Although Spring Awakening recently closed on Broadway, it was certainly one of the more interesting and ambitious shows to tread the boards over the last few seasons. Some found it overly depressing and pretentious, but there was no denying the power of the story, the dynamism of Michael Mayer's direction, and the magnetism of the uniformly talented cast.
One of my initial concerns about Spring Awakening was the often non-integrated nature of the score. Duncan Sheik's songs, with lyrics by Steven Sater, didn't always seem directly relevant to the action at hand. But I eventually reconciled that concern with Mayer's deliberately anachronistic, almost Brechtian presentation. Yeah, the show was set in the 19th century, and here we have these kids singing into microphones, and talking about listening to stereos, and singing directly to the audience. But all that seemed part of a conscious decision on the part of the creators to try to give the story more universal resonance, something that today's youth could more directly identify with.
Since the success of Spring Awakening, we've been hearing periodically about other musical-theater projects that Duncan Sheik has been working on, including Whisper House, which comes out today in concept-album form. The new CD features Sheik on vocals, along with guest artist Holly Brooke. The songs sport music by Sheik and lyrics by Sheik and Kyle Jarrow (A Very Merry Unauthorized Children's Scientology Pageant), the latter of which is also providing the book for the developing show. The story centers around a mother and child who live in a lighthouse in Maine around the time of World War II. The boy's father dies in the war, and the story of the child's and the mother's grief is related through the eyes of the ghosts who haunt the lighthouse. An intriguing scenario, to be sure.
But as a possible result of the ghosts-as-narrator conceit, Whisper House plays, at least on CD, more like a soundtrack than a cast album: the songs comment on the action rather than propel it forward. Except for the first two songs, it's hard to figure out what's going on in the story from just listening to the CD. Of course, the same can be said of a number of other shows, including Cabaret.
The songs of Whisper House themselves are pleasant enough, although by the end of the CD I found myself struggling to distinguish the different tracks from each other. They all seemed to blend together into one album-long lament. I think I was also becoming increasingly perturbed that the songs didn't seem to be telling the story. The only track from the CD that has stuck with me in "The Tale of Solomon Snell," a macabre little self-contained fable with some catchy orchestral touches.
The melodies and orchestrations of Whisper House seem to consciously echo those of the The Eagles and The Beatles, although the dated nature of those references should give you an inkling of how long it's been since I paid any attention to "popular" music. The lyrics fall frequent victim to slant rhyme, pairing "precaution" with "Boston" and "arrival" with "style." This is also true of Spring Awakening, and I, for one, have little patience for it. I know it's an acceptable practice in pop music, but I'm a bit of a purist, and hold musical theater to a slightly higher standard.
But the premise for Whisper House is intriguing, and although the CD doesn't really float my musical boat, I'm willing to give Whisper House the musical the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps as the show develops, the songs will become more integrated into the story. Or perhaps the show will feature a presentation style that will make the songs work in their current form. No word yet as to when the show might appear on stage, but Sheik is currently performing the songs from the show on tour. If you happen to catch his show, let me know what you think. I'm hoping to see for myself when Sheik plays Boston's Berklee Performance Center in March.