THE LION: An Interview with Benjamin Scheuer
THE LION begins without introduction. This one-man musical is simply staged – Benjamin Scheuer, his suit, and six guitars—each characters in their own right—tell the autobiographical, coming-of-age story of now thirty-something Scheuer’s relationship with his father, first love, family discord, and devastating medical diagnosis. The musical is written and performed by Scheuer; he’s charming, witty, and poised, and, most of all, generous with his story. He’s a brilliant lyricist, the kind who doesn’t waste a word. Music, the thing that binds him to his father, is his tool for forgiveness, redemption, and clarity, and in listening to his words, it’s hard not to find each for yourself.
Grace Porter (AE): In the aftermath of the THE LION‘s success, what is one ramification you never expected?
Benjamin Scheuer: This afternoon, I was strolling through SoHo in downtown Manhattan, and I stopped in at an eyeglass shop I like called Silver Lining. The folks behind the counter said, “Hey Benjamin, we wanted to let you know we start every morning here in the shop listening to the song “Cookie-tin Banjo.” We’ve actually started using the expression ‘throwing tin’ to mean ‘putting good energy into the world.’” When I made THE LION, I was telling my personal story as best I knew how. I certainly didn’t anticipate that I would create something that had any kind of universal appeal. Bits and pieces of the songs and the story seem to have resonated with all different folks in all different ways. And, given the recent presidential election results, the song “Weather The Storm” seems to have taken on a new resonance for folks.
AE: In the show, you reveal deeply personal experiences and feelings. How do you continue to tell your story over and over without facing emotional exhaustion? Is there a distance you need to create with your own story to continue to tell it?
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 wanted to chose 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 right words and play the right notes so those 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 on stage in THE LION I’m acting.
AE: Is there a degree of caution you use when writing about real people, especially members of your family?
BS: Well first of all, if you’re gonna write about other people’s truths, you’d better be able to tell your own truth with ten times as much honesty.
Yeah, it’s tough sometimes, deciding how to write about other people’s truths. It’s something I’m still trying to figure out, and I don’t always get it right. I’ve made people unhappy with things I’ve written about them; my intention isn’t to upset people or stir resentment. I mean, some writers do that, and I don’t begrudge them for it, but it’s not the kind of writing I’m interested in doing. Everyone has the right to tell the truth, but that doesn’t always mean it IS right to tell the truth.
I suppose I take writing about other folks on a case-by-case basis, and try to be as honest as possible while trying to still have some friends left in my life.
AE: Speaking of your family, what do they think of THE LION?
BS: My mom doesn’t like THE LION; she doesn’t want to watch her husband –my father—die on stage. She doesn’t want to watch me get sick and endure cancer and its horrific treatment. She’s also a private person, so she doesn’t want me singing about her own life, as I do in the song “A Surprising Phone-call.” That said, I think she’s proud of me for creating THE LION performing it, and making a career from it. It was when mom came to the Royal Albert Hall in London, when I was playing a solo set opening for Mary Chapin Carpenter, that I think her pride and happiness in my music outweighed the reservations she had about the material.
AE: Is there something you revealed that you wish you hadn’t? Or anything, in hindsight, that you wish you would have included?
BS: The structure of THE LION (64 minutes, one guy on stage with guitars, telling the story of how I got to age 30) required the focus of the story to stay pretty tight. Audience members may have noticed that, in THE LION, I don’t mention my friends. Not a single one. Of course, when I had cancer, and was going through chemotherapy, my friends were extraordinarily important to me; they took me to doctor’s appointments, they cooked food for me, they read to me when I was too groggy/tired to do anything, and sometimes they’d come over and sit in the next room and read while I slept. But I didn’t include any of them in the show. In order to simplify things, anything a friend did for me was done in the show by my brothers. Now, I made animated music videos for the songs “Cookie-tin Banjo,” “The Lion,” “Weather The Storm,” and “Cure.” In these videos, I got to include some details that I didn’t/couldn’t include in the show.
AE: It’s easy to relate to you and your story. Since you reveal so much about yourself and your family, how do you handle it when others want to share their stories with you or ask for advice?
BS: I love when folks ask my advice on writing; because that’s something I feel I know something about. “Get a copy of Roget’s Thesaurus; get a rhyme dictionary; listen to great songwriters and deconstruct what they’re doing; read Joseph Campbell. Apply to the Johnny Mercer Songwriters’ Workshop.” These are pieces of advice that I got, that I’m happy to share with other people.
In THE LION, there’s a scene of friends and family all gathered right after I learned I was cured of cancer; everyone looks to me to make a speech, to share the wisdom I’d learned from being ill and undergoing this horrible ordeal; and honestly, I’d learned nothing. I’d gained no insights. All that had happened was I’d gotten sick then gotten better. Writing THE LION was me trying to organize my experiences so I could communicate them to others. I wasn’t trying to find wisdom in myself; I was only trying to find connection with others.
Sometimes I get letters where people share their stories with me; stories of illness, deaths of close friends or family members. Sometimes the act of sharing a story, putting words and structure and thought to it, can be cathartic in and of itself. We feel less alone when we others understand –or simply acknowledge- the burdens we carry.
AE: The live performance was captivating. Is there any plan to release a recorded live performance of THE LION?
BS: I’m headed to LA to perform THE LION at the Geffen Theatre from January 4-February 19, 2017, so maybe a great film director will see the show and have an idea of how best to create the world of the show on film!
AE: This show seems like a bit of a departure from what you had been doing musically. What made you want to write and perform an autobiographical one-man musical?
BS: Theatre and music have always been two loves of mine. In college, I sang in an 11-piece band called FinkFankFunk. We’d play fraternity parties on the weekends; dress in wild clothes. I was studying English literature at the time, focusing on poetry and theatre. The summer after my sophomore year, I put together a different band called The Capability, with whom I wrote and produced an album. (As it happens, the bass player on that album was Geoff Kraly, who remains my closest musical collaborator, and who produced my most recent album “Songs from THE LION.”) Went to NYC for a semester –took time of school- to perform with The Capability at rock clubs like CBGB’s, Arlene’s Grocery, TriBeCa Rock Club.
Back at school, I acted in a production of “Sweeney Todd,” and wrote two pieces of musical theatre, both of which were staged at school. When I graduated, I moved back to NYC to keep working on theatre and music. I got an apartment on the corner of Christopher Street and Gay Street, in Greenwich Village.
I went to the 2007 Edinburgh Fringe Festival with a satirical show I’d written called Jihad! The Musical. That summer, I also put out the first record with a new group I’d put together called Escapist Papers in which Geoff Kraly played bass. Jihad! was produced in 2010 in London, where it was (rightly) trashed by the critics.
In 2011, I was in the middle of recording the second Escapist Papers album, “The Bridge,” when I learned that I had cancer. I wrote a song called “The Lion” and recorded it for this album; this album felt like it might be the last thing I would ever create, so I redoubled my efforts to finish it, and scheduled recording sessions around my chemotherapy. Successfully finished both the album and chemotherapy. Finally cured of cancer, I started performing the songs on “The Bridge” acoustically at the coffee shop open-mics in Greenwich Village, in NYC, at places like Cornelia Street Café, the (no longer there) Vagabond Café, Jack’s Coffee. These songs are almost all autobiographical, and I wanted to share with my audience the story of what had happened to me in the previous years. So every gig, in addition to writing new songs, I’d also write down the stuff I wanted to say to the audience between songs. As this coffee-shop evening developed, I had memorized the songs (a score) and the talking (a script). It had become a piece of theatre, and ultimately became THE LION.
AE: Let’s say we make a creative influences Mt. Rushmore. Whose faces are we carving? (This is something we recently asked of directors for our horror film interview series, and their answers were pretty cool, so I thought I’d ask this of you, too.)
BS: Oh man…MY creative influences, or the people I would suggest should be on the big old rock for EVERYONE? I suppose mine would be Eddie Van Halen, Marshall Mathers, Frank Loesser, Ernest Hemingway. Lately, though, I’ve been awed by the Swedish metal band Meshuggah, and their drummer Tomas Haake, so impulsively I might put him on the mountain too…(I saw them play in NYC recently, and they blew me away.)
But if I were called upon to make this mountainside of faces that would and should inform and inspire other people for generations to come? Shakespeare would be a pretty good fellow to put on there. Bach basically invented and codified the harmony that western music uses, so I’d put him up there too. Leonardo Da Vinci and Michelangelo and Pablo Picasso were extraordinary painters and sculptors, and Leonardo was also world-class inventor. (He imagined and designed a proto-helicopter.) John Coltrane, Ella Fitzgerald, Leonard Bernstein, Oscar Peterson, Charlie Parker, Bob Dylan (who invented my job, of “singer-songwriter.”) F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Beatles. Vincent Van Gogh, Kandinsky, Beethoven, Mozart, Debussy, The Rolling Stones, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Cole Porter, Nas and Tupac and Biggie and Outkast and Immortal Technique and Dead Prez and Mos Def and Tribe Called Quest, Joni Mitchell and James Taylor and Annie Dillard and Frank Sinatra and Stevie Ray Vaughn and Wes Montgomery and Oscar Peterson and Duke Ellington…
None of these artists or groups exist on their own…each is part of a community. So to separate them from their communities is to miss the larger point that we don’t create in a vacuum. We create within a community.
AE: Your book Between Two Spaces with photographer Riya Lerner reveals intimate parts of your treatment. What compelled you to create this book?
BS: My doctor said to me, “Ben, when you get chemotherapy, you’re going to get better on the inside and look worse on the outside.” As a person, I found this horrifying; as an artist, I found this really compelling. The visual contradiction interested me, and I thought it was ripe for capturing in a visual medium. So I got in touch with photographer Riya Lerner, who teaches at the International Center of Photography in NYC, and asked her to photograph me once a week during my treatment. We put these photos –along with text from the journals that I kept – into a book we made called “Between Two Spaces.” And filmmaker Peter Baynton created the music video for my song “Cure,” inspired by Riya’s photography.
AE: Anyone who goes through a major medical ordeal is forced to face his own mortality. How do you want to be remembered?
BS: I’d like to be remembered by my family and friends as a kind, honest, generous man. A good friend, a good husband and father, good son, thoughtful member of my community.
And hey, it’d be nice too if I could be remembered in a song, or a painting, or as a character in a novel. So get creating, people!
AE: What is the greatest thing that has come out of all of this for you?
BS: Our second date was when my wife-to-be came to see THE LION in London, and we had dinner afterwards, at which we argued about the responsibility of artists and the art they make. I’ve learned a great deal from her, and she’s certainly the best thing that’s come into my life.
AE: What’s next for you creatively?
BS: One responsibility artists may choose to embrace is to document the society in which they exist for future generations to look back and see not only the facts and figures of history, but also the emotions, the hopes, dreams and despair, loves and heartbreaks, of those who came before. History repeats itself; humans repeat themselves. So I’m going to write songs, and create work, about my world. I’ve been writing topical, socio-political songs. I wrote one called “The Orange Man” in the run up to the election. Here’s a video.
AE: What do you wish someone would ask you in an interview that they never do?
BS: I wish people asked me about things to do in New York City. I love my town, and my secret power is being a tour guide. I’m also a total foodie, and I love recommending places to eat. Some of my favorites: Kati Roll (Indian street food), Babbo (best Italian in NYC), Mary’s Fish Camp (great seafood), Redfarm for soup-dumplings. For coffee, Joe Coffee, Jack’s Coffee, Grounded on Jane Street. My two favorite bookshops are Three Lives and Co, and McNally Jacksons. Oh, and go hear the rock band paris_monster. They’re my favorite band from NYC.
THE LION will be back on stage in Los Angeles at the Geffen Playhouse from January 4 till February 19, 2017. Tickets and information can be found here.
Featured Image: Geffen Playhouse