, I think, to get some of the musical theater folks to make the shows sound the way that younger audiences are going to by psyched about it. And this may be generational, or maybe . . . I remember doing Whisper House in San Diego and Dan Moses Schreier did our sound there, and he’s amazing. And I pushed him to make it pretty rocky and pretty intense.  And there were audiences at the Old Globe . . . I heard them come out, and they were like, “Ah, it was so loud! I couldn’t hear the singers!” And they were really, really upset about that. So I think there is a slightly kind of generational, or you know, genre bias that goes into that stuff, and that’s been a tough battle to fight all the way along the way. But weirdly, coming back to Spring Awakening, this version of the show is a pretty acoustic sounding version of the show. It’s almost more organic than the original in a way, and it really suits the show really well. So I don’t know, I’m not giving very good advice, but I do think theater producers and people who make theater should keep their eye on the ball of what the kinds of music that the people in the popular culture are listening to, more than they currently do.

Ken: So since you’re on giving advice right now I’m going to ask you to give some more, because I think you give very good advice. Normally I would ask a writer like you, “Oh, what’s some advice you could give to all the writers out there?” But I’m not going to ask that. I’m going to ask you to give advice to a very specific group. I want you to imagine you’re at a support group for pop music writers, and you’re giving a lecture to all of them because they want to write for the musical theater. What would you say to successful pop music writers on how they can transition to the world of musical theater? Because as I often say, writing a three minute song is much different than writing a three hour musical.

Duncan: Of course. Well the big thing is collaboration. And being able to work with people who you’re excited about, and where you can bounce ideas off of each other, and you need to kind of learn to play well with each other to keep your eye on the ball of what the larger thing needs to be. So it’s all about collaboration. There are very, very few people who successfully do it all themselves. So that’s one thing. But I think the other thing too is to be true to thine own self. Be true to the music that you’re excited about, and just because you’re going from the world of pop music to writing for theater it doesn’t mean you need to kind of change the genre in which you write, or you need to slavishly write music that is within the normal construct of the musical theater canon. Just write great songs and have some smart people around you that can help those songs tell the story of this larger arc that hopefully your show will have. So it’s about being really collaborative, but also being really strict with yourself, that you’re not just making bad aesthetic decisions for the sake of old school rules.

Ken: Okay, last question, which has now been called my infamous genie question.  I want you to imagine that the genie from Aladdin comes to visit you and says, “Duncan, you’ve done a great job, such a great job, at being in both worlds and advancing musical theater and advancing pop music and back and forth. I want to grant you one wish. One wish. You cannot wish for other wishes, don’t try that. What’s the one thing that drives you so crazy about Broadway, the thing that will keep you up at night and make you so mad?” You’re one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met, actually, especially for someone as successful as you are. You’re just such a nice guy. What makes you fucking mad that you would ask this genie to change?

Duncan: I think the musical theater is this amazing medium and I’m really honored to have been welcomed into this world as kind of an outsider, and I love my compatriots. And I can be sort of obnoxious about the way things sound, like they’re not rock enough or they’re not authentic enough or they’re too fuddy-duddy or too wussy. I can be really obnoxious about all that stuff. But I think that’s my own subjectivity and really I need to probably just chill about that, because it’s not very productive. But what I do think is . . . and I don’t need a genie to do this . . . I just think that it’s important to move the form forward always, and to be brave about the choice hat you make, and to do things that are different and compelling and are not rule-bound, but that clearly are going to move an audience. So the shows that I’ve seen the past couple years that I’ve been really excited about which I’ve mentioned, whether it’s Curious Incident or Let the Right One In, any of these things, they’ve all done thigs in a very, very different, fresh way, and that’s the key to all of this. You’ve got to keep the form moving forward. We have a healthy business, I think, right? And it’s amazing in a world where the music business has halved itself, and the movie business is terrified of what’s going to happen because of digital distribution. But we have a business that’s like about live entertainment, and you can’t turn that into zeros and ones, and so I think we’re very lucky to have this amazing medium that will hopefully always exist because it’s built on this interaction of a live audience and an amazing set of actors and creators.  So the key is to make sure it doesn’t get hog bound, and keep moving it forward and doing cool shit.

Ken: I love that answer. You don’t need a genie to push the boundaries yourself.

Duncan: That’s it, yes.

Ken: We all can do that. Well, listen, I want to thank you for your time and thank you for pushing the boundaries of musical theater. We are all better off for it, and for the fact that you were feeling disassociated with the pop music world with four guys and a van.  Thank god for that, and thank god they were not hygienic.

Duncan: Yeah.

Ken: So thank you, thanks to all of you for listening. Next week Spring Awakening month continues. Our brilliant choreographer Spencer Liff will join us. You can learn how the movement and the ASL were integrated when you tune in next week. Thanks so much!

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  • Paul Mendenhall says:

    Here’s what I take from this: if you want to get a musical on Broadway today, be only marginally talented, completely untrained, come from a background that has nothing to do with musicals, and in fact, dislike musicals. Then be sure to have parents who can send you to some Ivy League school where you will make a lot of friends whose parents will make you a success in the pop world. Then, write a musical with a terrible book, ludicrous lyrics and a score that sounds like every piece of shit song singer-songwriters have been moaning on the radio for the past thirty years. And, presto! You will be declared the savior of the musical theatre, the founder of a whole new school of musicals, despite the fact that neither you nor anyone else has done another show that remotely resembles yours.
    Why? Because it is irrelevant crap, that does nothing whatsoever to advance the art form, and was only praised because theatre critics know they have become culturally irrelevant, and will latch onto anything that might make them seem less like cranky old men blowing on their soup. Meanwhile, the artists who actually love musicals, who have spent their lives refining their craft and really could advance the form can’t get a break. And that is the REAL reason musicals have become irrelevant: because nothing that is actually any damn good gets produced anymore.

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