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A Roaring Success

An Interview with Benjamin Scheuer

Benjamin Scheuer. Photo by Christie Goodwin.

As he begins his final run in his extraordinary, life–affirming musical,Benjamin Scheuer reflects on the experience of creating and performing The Lion.

Will you talk about the evolution of this piece? How and when did you decide to tell your story? Did the music lead you to a play or vice versa?

Benjamin Scheuer: In 2012, I was playing at Cornelia Street Café, Jack’s Coffee and Vagabond Café in NYC’s Greenwich Village, where I live. I realized that in addition to writing and memorizing songs for these gigs, I should also write and memorize the banter between the songs, to better frame each song and to better connect the songs. My job is to keep the audience compelled the whole time, and at a coffee shop gig you can tell when your audience is bored because they check their phones or start talking to one another. So each gig would show me what story was working, what songs needed to get rewritten, what needed to be cut entirely and what seemed to be missing. Most writing is rewriting.

As you began to perform the show regularly, did you find it morphed and changed over the course of the run? And did your perspective on your story change as it became more and more popular?

BS: I loved making the album “Songs from The Lion” in between tour stops. Some tracks sound as they do in the show and some are completely reimagined. Making the album gave me all kinds of new ideas on how I could play these songs live. And even beyond that, it has been fascinating to see these songs take on lives of their own outside of my experience. The song “Weather the Storm” has been sung by the Brooklyn Children’s Choir, was a campaign song for someone running for office, and has been a post-election anthem for some folks.

I hope this doesn’t embarrass you, but I have heard numerous people say that The Lion is one of those life-changing evenings in the theater. I know that part of this is due to the power of your performance and the profundity of the story, but what do you feel the audience connects to in such a deep way?

BS: To paraphrase lyricist Yip Harburg, who wrote “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” words are how we think and music is how we feel, so songs allow us to think our feelings and feel our thoughts. I agree with Harburg. A song is a powerful tool for connection.

I’ve learned from Sean Daniels, director of The Lion, that the more specific, the more personal and the more honest a piece of writing is, the more it will have universal appeal. Not because your story is the same as my story, but because we basically feel the same way about our individual stories; we feel loss, triumph, love, fear, acceptance. If we can communicate our version of our experiences and these feelings to other people, we’ll connect our humanity to theirs and we will forge deep understanding.

A songwriting teacher once told me, “Want to write a good song? Write what you don’t want other people to know about you. Want to write a greatsong? Write what you don’t want to know about yourself.” Sometimes the things that we think distance us from others are in fact the things that most deeply connect us.

You have been performing this show for quite some time and as these are your final performances in this role about your life, what would you say has been the most challenging part of creating and performing this piece?

BS: Writing The Lion required me to dig deeply and honestly into my own experience and emotions. I had to remember what it felt like to watch my father die when I was 13, what it felt like to go through my own battle with cancer when I was 28, and then write about these experiences with clarity and honesty. I knew I needed to choose the right words. This required a lot of hard thinking. Ta-Nehisi Coates, in his book Between the World and Me,talks about “the craft of writing as the craft of thinking; loose and useless words were not separate from loose and useless thoughts.” When I perform The Lion, my responsibility is to sing the correct words and play the correct notes so the experiences and emotions can live in the audience’s mind; I don’t need to “relive” the drama personally every night. Even though I’m playing the character of myself, when I’m performing The Lion, I’m acting.

And on the flip side, can you talk about one of the more rewarding aspects of this experience?

BS: Right before I started chemotherapy, my doctor told me, “Ben, as you get better on the inside, you’ll look worse on the outside.” As a person I found this horrifying, but as an artist I found this visual paradox fascinating. So I called Riya Lerner, a friend who teaches at the International Center of Photography, and asked her to photograph me once a week during my treatment. We’ve since made a book that includes these photos and text from the journals that I kept. The book is called Between Two Spaces, and 50% of proceeds are donated to the Leukemia/Lymphoma Society. The book is for sale in the lobby of the theater, and at betweentwospaces.com. It feels wonderful to have turned something bad into something good.

How do you feel about another actor taking over this role? I imagine there will be many incarnations of this story — what do you imagine you’ll discover seeing other people perform your show?

BS: Ah, well we needn’t cast an actor; we need to cast a guitar player. Guitaristically, the show is very challenging. Many of the songs are played in alternate tunings, meaning the different guitars are tuned differently to different chords. (That’s one of the reasons there are so many guitars on stage.) For example, “Cookie-tin Banjo,” “The Lion” and “Dear Dad” are played on a guitar tuned CGDGCE. The songs in the show often employ a technique called “hybrid picking” where the right hand is playing three different melodic lines at once: bass with the pick, chords with the middle and forefinger and melody with the pinky. It’s challenging to do. Whoever takes over The Lion from me can be any race, any age, any gender, so long as they can play.

So what’s next? Have you had the opportunity to develop more ideas while you’ve been on the road with The Lion? Are you looking to explore other mediums or to continue working in the theater?

BS: Well, there are three projects I’m excited about.

I’d like to make a longer animated musical film with director/animator Peter Baynton, with whom I’ve made four animated music videos for my songs “Weather the Storm,” “The Lion,” “Cookie-tin Banjo” and “Cure,” which have played at film festivals all over the world.

Since I’ve been on the road with The Lion, I’ve written an album’s worth of songs about travel and about what “home” means. I’m going to record this album with producer Geoff Kraly, who produced the album “Songs from The Lion.”

And lastly, I’ve been commissioned by the Williamstown Theatre Festival to write a musical for a cast. My subject is Peter Mark Roget. Don’t know who he is? You will soon!

By Amy Levinson

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