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Tony Award-Winning Composer Debuts New Musical ‘Whisper House’ At The Old Globe

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Aired 1/21/10

The composer of the Broadway hit "Spring Awakening" premieres his new musical at the Old Globe Theatre. We'll talk about the play "Whisper House" with Tony-award winner Duncan Sheik and writer Kyle Jarrow.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): The ghosts in the new play "Whisper House" at the Old Globe are not here to help us. They sing songs that frighten a little boy in a lonely lighthouse and intensify the uneasiness of life during wartime. In the play, young Christopher has been sent to live with his maiden aunt Lilly. World War II is raging, and the ghosts raise suspicions against a Japanese-American who helps Lilly run a lighthouse on the coast of Maine. This 1940's ghost story, with a very 21st century score, is the work of composer Duncan Sheik and writer Kyle Jarrow. Sheik's last musical, "Spring Awakening," took Broadway by storm in 2007, winning eight Tony Awards including Best Musical and Best Score. Kyle Jarrow is an OBIE Award- winning writer and a musician. He's written for the stage, film and TV. I want to welcome you both, Duncan and Kyle, to These Days.

DUNCAN SHEIK (Composer): Thank you so much.

KYLE JARROW (Playwright): Thanks.

CAVANAUGH: Duncan, I’ve heard that “Whisper House,” it’s described as a play with music as opposed to a musical. What’s the distinction?

SHEIK: Well, you know, when – Kyle wrote the play first, before there was any music written. And, you know, when I was working on “Spring Awakening,” I was always kind of complaining because they were like we need more songs, more songs, more songs. And it’s where – you know, “Spring Awakening” has like 20 songs and there’ll be these kind of short scenes that are kind of 30 seconds or 45 seconds and then you’re back in the music again, you know. And I thought it would be interesting to do a piece where it really does feel like a play, like very much, you know, like a straight play, and then you’d have these songs that would happen kind of interspersed in the play but allow the story to really live, you know, on its own accord. And so – so that – and it’s kind of an interesting challenge because you do have – in “Whisper House” you have these pretty long stretches of scenes between the songs and so we, you know, that’s kind of been our process here at the Old Globe, to figure out how to kind of, you know, integrate these singing ghosts into the scenes when they’re not actually singing.

CAVANAUGH: Right, because as I understand it, the actors in the play themselves don’t sing any songs, it’s the ghosts. Is that right?

SHEIK: Exactly. So – and that was the big concede, was that the actors only speak text and the ghosts never speak anything, they just sing these songs. And that got rid of that people breaking into song problem.

CAVANAUGH: Now, as I said in the beginning, you know, this is set in the 1940s and “Spring Awakening” was a musical set in the 1900s. And yet the music for both of these is very modern. Why do you think that works, being able to set a period piece to music that’s very contemporary?

SHEIK: Well, I think, you know, in the case of “Spring Awakening” you had these adolescents who were, you know, going through all the myriad difficulties of adolescence. And in 1891, you know, obviously they didn’t have kind of alternative rock but modern kids, I think that’s one of the way they kind of deal with their angst, is by listening to whatever sub-genre of alternative rock they’re into. So it kind of made sense for them to – for that music kind of scores that particular emotion. I think in the case of “Whisper House” it’s a different situation and, you know, because these – there are ghosts and they’re – they live, you know, they’re supernatural. Then the music can kind of be anything it wants to be. Or, that’s my excuse anyway.

CAVANAUGH: That’s good. Kyle, I described the plot of “Whisper House” very briefly in the opening. Can you tell us a little bit more about the play? For instance, is this story based on a real experience of any kind?

JARROW: Well, there is some true history that informs the story. In 1942, German U-boats were off the coast, off the east coast of the United States. They sunk several U.S. cargo ships and for awhile there was a real fear that, you know, German spies would essentially swim ashore from U-boats, and some did actually. So at that time, lighthouses became a really important part of the war effort, basically because in order to torpedo ships, what U-boats would do is they would line up the ships against the light from the coast and they would sort of use that to position themselves to sink them. So what would happen is, lighthouses, if a U-boat was sighted, lighthouses would get the word to shut out their light and there would be blackouts in these coastal towns. That would disorient the U-boats and then Navy planes would sort of be able to come in and try to sink them. So that’s true history and that was something that I never learned growing up and I found fascinating, that the Germans got that close to American soil. So that’s one of the things that the show is about.

SHEIK: Kyle watches a lot of the History Channel.

JARROW: A lot of History Channel. Totally. But, you know, I think, for me, what was interesting about learning that is, you know, one of the things that happened after 9/11, I think for a lot of us, is there was this sudden feeling of, you know, wow, the United States is under attack for, you know, for the first time in centuries. But, really, during World War II, there was a similar feeling that, you know, our soil was at risk, so capturing that moment felt like it had some resonance for the moment that we live in now.

CAVANAUGH: So it brings it up to the present in at least the emotional tones.

SHEIK: I think, yeah, you see through the lens of World War II kind of what’s going on today. That’s – I mean, that’s why I like doing these things in other time periods, because, you know, it allows you to kind of see your own contemporary life through this really interesting lens.

CAVANAUGH: Let’s hear a bit of a song from “Whisper House.” This is from an album released in advance of this production at the Old Globe. This is a song called “Earthbound Starlight.”

(audio of clip of song “Earthbound Starlight” from “Whisper House”)

CAVANAUGH: That’s a tune called “Earthbound Starlight” from the new musical or play with music, “Whisper House,” that is at the Old Globe in Balboa Park. And as I said, that’s from a concept album named “Whisper House” that you released a year before the play. And, Duncan, we heard you on that cut.

SHEIK: Yes.

CAVANAUGH: You sang on that cut.

SHEIK: Yeah.

CAVANAUGH: Why did you release the album before the play?

SHEIK: Well, it was kind of an accident. I mean, I – Kyle and I went down to Charleston, South Carolina in early 2008 and spent 10 days. Kyle was kind of rewriting the play and I had only written one song, so I kind of wrote the lion’s share of the music at that time. I came back to New York and I just decided to record everything as demos but I recorded it kind of carefully. And then I was playing it for my manager and he got all excited about it and then we played it for some people at Sony and they really liked it and so I kind of finished the demos and turned it into a proper record. I did some – with Simon Hales, the arranger I work with, we did some brass and wind arrangements and then Holly Brook came on to sing the harmony vocals. And so, you know, it was a very kind of finished record. And I think, you know, we all felt that it would get staged soon-ish, and also having the record out there would be a really good thing for, you know, the artistic directors to kind of listen to and understand what the, you know, exactly what the tone of the music was. And, in fact, this is something that used to happen more often, I think, you know, like “Jesus Christ Superstar” and things like…

CAVANAUGH: Oh, certainly.

SHEIK: …and “Tommy.”

CAVANAUGH: Yeah, yeah.

SHEIK: You know, so it wouldn’t – so and the benefit of that, I think, is that when people go to the theatre at least some of them will have heard the music and know the music and can kind of, you know, enjoy hearing it in the context of the play.

CAVANAUGH: Well, I’m interested now in how it is that you two work together because did you say that the music had already been written before the play? Or the play…

SHEIK: Yeah.

CAVANAUGH: …before the music?

SHEIK: The play was wr – Kyle wrote the play first.

CAVANAUGH: Umm-hmm.

SHEIK: And then, you know, and I – and then I wrote the song – I kind of just wrote the songs. You know, we talked about what the songs were supposed to be…

CAVANAUGH: Umm-hmm.

SHEIK: …but I kind of wrote the songs and then I – when I gave them to Kyle, he made, you know, very smart improvements to the lyrics.

CAVANAUGH: Uh-huh.

SHEIK: And, you know, things like that. So it was – so we kind of collaborated on the lyrics kind of after the fact.

CAVANAUGH: Kyle, do you say – you look at the play and you say I think we need music here? Or I think – How does that work?

JARROW: You know, it was a little bit like that, actually. This piece is different because, as you said, the characters, the living characters, don’t sing, and these two ghosts do sing. And it’s sort of a model that we stole from Brecht, actually…

CAVANAUGH: Umm-hmm.

JARROW: …where singers comment on the action. So given that, I needed to write the action so that then the songs could comment on it. I don’t know that that’s necessarily the way – That process wouldn’t work for all shows but for this one, you know, the script coming first made a lot of sense. And, yeah, I sort of – I wrote it and then I would just write in the script, song here, maybe about…

SHEIK: Umm-hmm. Yeah.

JARROW: …you know, things in the world being scary.

SHEIK: Right.

CAVANAUGH: Uh-huh.

JARROW: And then Duncan would sort of take that and run with it. And then actually Duncan also, later in the process, wrote a couple of tunes and said, hey, I don’t know where these fit in the show but they feel like they fit with the show thematically. And then my job was to sort of find a place to put them into the script.

SHEIK: And Kyle like, for example, there’s this song called “The Tale of Solomon Snell,” and Kyle, we were down in South Carolina and we were hear – you know, hearing all these ghost stories in Charleston. You know, they have these kind of ghost walks you go on.

CAVANAUGH: Umm-hmm. Umm-hmm.

SHEIK: It’s a little bit cheesy but it’s fun. And Kyle was like, why don’t you write like an old-timey story song, like a – that, you know, kind of incorporates maybe one of these ghost stories. And that kind of became…

CAVANAUGH: Right.

SHEIK: …”The Tale of Solomon Snell.” So that’s really fun because it’s such a departure from my kind of normal process of songwriting.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Duncan Sheik and Kyle Jarrow and we’re talking about the new play “Whisper House” at the Old Globe. Your – Duncan, your Broadway hit, “Spring Awakening,” it really broke a lot of boundaries. I said that, you know, it was a smash hit but it was a crazy kind of smash hit because it talked frankly about teenagers dealing with sex…

SHEIK: Yes.

CAVANAUGH: …and did you wonder how you were going to write music that dealt with rape and bondage…

SHEIK: Umm-hmm. Yes.

CAVANAUGH: …and abortion and suicide?

SHEIK: It’s – you know, did I want – It’s funny. When I was doing it, it didn’t really occur to me that that’s what it was about. You know, it’s funny. I – And it wasn’t until we were, you know – I mean, “Spring Awakening” took eight – it was eight years of development before it was staged, so it was a really long time, and it wasn’t until we went onstage at the Atlantic that it kind of hit me that it’s like, ohh, we’re going to have someone fondling themselves and there’s going to be naked teenage girls. And I don’t know why that’s popular but it seemed to be.

CAVANAUGH: Well, let’s hear a song from “Spring Awakening.” This is a song about little some 19th century girls knew about sex, and it’s called “Mama, Who Bore Me.”

(audio of clip from the song “Mama, Who Bore Me” from the play “Spring Awakening”)

CAVANAUGH: That’s “Mama, Who Bore Me” from the musical “Spring Awakening.” And the music was written by Duncan Sheik, who has now brought his next effort, “Whisper House,” to the Old Globe. “Whisper House” is a play written by Kyle Jarrow, music by Duncan Sheik. Let me ask you, you know, in “Spring Awakening” you had Victorian kids singing like rock stars, we already talked about that. Are there similar time shifting touches in “Whisper House?”

SHEIK: I think so. You know, that’s really fun – you know, that – what we just heard, by the way, is Lea Michele from…

CAVANAUGH: Yes, thank you for that.

SHEIK: …of “Glee” fame.

CAVANAUGH: Yes.

SHEIK: So I’m feeling kind of like a starmaker this morning. One…

CAVANAUGH: Congratulations.

SHEIK: One star at a time, just bringing them up. Anyway, yeah, I think, you know, there’s several – there’s kind of three layers of time that are happening in “Whisper House.” You have the, you know, obviously 1944, you have the ghost which died in 1912 and so you kind of have the last best – You know, there’s a French horn player and a clarinet player and a trumpet player and that’s kind of like the last vestiges of the instruments that they would’ve actually played on the ship before the ship went down. And then you have, you know, the fact that, frankly, the music is pretty contemporary. So you have these kind of three layers of time that we’re kind of playing with in terms of the mood and the tone and texture of the music.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Kyle, the staging of “Whisper House,” there is some pantomime and there’s, as we said, the ghosts sing the songs. It could be confusing for people who love traditional musicals and it makes me wonder if you’re looking for a different kind of audience?

JARROW: Well, I think that’s something that we have been asked and we’ve thought about every step of this process. It’s not a traditional musical structurally. Certainly musically, the music that Duncan writes is not in the traditional musical theatre mold. And I think I speak for both Duncan and I when I say that there are examples of fantastic musical theatre but a lot of new musical theatre leaves both of us a little cold. And yet we both love theatre and we both love music and we feel like they’re a natural match. So trying to find new ways to join those two has been a big part of my career and Duncan’s as well. I think with “Whisper House” what we wanted to do is create a piece that could bring in a younger audience who would certainly be attracted to the more contemporary sound and the music and into the more sort of adventurous style of storytelling. At the same time, the subject matter, it’s the story of, you know, an 11 year old boy and basically his relationship with his aunt, I think has a pretty broad appeal and, unlike “Spring Awakening,” it doesn’t have that sort of edgier content in terms of sex and language. So I think our hope is that an audience that likes more traditional musical theatre, if they give us a shot, they’ll find out that actually it’s very appealing to them and, at the same time, people who are a little skeptical of traditional musical theatre will also like it. So we’re trying to make a show that’s a big umbrella, which is definitely a challenge but, you know, I’ll tell you, the Old Globe, the audiences that we’ve been seeing are very diverse in terms of age and I think both young and old seem to be connecting to it so far. So I feel like we’ve actually done a pretty decent job of creating something that has a pretty broad appeal in terms of traditional musical theatre lovers and sort of more adventurous, more rock ‘n roll kids.

SHEIK: Yeah, and David Poe and Holly Brook, who are the two singers, you know, they’re really great singer/songwriters in their own right and they’re – but they don’t really come from the theatre world per se so, you know, I think just stylistically, esthetically, the music is going to connect to an audience that’s maybe more used to going to rock concerts, you know.

CAVANAUGH: Umm-hmm. Right, right.

SHEIK: But I think the story is really – it’s very moving and it’s really well told so it’s not like we’re doing something super-duper avant-garde, it’s very clear – The storytelling is very clear. It’s just that David doesn’t speak tec so, yeah, there’s, you know, as I tell him, mime is money, you know. So…

CAVANAUGH: Well, one – there’s a name, certainly a name in this production that many people may be familiar with and that’s TV/film star Mare Winningham. She’s playing Aunt Lilly in this production. Tell us a little bit more about her character, Kyle.

JARROW: Aunt Lilly is a woman who is a lighthouse keeper at a time when very few women held that position. She’s – lives a very isolated life. She’s sort of a curmudgeonly woman, certainly does not like or have any experience with children. And she inherits her – the care of her nephew, which, you know, an 11 year old boy running around the lighthouse is the last thing she wants. And what’s nice, I think, about the story for her is we get to see her journey from a fairly closed off, as I said, curmudgeonly woman to someone who’s a little bit opened up through her relationship with this child. And Mare certainly does a great job of bringing that story to life.

CAVANAUGH: And we see – This play reveals itself to us through the eyes of 11-year-old Christopher, the little boy. Tell us, who is the actor who’s playing Christopher?

JARROW: The actor is a gentleman named A.J. Foggiano.

CAVANAUGH: Umm-hmm.

JARROW: I hope I’m pronouncing his last name right. And he’s just a tremendous young actor who’s actually 14.

CAVANAUGH: Uh-huh.

JARROW: But, I think, on stage, very convincingly plays 11.

CAVANAUGH: Is Mare Winningham sorry that she doesn’t have any songs?

SHEIK: I think she is.

JARROW: I think she might be.

SHEIK: She actually does have a lullaby towards the end of the show but it’s – but that moment is – the music is diegetic so it’s – she’s allowed to sing at that point.

JARROW: There’s a very funny moment, at least for me, in the show where her character says that she doesn’t sing. The kid’s asking her, hey, will you sing me a song and she says, oh, I don’t sing. It’s very funny to me because obviously Mare’s a fantastic singer. So it is a little crazy for us to put her in a musical and then – and not let her sing and so every night when she says that line, I sort of laugh to myself.

CAVANAUGH: Well, I want to go out on another song from “Whisper House” called “Take A Bow.” But first I want to let everyone know that tonight is the official opening night of “Whisper House” at the Old Globe Theatre in Balboa Park and the play runs through Sunday, February 21st. And Duncan Sheik and Kyle Jarrow, thank you both so much for talking with us today.

SHEIK: Thank you.

JARROW: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: And what we’re going to be hearing now is the song “Take A Bow” from “Whisper House.”

(audio clip of the song “Take A Bow” from the play “Whisper House”)

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