Rock Solid Composition

Veteran rock/pop musicians are charting new courses in the realms of Broadway, film and ballet
  • Photo: Crackerfarm
    Duncan Sheik
  • Photo: Paul_Kolnik
    "Spring Awakening"
  • Photo: Chris Owyoung
    David Bryan (left) in the studio during the recording for the music of "Memphis"
  • Photo: Joan Marcus
  • Photo: Chris Hardy
    Kip Winger at the San Francisco War Memorial Opera House during a rehearsal for "Ghosts"
  • Photo: Erik Tomasson
    The San Francisco Ballet performs "Ghosts"
April 01, 2010 -- 11:22 am PDT
By Bryan Reesman /

Duncan Sheik jokingly remarks that he sometimes looks at making records as a young man's game, and asks rhetorically if he should bother anymore. While the GRAMMY-winning singer/songwriter just turned 40 last November and released his most recent album in 2008 with Whisper House, he is also fresh off his recent success on Broadway with the groundbreaking musical "Spring Awakening."

Established artists have long ventured outside their comfort zones of the rock and pop idioms, including Elton John, Billy Joel, Danny Elfman, and Trevor Rabin, among others. Whether it's scoring for films, writing for theater or composing classical music, Sheik represents a new crop of veteran rock and pop musicians diving into personally uncharted waters in an effort to expand musical horizons.

Following a GRAMMY nomination in 1997 for his hit "Barely Breathing," Sheik established a connection with lyricist Steven Sater in 1999 that ultimately led to the duo working on "Spring Awakening." It took seven years to get it to the stage but the hard work paid off. "Spring Awakening" broke conventional theater protocol with its exuberant, emotional songs dealing with themes of young love and blossoming sexuality and played for two years on Broadway, spawning a GRAMMY Award in 2007, eight Tony Awards, and more recently four Laurence Olivier Awards.

Sheik feels the show, which is currently on tour in the United States, clicked because it reached an audience in his generation that felt disconnected with traditional musicals that did not speak to them. "When 'Spring Awakening' came along, it was really embraced because I think everyone was wanting to open up their palette a little bit," says Sheik. "It was really an amazing feeling to be embraced in that way by the theater community. We got lucky in that we did it at the right time. People were really ready for it. Now [Green Day's musical] 'American Idiot' is coming along, and [singer/songwriter] Regina Spektor is working on something."

Sheik and Sater have another musical, "The Nightingale," also in the works, while Sater has been collaborating with System Of A Down singer Serj Tankian on a modern musical version of the ancient Greek tragedy "Prometheus Bound."

As a founding member of the GRAMMY-winning New Jersey rock band Bon Jovi, classically trained pianist David Bryan has also emerged on Broadway. Following some film score work in the early '90s and securing a publishing deal in 1999, Bryan started collaborating with different songwriters. In 2001 the book for the '50s rock/R&B musical "Memphis," written by Joe DiPietro, crossed his desk and he decided to undertake writing the music. It took the duo eight more years to get the show to Broadway, but the show has garnered positive critical acclaim and is in the midst of an open-ended run. All the while Bryan and DiPietro cranked out another collaboration, "The Toxic Avenger Musical," which showcased a more modern rock sound and became a recent off-Broadway hit.

"The best part is that everybody [in the upper echelons in theater] is about 70 or 80 years old, so they call me 'the Kid,'" quips the 48-year-old Bryan. He and DiPietro, whose goal is to become "the modern Rodgers and Hammerstein," are currently working on "Chasing The Song," which takes place chronologically after "Memphis" in the South in 1960 before the Beatles emerged. "'Chasing The Song' is [about] that small window of time when everything was about the songwriter, before bands wrote their own songs," explains Bryan.

Another artist with a classical background is Kip Winger, who rose to fame in the late '80s with his eponymous platinum rock band. A ballet dancer in his teens and a self-taught musician, starting in the mid-'90s Winger supplemented his musical growth with serious composition study. His first classical piece "Ghosts," was written for a ballet choreographed by the renowned Christopher Wheeldon and debuted in San Francisco in February to positive critical reviews. "The coolest thing about this for me was that the big rock radio stations wanted me to come in and promote it," says Winger. "So here I am on a morning drive show on the biggest station in San Francisco, talking about the ballet. I never expected that."

"Ghosts" will make its debut abroad in the ballet "Brilliant Steps" in May in Hong Kong, performed by Tan Yuan Yuan — who Winger says "is like a national treasure in China" — and Damian Smith.

Considering Winger is known by his fans for his hard rock songs, he has been slowly opening up minds on both sides of the aisle. "I understand that a lot of people don't know what it is that I do, and especially our band," Winger says of both his outside projects and his band, which released a new album, Karma, last November. "I'm not one of those people that can continue to repeat myself and play the same song over and over again. I'd rather just be this eclectic weirdo that's following the artist's way...I'm basically just a student of music."

Jonny Greenwood, guitarist for the eclectic GRAMMY-winning rock band Radiohead, has become increasingly known for his film score work, starting with the 2003 documentary Bodysong. According to Mac Randall, author of Exit Music: The Radiohead Story, Greenwood first began playing viola as a child, played in youth orchestras, studied music in college, before going on to craft string arrangements for Radiohead beginning with their 1995 album The Bends. "It's quite possible, if Radiohead hadn't turned into what it did, that Jonny Greenwood would have gone on to be a composer," says Randall.

Greenwood composed the score to the 2007 Oscar-winning Paul Thomas Anderson film There Will Be Blood. "In some ways it had a more traditional movie score sound, but at the same time it was also very thorny," adds Randall. "It was a real touch of classical music in a movie, which you really don't hear so much of anymore.

"I actually had a conversation earlier this week with Alex Ross, who is the classical music critic for The New Yorker and also a big Radiohead fan," says Randall. "He told me that in the classical world Jonny Greenwood is very well-respected. People take him seriously."

Yet another artist stepping out is Rufus Wainwright, who recently composed his first opera, Prima Donna, with a storyline about a prematurely retired opera singer. The opera, which contains "inspired touches and disarmingly beautiful passages" according to The New York Times, will make its London premiere April 12 and is scheduled for a North American premiere at the Luminato-Toronto Festival of Arts + Creativity in June.

While the aforementioned musicians all plan to continue with their day jobs, they also aim to continue diving further into their non-rock projects and hope their fans will come along for the ride.

"For the people who have the ambitions and can actually back them up, it's great," observes Randall of this growing rocker-cum-composer trend. "It is a new avenue to move into, and maybe it's one of those things that might get fans more interested in non-pop music. You never know. It could pull some people along if it works."

(Bryan Reesman is a New York-based freelance writer.)


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