In his intimate and lyrical one-man show, THE LION, musician/playwright Benjamin Scheuer tells the story of his life, the volatile father who taught him to love music, his angsty teen years, the heartbreaks, and his tough battle with cancer (which he won) at 28. He does so using spoken word and song, the stage sparse and set to look like a foyer on the Lower East Side or maybe Williamsburg, with six guitars for him to play, depending on the character. The show is close and real. Ultimately, what character “Ben” learns (and what Scheuer learned in life) is that the thing that matters to him most is family.
Having opened last summer at the Manhattan Theatre Club, THE LION returned to NYC this winter for a two-month run, through February and March, at the Lynn Redgrave Theater. Buzz built up around Scheuer’s songwriting and storytelling prowess. By the end of this particular run, not only were the seats sold out, but notable audience members included Stephen Sondheim and Bruce Willis (the former apparently in tears and too emotional to come say hi to Scheuer after the show).
THE LION will now tour the States through 2016, beginning in Portland, Oregon, on May 2. Its accompanying album, aptly titled Songs From THE LION, will be released sometime this year, featuring contributions from Josh Freese, formerly of Nine Inch Nails, and Grammy-winning producer Pat Dillett, who’s worked with the likes of Sufjan Stevens, Glen Hansard, and Mary J. Blige.
Scheuer met with the Voice at the old–New York Cornelia Street Café, where the foundations of THE LION were laid in shows down in its classy, stuffy basement. Apparel has taken on a whole new meaning since his bout with cancer, when he wanted to look nice, not sick; today he looks striking, clad in a navy pinstriped suit and purple tie, with piercing blue eyes and a mane of gold hair. He tells the story of how his music and penchant for theater came together in a show that’s winning audiences over on both sides of the Atlantic. It started with an old guitar, his father’s.
“When I was two years old,” he says over orange juice and quiche, “my father built me a toy banjo out of a cookie tin lid. He played the guitar, and all I wanted to do was play guitar like him.” And so his father taught him — at the age of five. That’s also how the show starts, with a song called “Cookie-Tin Banjo.” Playing became the thing for Scheuer, who “came to the horrifying understanding that Eddie Van Halen already played like Eddie Van Halen,” he says. “[I realized I should] play like myself. And what did I have that other people didn’t have?…I’m a storyteller.” He started writing songs. His first autobiographical number would be written at age eleven, about then-girlfriend Jillian.
Theater was a palpable component of his childhood, with he and his father, mother, and two younger brothers living just north of New York and going to see shows in the city. Scheuer would act in plays in school as well, one memorable production being that of Jesus Christ Superstar his junior year of high school, while he was attending Eton College after his father passed away and his family moved to London. He played Judas, future Broadway star Will Barratt played Jesus, and Herod was played by recent Oscar winner Eddie Redmayne. “It was a really good production!” Scheuer laughs.
At Eton he would get his first taste of writing plays, penning a musical performed in school with a full orchestra. He’d continue to write plays at Harvard, where he went to college: one about a nerdy boy and his magic genie, and one about a gallery come to life. Once moving to New York, he’d play music down in dingy clubs and write more theatrical works, stories like Jihad the Musical, about a terrorist who wants to make it big. And while working on autobiographical record The Bridge, Scheuer was diagnosed with cancer.
“The first thing I did when I found out,” he says, “I called Geoff Kraly, who was producing my record, because I didn’t know what the outcome of my diagnosis was going to be. I didn’t know if I was going to die. So I wanted to leave some art behind.” He started working vigorously (as vigorously as he could, considering his intensive chemotherapy treatments), the song “The Lion,” about his family history, the only one he could finish at the time. During chemotherapy, he dived into yet another art form.
“My doctor told me,” he says, “ ’Benjamin, as you get better on the inside, you will look worse on the outside.’ I found this to be a compelling paradox. Riya Lerner is a photographer that I know. She came and photographed me once a week [for a book the two released called Between Two Spaces, which raises money for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society]. I learned from Riya very quickly that that which makes a good photo is the same thing that makes a good song — it has one focus. There’s no clutter. It has harmony. And the thing that it’s about isn’t necessarily its focus.
“I wrote a script and I memorized it,” he says. “Then I had a script and a score, which is ostensibly a musical.” Not quite, but he’d continue working on “the musical” at writing workshops and with the eventual director of THE LION, Sean Daniels, the pair chiseling out the story that Scheuer wanted to tell. He’d perform it at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, where one theater after another would invite him to put the show on, each venue bigger and more distinguished than the last.
For those who haven’t caught the show or won’t be able to, Songs From THE LION will feature music from the show, but the recording will differ slightly from what audience members catch live and in the flesh.
“Musical theater has been making records as souvenirs,” he says. “So the show is to sell the record. There’s a better way to do it — the record is to sell the show. I have no interest in making souvenirs.” The performance offers renditions of the tunes played by Scheuer and his guitars; the album full-on instruments and production. And he’s releasing Songs From THE LION singles, too, on YouTube, each with a video of its own and colorful animation by Peter Baynton. The album, he elaborates, is art for art’s sake. It is its own set of works.
Why call it Songs From THE LION, then?
“Because Revolver was already taken.”
Benjamin Scheuer begins his national tour of THE LION May 2 in Portland, Oregon. For tour dates and additional information, visit his website.
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