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Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater On How Theater Changes Young People

December 4, 2018 by Suzy Evans
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Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik (Photographed by Getty Images)

When Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater met 20 years ago, they were getting together as two Buddhists in the city, ready to chant and find communion with one another. Sater describes their first encounter as “mystic” – and not just because of the chanting. That moment was transformative for both of their careers, as Sater was inspired to write lyrics for the first time after years of crafting poetry and plays and Sheik began working with a collaborator, after mainly composing and writing all of his own music.

“It was like a profound meeting where I felt my life shift,” Sater recalls.

Their partnership is now stuff of legends, launching with the Tony Award-winning “Spring Awakening,” which fused modern rock and angst with an 1890 play about teenagers struggling with their burgeoning sexuality. From there, they’ve partnered on everything from albums to musicals to a new TV series, which is currently in development at Amazon.

Their latest team effort is a musical inspired by “Alice in Wonderland,” titled “Alice By Heart,” which brings the imaginative story to 1940s London during the Blitz. Alice must venture underground to Wonderland, as her childhood innocence begins to fade away.

The musical, which is directed by Jessie Nelson who also wrote the book, will premiere at MCC Theater’s brand-new Midtown space in the new year, running Jan. 30-March 10, and you can get your tickets now through an exclusive TodayTix pre-sale. We sat down with Sater and Sheik to talk about their musical inspirations, how the show is similar to “Spring Awakening” and why this show is so ripe for 2018.

You’ve been working together on this musical for almost 10 years. What inspired you to write a musical based on “Alice In Wonderland”?
Steven Sater: “Alice In Wonderland” is a book with no real beginning, middle, or end. It has a premise that gets you started, and then you go into this phantasmagoria of scenes and then she just comes out at the end. And I felt that most adaptations of “Alice In Wonderland” really don’t work very well, because when you try and make it into “The Wizard of Oz,” it doesn’t really work. We had this whole scheme of creating a music video project. Like, different songs and different videos from “Alice In Wonderland.” And then we were talking to different video directors, and I had this whole vision for it. Then one night in LA, I went to this concert of a bunch of theater kids, and they included Molly Gordon, who now plays Alice; Ben Platt; and Beanie Feldstein. They sang mostly “Spring Awakening” songs, and I brought Lea Michelle as my date. I remember Ben was singing “Touch Me,” and I looked over at Lea, who had been Ben’s age when I met her, and now was a rising star of “Glee,” and I thought, “Wow.” It just shook me.

I thought, “Alice could be about how do we leave childhood behind, and how do we bring the lessons of our childhood with us? How does a beloved work of our childhood become a story we can keep telling to ourselves?”

Do either of you have a special connection with the book?
Sater: It wasn’t like the cherished book of my childhood the way other books were, but I read it to my daughter. I read it to my son too, but it meant so much to my daughter. “Alice In Wonderland” was actually the first book written for children, however adult the themes are, and we really pull out very adult themes, whereas our show draws so much on memory and loss and confusion. The book grew to me … has grown to mean more and more to me I suppose as I worked on it, more than that it was a talisman of my childhood.

Duncan Sheik: I knew the story like any young child does. I didn’t have a super incredible connection to it. In fact, it was interesting knowing that there’s two versions of the story. There’s like where you’ve got one set of characters, and then there’s the next version of the story. We’ve got another set of characters. I sort allied all of that in my head. Once I got into it and I started looking into Lewis Carroll and the historicity of it, and his slightly weird unique character as a person, it became really fascinating.

Can you talk about your lyrical and musical inspirations for the show?
Sater: For me, lyrically, some of it has to do with the Wonderland language, the gorgeous Lewis Carroll nonsensical jabber-ish that makes a deep emotional sense, and also, again, the aching poetry of young people.

Sheik: I’ve been going through this process of messing around with the electronic music and then obviously coming from a place of doing more organic and orchestrated music and trying to find a good hybrid of those two places. So, I think “Alice” is borne of that, trying to find an interesting place of electronic music, for lack of a better word, married to orchestration and organic instrumentation and playing around with that dialogue between those two aesthetics.

Does it feel similar to “Spring Awakening” in the sense that the score is more modern than the time period?
Sheik: like the way Paul McCartney or John Lennon would do these music hall songs, that were from the ’40s or ’50s, even though they were The Beatles and they were making the music in the ’60s. But it was a nod to that time period. And so, I think that’s the same thing that I’ve been playing with. But it’s also modern as well. So, we’re trying to marry the two time periods.

“Spring Awakening” and “Alice by Heart” are both musicals about young people. What do you enjoy about working with young people and writing about this life moment?
Sater: I talked about Duncan and I meeting through Buddhism, and there is something about the future, and young people are the future. And so, if you are trying to make a difference in the world, you do want to have an impact on young people because they are inheriting our world. I feel it in auditions all the time when we’re sitting there, and these young people, who are just beginning their careers, come in, and their whole life is in front of them and they bring the future into the room with them. And you get to discover them and work with them, and you can create a piece that young people will continue to be able to perform in an age-appropriate way. There’s something very exciting about that, and there’s something about that, that’s very tied to the ache and the longing, which can come out in the music.

Sheik: Like, I started playing guitar when I was six years old and playing piano when I was maybe 12 years old. But the music that I heard when I was in my tweens years and my teen years, that music really impacted me incredibly powerfully. And it’s still the music that I listen to this day. If you can touch people at that moment in their life, that’s really incredibly profound. And so, I always go back to that place of like, “Oh, what was the stuff that really moved me when I was 15 years old?” And if I can get back to that place, then I think you’re doing something that’s going to really make a difference.

How does the show relate to the modern world, and has that changed since you started writing it?
Sheik: When we first started writing these songs, Obama had just been elected. So for me, at least, there was really a sense of hopefulness about what the future was going to hold. And then in the past obviously 24 months, there’s been a very, very different energy. I don’t think of “Alice” as a particularly political piece, but we’re in the world that we’re in. And so, as we continue to work on it, I’m sure that some of those things inform what we’re doing in the last stages of writing the piece.

Sater: There’s a real timeliness about our world right now, and the kind of chaos of our world right now, which I think a lot of us are still reeling from day by day. We really take some of that on. It’s a lot about this idea that Nietzsche says, that without the imagination we would die of the truth. It feels like we’re in a moment of history like that right now. And so, we’re trying to affirm the power of the imagination in the darkest of circumstances.