An Interview with The Caucasian Chalk Circle composer Duncan Sheik

How did you and Brian Kullick start collaborating together? When did that start, specifically, the collaboration on Caucasian Chalk Circle?

DS: Brian and I met over a decade ago. I think I had just put out a record called Phantom Moon, which he was a fan of, and so he asked me to write music for Twelfth Night when he was directing Shakespeare in the Park. Of course I leapt at the chance, because it’s not often when you get to work with a lyricist like Shakespeare! I had started working on Spring Awakening already at that point, but I had never actually had my music in a theatre production before that. So that was literally the first time any of my music for the stage had been heard by people. Frankly, I wasn’t very good at it at that point. And so, very kindly, a decade later, [Brian] asked me to come and write the music for THE CAUCASIAN CHALK CIRCLE, and I thought this would be an opportunity to kind of right the wrongs of my first situation in Central Park.


What is the role that you see music has in the production of this play?

DS: Well I have to confess, I’m no Brecht scholar. I hadn’t read this play before. I read it intently and enjoyed it very much. I have a kind of affinity for certain types of music that come from that particular part of the world.  There is one particular record that is called Le Mystère des voix bulgares by the Women’s Bulgarian Choir and that record is really seminal for me. So this gave me an opportunity to play with some harmonies and tonalities that are very specific to that region and that’s creatively exciting to me.

In this version, the lyrics are written by W.H. Auden. What did you respond to with the Auden lyrics?

DS: I’m a big fan of W. H. just generally – he’s an amazing poet and one of my favorite poems is one that Auden wrote about Yeats, the death of Yeats, and he writes: “What Instruments we have agree/the day of his death was a dark cold day”. So I think he’s this incredible poet, everything I pick up I think is really beautiful. There were some things that maybe didn’t really “sing” so we had to play with it a bit, which may be heresy on some level, but hopefully he’s not turning in his grave.


Do you find writing a “Brecht” song different from setting another musical theatre song in any way?

DS: Well a lot of the music I make is relentlessly contemporary, so it’s nice to have the opportunity to be eccentric and go into my imagination about what that world of music might be. Knowing a little bit about Kurt Weill, and having lived a little bit with that music, and having that be a spirit that is underlying what I’m doing in whatever elusive and enigmatic way is kind of fun and interesting, and a fun part of the creative process.


This question has to do with the sensitivity to singer’s voices and voice types, and the difference between how you see the “Broadway” voice type, and the idea of the street tone. Can you unpack that a little more?

DS: I’m fairly notorious at this point for walking into rooms full of singers who are used to singing in a very effusive, bravado-ridden, traditional Broadway-fashion and saying “please don’t do that.” And for some people it is really easy, and for some it is really hard to let go of that. In the case of our particular troupe of actors, we actually have the gamut, we have some people where that’s engrained in how they sing, and some people where that’s really not at all how they sing. So what you have to do in that case, I think, is not pick your battles, but find ways of using those more Broadway-esque voices in the right places so that they do the right thing. In the case of what happened today [in rehearsal] some of the more Broadway-esque singers can deliver those lines in that way and they become actually quite humorous. Whereas the singers who are kind of maybe a little more contemporary, that’s where you find the real beauty and pathos.


Do you have a particular feeling of what a song’s range of possibilities are in a musical theatre piece? When creating twelve or nineteen songs for a show, what functions does a song in musical theatre need to fulfill?

DS: Tough question. It’s often said that the reason why you have music in a piece of theatre is because when the words are spoken, there is not enough emotion. It’s only song that can really make the emotion get to the place that it needs to be to tell the story. For me, on some level, I just like to hear a good song in a show. If I’m seeing a show and somebody finds a really clever of beginning to sing and sings a really cool song with an interesting lyric, I’m entertained or moved on some level. Having seen The Wild Bride at St. Ann’s Warehouse recently, which certainly could have just been done as a play, but it was really cool how they used the musicians and the way the singing just kind of evolved out of what the actors were doing in the moment, it made the experience richer and lifts it in some way. That’s why theatre is great. It’s not like, having played concerts as a singer/songwriter and just going out and playing music in front of people for ninety minutes or whatever, that gets really boring. So I love the fact that there’s this back-and-forth between text and song and music, and how those things interact together.


So in a typical music-theatre piece, the emotion coming through in the song is already really important. In the context of a Brecht piece, in which the word “emotion” is already a hot-topic word, have you had any thoughts on writing songs differently based on that aesthetic?

DS: Well Brian was talking about the fact that, in some ways, the best way to do Brecht is to understand that a lot of his characters are clowns. So in our case, you have Grusha and Simon who are maybe more authentic in their behavior, but the rest of the people are, you could say, just incredibly over the top and silly and absurd, and I think that’s the point. So you know, as I’m writing these songs, I’m realize that if they are sung in a certain way there is a lot of humor there. And that’s a really nice surprise for me, because it’s not a place that I try to go to, but if a song can become humorous, then I am really happy. And I think Brecht appreciated that.