Unlike your average musical theater aspirant, Duncan Sheik never thought that he’d be quite as enmeshed in the business as he is now. He considered a lot of the music in the art form to be, in his words, “cloying, terrible and atrocious.” He thought he’d stay ensconced in the rock world — especially after a hit single in 1996, “Barely Breathing,” followed by a Grammy Award nomination, gave him a solid foothold. But when he assayed onto Broadway with the 2007 musical “Spring Awakening,” winning two Tony Awards in the process, the composer, now 49, decided he’d stick around.
“I always came at musical theater at an angle, so to speak,” says the singer-songwriter. “When I made a record, I was the guy calling the shots. You can’t do that when you’re making a musical. You have to be part of the hive, otherwise, it doesn’t work. I sort of learned that a little bit during ‘Spring Awakening,’ but I’ve learned it much more deeply during this process.”
Sheik’s “hive” metaphor is apt. The composer’s newfound learning has come courtesy of the high-powered creative talent of ‘The Secret Life of Bees,” the stage musical adapted from the Sue Monk Kidd bestseller that recently opened off-Broadway to stellar reviews. Even the couple of churlish outliers lavishly praised Sheik, and his lyricist, Susan Birkenhead, for adding depth and charm to this story of a white, motherless 14-year-old named Lily escaping an abusive father in 1964 South Carolina.
Lynn Nottage has written the book, Sam Gold directs, and the cast is led by LaChanze as the matriarch of a trio of beekeepers, the Boatwright sisters, with whom Lily and her Black caretaker, Rosaleen, find refuge. Given the formidable “hive” in which he finds himself, Sheik burst out laughing when asked whether he is a queen bee or a worker bee within the team.
“Frankly, I think of myself as a queen bee,” he says. “But, in truth, I’m just a worker bee.”
Five years ago, when Sheik was approached to write the songs for the musical, the appeal was visceral and immediate. He was especially attracted to the religious devotions of the Boatwrights, who worship a driftwood statue of a Black Madonna, Our Lady of Chains. Their ceremonies combine the Christian iconography of the Virgin Mary with the Yoruba and Orisha rituals of Africa. The fusion, practiced in various forms within the Gullah and Geechee communities of South Carolina, was created when the slaves adopted the religion of their masters while retaining the electrifying elements of the prayer, song and dance of their native land.
The musical represented something of a homecoming. Though he was born in New Jersey, Sheik split his time growing up in Hilton Head, South Carolina, after his parents divorced. There, Sheik first became acquainted with aspects of the local Gullah and Geechee culture, though he is quick to say that the Southern influences at the time were “inchoate.”
He recalls, “There was something about the moss on the trees, the landscape and the feel of the sea islands that seeped into my DNA.” Nonetheless, though Sheik was one of the few white students at his high school, he said that he remained disconnected from the cultural groups that would later inform his work. “I regret that, frankly,” he says. The songwriter attempted to make up for it at Brown University, learning more about the Gullah culture in his ethnomusicology courses and religious studies.
“The syncretic religiosity in those communities is what really attracted me to wanting to help tell this story,” says Sheik.
A couple of years into the collaboration, however, the composer had second thoughts. “I became conflicted as a white guy who was from a relatively privileged family down there in Hilton Head, maybe it wasn’t my story to tell,” he recalls. “But then I got very nice advice from [cast member] Eisa Davis. She basically said, ‘Look, if you respect the tradition and you love it, and you do it with kindness, then it’s fine.’”
To meet that challenge, Sheik wrote about 70 songs over the course of the show’s development, ranging from bluegrass Americana to mid-60s R&B to ecstatic African-influenced prayers. There’s also the interstitial scoring that is modern classical. None of these genres were a part of his toolbox. A self-confessed “Anglophile,” Sheik says he loved the Beatles more than the Stones and admits to being a teen fan of British songwriter David Sylvian, who ironically wrote a 1987 album called “Secrets of the Beehive.” He said he has lately come to admire Kendrick Lamar, Jay-Z, Kanye West and Southern rap. “All that stuff is really cool and a recent obsession of mine.”
The opportunity to delve into grassroots Americana came during a song for LaChanze, which he scored for two banjos. The creative team first thought that the instrumentation was “too bluegrass” for a character like the Afrocentric August. “I said, ‘Look, the banjo comes from Africa. The fact that Americans took it and made it one of their own genres only happened after.’” Though his argument was compelling, the song was eventually ditched in favor of a different one, which often happens in development. “I know that LaChanze was very annoyed we cut that version of the song,” he says with a laugh.
To Sheik, all the cultures and traditions within the world of “Secret Life of Bees” are interconnected. Reinforcement of that position came from Saycon Sengbloh, who told the composer that when she was growing up in Atlanta, she would watch the white Southern variety show “Hee Haw” one night and “Soul Train” the next. “Genres are genres, but it’s okay to mix it up,” says Sheik.
Among the highlights of the show are two R&B songs, “Fifty-Five Fairlane Car,” a playful paean sung by Zachary, a Black teen with tender feelings toward Lily; and “Marry Me,” a plea from a long-suffering suitor of one of the sisters. The former, says Sheik, is an example of the Southern blues tradition that seeped into his soul when he was living in Hilton Head. The latter is thanks to John Legend, “…who gave me some inspiration to write this super-romantic song in his modality with a little bit of Brazilian things going on there. I’ll cop to it being a John Legend rip-off.”
What led to the most intense discussions among the creative team was how to balance the more mythic elements of the story with the harsh reality of racial conflicts brutally stirred up when Rosaleen decides to exercise her right to vote. The combative number “Sign My Name” contrasts with the ethereal and haunting prologue song, “River of Melting Sun”: “River of melting sky/Washing the honey sky/Turning the world to gold…”
“I’m the person on the team who wants everything to be poetic and metaphorical and sort of elusive, and Sam, Lynn and Susan, to some extent, wanted things to be much more specific and literal,” says Sheik. “‘The River of Melting Sun’ is a beautiful song and lyric, but I don’t know that it’s necessary in the show. I’ve come around to ‘Let’s get specific.’ Maybe these things that are poetic don’t necessarily help to tell the story.”
Having had two shows this season, including “Alice by Heart,” at off-Broadway’s MCC Theater, Sheik doesn’t seem to miss the days of touring the country with his band and playing 400-seat venues. Despite the heartbreak of “American Psycho,” his short-lived 2016 Broadway musical, he says he is hooked on the collaborative nature of theater, with each artistic element and cast member serving to elevate the story-telling.
“That’s just a real luxury,” says the self-confessed worker bee. “It makes me feel so appreciative and lucky at just how hard everybody works.”
Top Image: LaChanze and Elizabeth Teeter in Atlantic Theater Company's musical "The Secret Life of Bees." Photo: Ahron R. Foster.