I bristle, as I suppose he still does, whenever someone backhands Duncan Sheik with the “one-hit wonder” tag. He has two. “Barely Breathing” is the mom-rock monster everyone remembers, a soft-strummed Lilith Fair-era classic that just happens to’ve been sired by a dude. But hunt down the 1996 self-titled record whence it came—two different people are selling it for a penny on Amazon, which I find bewildering—and play the track after it, “Reasons for Living.” It’s even wussier. Soft-plinked piano, idly puttering drum machines, and Duncan purring vaguely spiritual greeting-card slogans—”There is a rhythm/It’s near and it’s far/It flows from the heart of us,” etc. Some nice Starbucks Eno synth-wash stuff on the outro, as Duncan intones, “I don’t know/I don’t know.” It’s stupendously corny but stupendously moving in its earnestness. It was meant for the stage.
Ten years later, the Sheik lies down on Broadway. Spring Awakening opened in December with a delightful tale of sexually ignorant and monumentally frustrated 19
th-century German teenagers—even their hair is thoroughly frazzled—riding a death spiral of furtive masturbation, domestic abuse, incest, academic exile, suicide, and botched abortions, pausing occasionally to pull microphones from their buttoned-up suit pockets, jump on chairs, and sing badass as-rock-as-Broadway-gets songs of imagined rebellion as a small onstage ensemble politely writhes behind them. Titles include “The Bitch of Living,” “My Junk,” and “Totally Fucked”; swingin’-on-the-flippity-flop lyrical tics include “I try and just kick it” and “Wanna bundle up into some big-ass lie.” Stupendously corny but stupendously moving—Steven Sater wrote the lyrics, but Sheik wrote the tunes. Great idea. He’s a fantastic schmaltz apologist, a water filter for grating musical cheese. Thanks to him, you can safely drink from Spring‘s well.
And for those who quietly respected Sheik’s soft-rock splendidness but lost track of his various “Barely Breathing” follow-ups (sorry, dude), you will recognize his pre-Frappuccino Frappuccino croon even as it’s refracted through spastic twentysomethings playing really spastic teenagers who inadvertently spit a great deal more onstage than I have to imagine Duncan ever did. (The lead actor in this thing is a one-man car wash.) The faux-edgy “Bitch”/”Junk”/”Fucked” wing of the show succeeds in spite of itself, that last tune exploding into a glorious chorus of “Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah.” And though weepy power ballads eventually overpower everything—the whole second act is basically funerals, weeping fits, people discovering gravestones and shouting, “NOOOOOO!!!!”, so on and so forth—that’s when Sheik shines brightest, when you can see the thread from “Breathing” to now, the progression, the exit strategy. “Mirror-Blue Night” resurrects a goodly amount of the Buddha-worshiping Buddha Machine hum of “Reasons for Living.” “Don’t Do Sadness” is angry and cathartic without any tortured youth-baiting IM-speak. And when the last two numbers call for amorphous, gushy declarations of anthemic hope, spirituality, and mystical fulfillment . . . well, when you need to sell a line like “The earth will wave with corn,” you hire someone who’s waved a few ears himself. “Those You’ve Known” is delivered by three people, two of them friendly ghosts, in a smoke-machine-addled graveyard, and does not sound or even look ridiculous. Amazing. And “The Song of Purple Summer,” though purple indeed and undeniably a Broadway show-closer with all the corn that implies, is undeniably a Duncan Sheik song as well, better than it has to be and better than you assume it’ll be.
If Sheik had released the Spring Awakening tunes as a standard solo album, hardly anyone would’ve noticed. (Including me, probably.) But this way he gets praised in the breathless, exclamation-point-heavy, truly bizarre whirlwind of Broadway praise—”For the first time in its history, Broadway has a score that can compete with MTV and iTunes!” raves NY1—and still retain his voice, lyrical and melodic, capable of passable stabs at rage, lust, or goofiness but best at coffeehouse ambient drones and self-help slogans that don’t sound completely insulting. The final result won’t usurp Rent or out-glam Hedwig, but it’s nonetheless an excellent resurgence from a likable guy who deserved to avoid plummeting from VH1’s mom-rock past to VH1’s celeb has-been present. Your next trip to Broadway with the grandparen ts is now infinitely more enjoyable, and Sheik gets to keep making a living suggesting reasons to live.