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Duncan Sheik Gets Brechtian Inside Sheik's score for "Caucasian Chalk Circle"

By LINDA BUCHWALD

When he composes for the theatre, Duncan Sheik almost always works with a lyricist. Typically, though, the lyricist is still alive.

Recently, however, Sheik---who shared a Tony with lyricist Steven Sater for the score to Spring Awakening---composed music for a revival of Bertolt Brecht's Caucasian Chalk Circle, currently at Classic Stage Company. If he has a question, he can't exactly call Brecht for an answer. Still, he says his process is essentially the same, explaining, "It's my normal practice to set music to existing words."

Brecht wrote the play, a parable about justice within feuding Russian communes, in 1944. This translation is by James and Tania Stern, with Brecht's lyrics translated by the late W.H. Auden.  While writing the music, Sheik listened to the record Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares by the Bulgarian State Television Female Choir.

"I didn't necessarily have a choir to work with, but I was thinking about some of that tonality and some of those harmonies and the idea of merging middle European folk music with a certain kind of late 19th century classism, which you would have heard in that region at that time," he says.

Sheik was brought onto the project by director Brian Kulick, whom Sheik worked with ten years ago on <i>Twelfth Night</i> for The Public Theatre's Shakespeare in the Park. (That was Sheik's first time writing music for the stage). Though he started working when he got the job about a year ago, the cast helped shape his music.

For example, Elizabeth A. Davis plays Grusha, a peasant who finds a baby and raises him as her own. Sheik says about her, "She has a great voice and is kind of improvisational in how she sings and plays the violin, so it was cool to be able to give her these melodies, but let her play with them a little bit and go other places with them and not be super strict about what those melodies were." (Davis received a Tony nomination for her work as a violin-playing Czech immigrant in Once.)

When writing for Mary Testa, who plays a rich woman who leaves her infant behind, Sheik shaped his music to her traditional Broadway voice and played up her natural comic ability. Christopher Lloyd, meanwhile, plays Azdak, the judge. "He will be the first one to say that he's not a born singer," Sheik says. "It's fun to play with this idea of talk-singing and acting the lyrics in some way as well as singing them."

Even while working with a supportive cast and director, it was a challenge for Sheik to be a one-man operation in terms of composing and recording the music. The cast sings to pre-recorded tracks (Davis does play the violin live), which was purely a financial decision. "It's sad in some ways that in non-profit theatre these days, it's too expensive to pay three or four or five musicians to come in each night and play the show. It's beyond what the budget can hold," he says.

But he came away with an understanding of Brecht's work, which is why he was drawn to the project in the first place. To Sheik, Brecht's work functions on three levels---allegory ("telling this story that's been told in many different forms historically, but updating it into his Brechtian world"), social realism ("the context about what was going on in this part of Russia during World War II and what that world was really like for those people"), and absurdist comedy ("when things are so dark and terrible, the best response is to play up how funny it is").

Sheik's familiar with these themes. Spring Awakening, for instance, is based on Frank Wedekind's classic Expressionist play about young people striving to express their sexuality in a hysterically oppressive society. As they stumble through their desires, the world around them is both menacing and ludicrous. "I guess I'm attracted to things that run the gamut of human emotions and the human condition, where you go from things that are really funny and sweet and then just really tragic and dark and messed up," he says. "I'm not always that attracted to things that are just an evening's light entertainment." But you never know what the future can hold. He adds, "That's not to say I won't do one of those things one day."

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Linda Buchwald tweets about theatre as @PataphysicalSci. She contributes to StageGrade and the theatre blog Pataphysical Science.

Photo by Joan Marcus