Duncan Sheik on Deaf West's 'Spring Awakening' and the Movie Adaptation

Duncan Sheik Horizontal - H 2014
Lexi Lambros

Duncan Sheik Horizontal - H 2014

“I would rather have it be incredibly awesome than to have it be a big commercial hit and it’s not very good"

If Beethoven can compose a masterpiece like the Ninth without the benefit of hearing, then it should surprise no one that a cast of deaf performers can stage a musical like Spring Awakening through October 19 at downtown L.A.’s Inner-City Arts.

Directed by Michael Arden, Deaf West Theatre presents Steven Sater’s adaptation of German playwright Frank Wedekind’s 1890 play about a group of teens grappling with the first stirrings of sexual awakening. Considered too racy for its time, it was over a decade before the play enjoyed its first staging at a Berlin theater in 1906.

Adapted as a musical with a score by Duncan Sheik, it was remounted a hundred years later on Broadway winning eight Tonys including Best Musical and Best Score, and featuring then unknowns Lea Michele, Jonathan Groff and John Gallagher Jr.

With Deaf West, the cast will include nine deaf cast members and 15 speaking actors, some of whom will sing and speak for deaf members, in addition to playing in the band. It’s a tricky and unusual theatrical challenge as speaking performers must watch closely and interpret their deaf counterparts. Such innovation earned the company a special Tony award for Excellence in Theater for their 2003 revival of Big River, in addition to the numerous Ovation and L.A. Drama Critics awards accumulated in their nearly 25 years of performing.

“What I found really cool and interesting and fascinating was this idea of incorporating sign language into [Spencer Liff’s] choreography,” Sheik tells The Hollywood Reporter. “The show is very much about not being able to communicate between parents and kids. So there’s a great metaphor, a beautiful metaphor with it being done with this particular set of actors.”

Sheik broke through in 1996 with his self-titled album including the number one hit, “Barely Breathing” which earned a Grammy nomination. In 2001, he collaborated with Steven Sater on a poetic album, Phantom Moon, which received good reviews but sold few copies. That collaboration led Sheik to musical theater, first with Spring Awakening, followed by the little-known Whisper House, and more recently a musical adaptation of the 1991 novel, American Psycho, as well as Bertolt Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle and Man Equals Man.

“I loved working on those Brecht things and I’ve tried to make music that is a little bit more connected to the time in which those plays happened,” he explains. “In the case of Spring Awakening we were very much trying to make sure that the music was completely contemporary and the book scenes were very much within the kind of late 19th century time zone. It’s actually a Brechtian thing in a way that what happens in the scene and what happens in the music is a radical break.”

With McG attached to direct, the film adaptation of Spring Awakening has been floundering at Tom Hanks’ Playtone Productions. “We’ve got a way to go before we’re shooting,” Sheik grouses. “McG is a very busy director and there’s a lot of moving parts.”

When asked if they might move forward without McG, Sheik equivocated, saying, “I sort of don’t feel like I can say one way or the other right now. It’s kind of a collective decision amongst these people how we end up going forward.”

Two things are for sure about the movie, 1. There will be a new song added so they might qualify for a Best Song Oscar, and 2. He’s confident it will eventually get made but is in no hurry to book a flight to Bohemia to start shooting.

“What’s really important to me is that we make a great movie,” he confides. “I would rather have it be incredibly awesome than to have it be a big commercial hit and it’s not very good. For me the priority is always the quality control of the thing.”