Pop and rock singer-songwriters have regularly attempted the cross-over to writing musicals, from Elton John and Cyndi Lauper (who've both had big hits) to Phil Collins, Paul Simon, Tori Amos, Damon Albarn and Bono and the Edge (who've each had flops), so it's not necessarily a natural fit or a guaranteed success.
The best are the composers who take on the form on its as well as their own terms: a difficult balance to get right. But Duncan Sheik is fast proving to be one of the most interesting. The singer-songwriter had a smash hit with his first original show Spring Awakening in 2006, turning Frank Wedekind's revolutionary 19th century play about adolescent sexuality into a rip-roaring contemporary pop opera that featured songs with titles like "Totally Fucked" and "The Bitch of Living". A subsequent stage version of Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho, premiered at London's Almeida in 2013, turned out to be less commercially successful when it transferred to Broadway, but it also had a vibrant contemporaneity.
Whisper House, originally workshopped in 2009 before premiering in San Diego in 2010, came between the two, and confirms the originality of his voice. And more than that, it is not based on an already existing story but is an entirely original idea, too, developed by his co-lyricist and book writer Kyle Jarrow.
It offers a haunting tale of a young boy, recently bereaved by the loss of his father in the Second World War, whose mother has a breakdown, so he is sent to live with his only living relative, an aunt living in seclusion in a Maine lighthouse. Here, in the tense, intense play-off with his aunt, the stage is set for the uncovering of a deadly family secret and a shipwreck that has led to an estrangement between the aunt and her late brother, who was the boy's father.
Its a disturbing story, and it is given a textured, reverberating musical score that perfectly embodies the strangeness and mystery of the scenario. And a first-rank cast of British musical theatre stars give it their all, including Simon Bailey and Niamh Perry (who bring passionate rock vocals to their roles as ghostly narrators), and Dianne Pilkington as the aunt. There's also terrific support from Simon Lipkin and Nicholas Goh.
In offering a platform for shows like this, The Other Palace (now owned by Andrew Lloyd Webber and intended as a home for new musicals) is set to play a major role in the London musical theatre landscape.
Whisper House tickets are on sale to 27 May 2017.
What the Press Said...
"This misshapen offering from the composer behind American Psycho — The Musical has a few nice tunes and no dramatic impetus."
Dominic Maxwell for The Times
"In essence, it’s a song-cycle with narrative nobs on."
Dominic Cavendish for The Telegraph
"isn't the chillingly spooky piece it promises to be. Instead it feels slight and sluggish."
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard