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Dynamic duo collaborate on a musical

Composer Duncan Sheik and lyricist/librettist Steven Sater are the superstar talents behind "Spring Awakening," arriving at the Academy of Music.

A scene from the traveling production of "Spring Awakening."
A scene from the traveling production of "Spring Awakening."Read more

A lit-smart coming-of-age story where money, lust, suicide, and angst intertwine - this isn't an episode of Gossip Girl or a bad day on The Hills.

It's Spring Awakening, the 2006 Off-Broadway alt-musical that, on its move to Broadway, became the winner of eight 2007 Tony Awards including best musical, direction, book, and score. It opens tonight at the Academy of Music.

The show made quick theater superstars out of two unlike-lies: composer Duncan Sheik and lyricist/librettist Steven Sater. Sheik's a quietly alternative singer/songwriter and spiritual godson to Joni Mitchell's charmed, intelligent lyricism. Sater's a poet renowned for his efflorescent impressionism whose plays follow that line of reasoning.

Their musical's folk-nuanced sound includes rough guitars, electronica, and minimalist repetition a la Philip Glass. And the dismal discord of the plot - the sordid state of affairs at a German boarding school where conceits are expressed through high school-speak - is based on Frank Wedekind's pre-Expressionist drama of 1891.

Shrek the Musical it ain't.

Then again, Sheik and Sater's brand of ire-and-sex-fueled teen Weltschmerz has made Spring a must-see for Generation i(Phone), despite when its original story was penned. Angst is always in fashion, and was a crucial component of Sheik's entrée into this project.

"Our era is the ultimate expression of teen angst," he laughs during a phone interview from Paris, where he is vacationing.

Two weeks ago, Sater was working on a film script at the New York home of its director when the house erupted with the sound of 15- and 16-year-olds making music. "They were practicing 'Touch Me' from Spring Awakening for a disabled-children benefit they're doing for the Paul Newman Hole in the Wall Gang charity," says Sater. "I can't tell you how powerfully moving it was to hear these kids pouring their hearts into those songs."

Wise, aware teens are into Awakening's intelligent and touching energy - so Rock of Ages it also ain't.

". . . It wasn't ever meant to be a 'rock' musical," says Sheik. "It was so frustrating when we started doing interviews about it and critics would put that stamp on it. Spring comes as much from folk music as it does 20th-century classical and minimalists like Steve Reich - music I'm closer to."

While the music had to be stylistically contemporary and relevant to Sheik, who didn't want to write differently to suit Broadway, Sater was looking to produce lyrics of the same mien as his finest poems.

It wasn't the first time these two worked together. Sheik, a Montclair, N.J., native, has had a career in alterna-pop since 1996, when his eponymous debut album went gold with the hit single "Barely Breathing." He met Sater - a onetime Princeton English-lit grad student and author of the play Carbondale Dreams - in 1999 through their involvement in Soka Gakkai Buddhism. They quickly became collaborators.

"Steven said that he had a few lyrics and a play he was working on that I might like to write a little music to," says Sheik. "How long could it take?"

Within a month, the exuberant and prolific Sater had handed him 35 new sets of lyrics, songs that were to become the basis for Sheik's 2001 album Phantom Moon.

By October 1999, the pair had started working not only on Spring Awakening, but on a politicized chamber musical called Nero and an original theater piece based on Hans Christian Andersen's "The Nightingale."

For a while, each musical was in a horse race with the others. Spring Awakening, in workshop since 2000, was trailing after 9/11 and found itself back in front only after a 2005 Lincoln Center concert performance. Currently, Nero is still being workshopped, while Nightingale is set to open next year with director James Lupine.

So what was so special about Spring Awakening - a 19th-century play about repressive Lutheran morality - in the first place? For Sater, it was a feeling he had in his gut, the wicked fun of the era, the yearning frustration and rebellion found in the script.

"Duncan thought Broadway musicals were only relevant to other Broadway musicals and wanted to create something relevant to the culture at large," says Sater. "Me, too. The way that young people for generations have found release from those same longings is rock music."

Made in their image, Spring Awakening turned into a suit-'n-dress costumed concert with interior monologues rather than adopting Broadway's tradition of sudden bursts of song. Think Bjork rather than Ethel Merman and you get an idea of how those insular voices work within the framework of Spring's brittle, funereal balladry ("Left Behind") and buoyant punk stuff ("The Bitch of Living").

Then there's the eminently graceful free-associative poetry. It couldn't have been easy for such a famed lyricist as Sheik to give control to another writer, could it? "When I had this opportunity to work with Steven, whose universe is words, I leaped at it," says Sheik. "He's a beautiful lyricist, and I gained an opportunity to write even more music because I had so much more raw materials to work with due to Steven's output."

Sheik sees their lyrical differences in terms of head and heart, the direct effect vs. the metaphorically meandering.

"My influences are poetry - Dickinson, Keats, Whitman - and less direct," says Sater, who has worked with Laurie Anderson in the past and Burt Bacharach in the present. As for teaming with Sheik, theirs was a working relationship that was immediate and mystical. "When we create, I can be truer to myself and I know Duncan will be able to voice that in some way," says Sater of the profound melancholy and romantic yearning that come out in Sheik's music.

Sheik is asked if he doesn't get weary of interviews rehashing this greatest of his hits. Usually the smash single of yore is anathema to an artist currently making worthy music. (The stage version of Sheik's newest CD, Whisper House, is to be produced next winter.) "I'm not tired of it by any stretch of the imagination," he says.

"Sometimes I get zonked seeing a foreign-language version three times in a row, and it's important that newer works get off the ground. But any artist wants his work to stand the test of time. I'd rather people talk about something I did years ago than not talk about me at all."