Whisper House - London

Duncan Sheik's new musical arrives in London.

Duncan Sheik on London's Whisper House, Being Pissed Off About American Psycho & a Spring Awakening Movie

Duncan Sheik on London's Whisper House, Being Pissed Off About American Psycho & a Spring Awakening Movie
Duncan Sheik
(Photo: Caitlin McNaney)

Tony-winning Spring Awakening composer Duncan Sheik is no stranger to opening shows in London before New York. That was the path taken in 2013 by American Psycho, which had its world premiere at the Almeida, and currently by Whisper House, which was seen in 2010 at San Diego’s Old Globe and is now having a U.K. premiere at The Other Palace. Broadway.com found the amiable Sheik in expansive form in an early-evening chat recently.

Does Whisper House in London recall your experience here on American Psycho, which also played the U.K. before it ever reached New York?
In some ways, though the difference is that this is a new version of a show we have already done, and also the expectations at the Almeida are very different from the expectations with something like this. For me, Whisper House feels like something that will be driven by word of mouth, given that people don’t know what it is, whereas American Psycho had a lot of energy around it before even the first preview.

How would you characterize what this is?
A very cool ghost story! Our director, Adam Lenson, was John Doyle’s associate, and this has quite a cool John Doyle-esque approach to it with the cast onstage the whole time, which I think works very well. I am hoping we have a lovely run here and that as many people as possible see it and, fingers crossed, that it sparks a little bit.

How does this Whisper House compare so far to what was seen in San Diego seven years ago?
Not to denigrate the first version, but I think we’ve managed to find a much more cohesive aesthetic for the look and the sound of the show, so that I’m feeling really quite optimistic. This began with a record that came out a year or so before the Old Globe production, and in hindsight it might have been better if they had existed at the same time. But I’m really proud of the record and think it holds up and am delighted now that the piece itself will get a new audience.

What are your feelings about a name Anglo-Irish cast [Simon Bailey, Niamh Perry, Wicked alumna Dianne Pilkington, among others] cast as Americans?
These are Brits playing Americans but World War II Americans, and the ghosts are Americans from 25 years or so before that, so at that point when a lot of Americans were still Anglophone in some way. What's interesting to me is that the record of Whisper House became a little bit of a cult favorite among some English theater geeks I know and love, and here we are. 

Are you missing the buzz of Tony season on Broadway, which of course included American Psycho this time last year?
To be brutally honest, I’m sort of really pissed off that we opened the show last year and not this year for a host of reasons. I think American Psycho would have had much more of an impact given the political landscape we’re in right now, but hindsight as we know can be 20/20 and it wasn’t my call. But I’m excited to see Groundhog Day and Come From Away and all these shows: I’ve been kind of naughty and haven’t seen much this season—not even Dear Evan Hansen with Ben Platt, whom I know dearly and I know is just amazing in it.

At the risk of comparing children, as it were, can you contrast the Almeida American Psycho, led by Matt Smith, with the production that subsequently opened on Broadway, with Benjamin Walker?
Look, I personally feel as if we did a lot of work to the music in between those two productions that I am happy I did, and I’m very happy with how the show sounded on Broadway compared to how it sounded at the Almeida. There are things we were able to do visually [in New York], especially in the second act, that I think are just stunning because we had that bigger stage. Rupert [Goold, director] and Es [Devlin, designer] were able to be much more artistically grand.

What are your thoughts on that show going forward?
Well, firstly, I suspect it hasn’t seen the end of its London life, though I’m not allowed yet to make any further announcement. But I think the thing with American Psycho has to do with making it tonally cohesive: is it a critique of late capitalism or a satire of yuppies? I think you can do both, but I don’t think we’ve got it quite right so far.

What about the mooted film version of Spring Awakening: has that been helped by the success of La La Land?
I think [La La Land] will help a lot of musical movies get made—good, bad or otherwise. I would love for Spring Awakening to be one of them, but the truth is that Steven [Sater, lyricist] and I have at this point been incredibly picky about finding the right director who’s going to do the best version, which hasn’t to do with who is going to make the most at the box office but with finding the most auteur director who will deliver the best version of the film.

Do you have a feeling in general about musicals on screen?
I feel strongly that it’s incredibly difficult to make musical movies, and the ones I like I can list on one hand: Dancer in the Dark and Cabaret and to some extent what Baz Luhrmann has done, but a lot of musical movies are not my cup of tea, so I’m hoping to find someone who has a really unique and incredibly cool vision of how to put this [stage show] on film. 

Did the beautiful Deaf West Broadway revival make a difference on this front?
In fact, there are a couple of directors who have come back into the frame and a conversation is happening with them. But I think what [revival director] Michael Arden did with the show onstage was something extraordinary, and so I loved the experience of watching it grow from downtown L.A. and on to Broadway. Spring Awakening is the gift that keeps on giving, that’s for sure.