Their latest collaboration is a new work titled No One's Sonata, a play with music that Sater and Sheik are currently developing at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center's National Playwrights Conference. Directed by NPC artistic director Wendy Goldberg, public performances take place July 10-11. Frank Wood, Laila Robbins, Kieran Campion, Kristen Sieh and Amy Spanger star.
The story, which centers on two grown children who return home to celebrate the 45th wedding anniversary of their parents – Viennese immigrants still haunted by the events of Kristallnacht – uses pieces from the Gustav Mahler song cycle "Kindertotenlieder" ("Songs on the Death of Children") as well as Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" and "Moonlight Sonata."
Mahler set his music to the work of Friedrich Rückert, a German poet whose grief over the loss of two children compelled him to pen 428 poems on the death of children. Mahler selected five of the poems for his song cycle, and Sater has been at work adapting and sculpting the words into contemporary English.
"It's a play I had developed and wrote in the dimension of speech, silence and gesture, and then I realized what music could bring to it," Sater explained. Having always been fascinated by the unexpected and non-traditional ways in which music can forward story in the theatre, Sater turned to classical pieces from Mahler and Beethoven.
"I'm really working with Mahler and Beethoven on this, because I'm writing words to their songs," he said, adding that "Moonlight Sonata" will be solely an instrumental piece, but English lyrics have been created for "Ode to Joy." With Spring Awakening, music represented the irrepressible spirit, desire and sexuality of budding youth. In No One's Sonata, Sater said it "represents the irrepressibility of the past. It keeps breaking in on the silence and what's unsaid. The children return home and their father is dying. They've come back home to kind of get what they never got from these parents. It's kind of this old world versus new world."
Sater turned to Sheik to bring new world spirit to Mahler and Beethoven's old world art. "I wanted it to feel contemporary, present and real, so, of course, I went to Duncan for that," he said. "It's different because the songs have been written, so he's not writing the music. But he was so moved by it and he hears things in a way that no one else hears them. So he had ideas for how to set and arrange the music."
He characterized the score as "electronic" and "contemporary," but evocative of "the shattering of childhood" and, referencing Kristallnacht, "the shattering of glass."
"What I want you to feel is that you're brought into the music in a contemporary way. We're really respecting and profoundly honoring the songs, but finding a more modern way of singing them in a different kind of musical arrangement."
Sater and Sheik are hoping for additional readings and workshops of the production following the O'Neill. "The characters sing the pain of their repressed past. It bursts forth from them, and it transforms their surroundings when they're in this song world. It's different ways of trying to get at the truth of what I feel living is like."
The two reunited at the O'Neill's Waterford, CT, campus last week, just as news broke of Spring Awakening's Broadway return. The two had previously worked at the O'Neill in 2002, prior to Spring Awakening's New York premiere, on another musical, The Nightingale.
"It feels like a continuity of past, present and future," Sater said. "It felt mystic in a way. This place takes me back to all the kind of yearning and ambition and heartache," he said, recalling the years the duo had temporarily shelved Spring Awakening to focus on other work.
No One's Sonata director Goldberg said it felt like "a gift" to have the collaborators back at the O'Neill. "We've just begun the very first exploration of this new piece that fuses these songs with this psychological story of a family haunted by their devastating past. Also, to hear the songs of Mahler get 'Sheikified' yesterday in rehearsal was particularly exciting," she added. Also on deck and "very much alive" is Alice By Heart, Sheik and Sater's musical based on Lewis Carroll's "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" that is directed by Lear deBessonet (Good Person of Szechwan, The Tempest) and features a book by Sater and Jessie Nelson (currently collaborating with Sara Bareilles on the Broadway-aimed Waitress).
Following a 2012 U.K. developmental premiere, the piece was workshopped by Theatre Aspen last summer and additional closed readings followed this past winter and spring. The team is hopeful that Alice By Heart will find life at a regional theatre next season. Read more about it here.
Returning to the news of Spring Awakening's Broadway return, Sater said that he and Sheik were rather hands-off during the LA run of the Deaf West production – which they attended several times – but intend to be "very much involved" in the revival's New York transfer, including auditions.
"It's quite an affecting production," Sater said. "It's so beautiful how it's being expressed and the physical realization of the story. I've seen Spring Awakening translated into so many languages, but I wasn't really prepared to see it translated into silence and the language of silence. It was such a moving experience.
"When the opportunity came for it to come back to New York, it opened our hearts again in a way. Everything is happening so quickly. We're re-arranging our schedules to be part of this."