The LION is part musical, part concert, part autobiography of Benjamin Scheuer, who feeds his personal experiences into an authentic and distinctive show.
I’ve never considered myself a “musical theater person.” I’ve seen a fair number of shows, but I’m not one of those self-professed musical buffs, able to spout off actors and song titles faster than the quiz night emcee can say “show biz.” So I hadn’t heard of THE LION until my cousin invited me; it’s a one-man rock-and-roll musical, she said. I was skeptical. But she told me that the theater was having a “pay your age” promotion, and like any good American, the thought of saving a dollar that I wouldn’t have spent otherwise convinced me to give it a try.
My easy capitulation paid off. Benjamin Scheuer’s THE LION is an autobiography put to music–a musical memoir–that manages to be both one of a kind and amazingly relatable. So of course, once I’d seen it, I had to know more. Ben—narrator, author, and star of the show—was kind enough to indulge me.
MS: What was the most unexpected part of creating THE LION?
BS: I’ve gotten to work in so many different mediums while working on THE LION: photography, books, animation, film, recording, theatre. It’s been fascinating to see how these mediums are actually all very similar. I learned from photographer Riya Lerner (with whom I made the photo-book “Between Two Spaces”) that that which makes a good song also makes a good photo: It should have one focus; get rid of all extraneous clutter; there should be harmony and dissonance, light and dark; with a clear frame.
Sean Daniels, director of THE LION, gave me some great advice about how to take a creative note, which is “say thank you, and write something down.” Meaning, everyone’s going to have ideas. Listen to them, think about them, and then decide what’s helpful and what’s not.
MS: How long did it take you to write the music and dialogue for THE LION?
BS: I wrote the first draft of the song “Build A Bridge” in 2007, seven years before THE LION opened at the Manhattan Theatre Club in 2014. In 2012, I was playing these autobiographical songs in the coffee shops of Greenwich Village, in NYC, where I live. I wanted to perform the best gig I could, and I figured “Why don’t I write down and memorize the between-song-talking.” So that’s what I did. For every gig, I’d re-write my script, try to add new songs.
Then, in January 2013, I met director Sean Daniels at the Goodspeed Theatre, in Connecticut. Sean and I started working together on my piece; in August 2013 we took the show (then still called “The Bridge”) to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, where it won the award for Best Lyrics at the festival. Then, in early 2014 Sean and I did three one-week workshops at the Manhattan Theatre Club; in each workshop, we re-wrote the show from page-one, adding new songs, new scenes, more guitars, and a new title: THE LION. In June 2014, THE LION opened at the Manhattan Theatre Club in the form that it takes now.
The answer to “how long did it take to write the show” is either “a year and a half” or “seven years,” depending on how cheeky I’m feeling.
MS: How was writing THE LION different from other creative work you’ve done (songwriting, writing your book, etc.)?
BS: Making new musical theatre is very much a collaboration between the writer(s) and the director. Sean really was my guide as I wrote THE LION. We outlined the show by putting the titles of existing (and potential) songs on blue index cards, and ideas for scenes on white index cards, and then putting them on the floor in what seemed like a good order. One thing that would happen when we did this is we’d realize that two of the scenes were doing the same thing in the story; so we’d cut one. We’d see that there was a big story moment that didn’t have a song, and realize that I needed to write one. As the show was being written, I’d regularly perform the piece’s latest iteration in front of audiences of friends, writers, songwriters, theatre-makers, dancers, illustrators, etc…and ask for their thoughts: What they found confusing. What they noticed. When they got bored. When was it stupid.
The process of making THE LION has some great similarities with the process of making “Between Two Spaces.” After photographing me for six months, Riya chose her favorite of the photos she’d taken and printed them out. We selected text from the journals that I kept, and printed each quote out on a piece of paper. The.n we organized these photos and quotes on the floor, and moved them around until something cohesive started to coalesce. Once we found an order we liked for the photos and the text, we printed one copy of a book, using an online printing house. They sent this first-draft book to us, and we showed it to Lia Strasser, a graphic designer. She helped lay it all out better; present the text more intelligently; she thought of details we hadn’t considered.
MS: In “The Lion” video there are some religious symbols included (your parents get married under a chuppah, your grandparents wear the Jewish star armbands, etc). Why did you decide to include those in the video, but not the stage show?
BS: Peter Baynton created the music video for my song “The Lion.” The recording of the song was the last track on the album THE BRIDGE that I made with my band Escapist Papers. The song’s dense lyric tells the story of four generations of my family. The opening line is “When my mother still was young her father died from too much wine/ his parents both were hunted in the jungle.” This song in particular doesn’t mention that my family is Jewish. To create this video — a visual analogue to the song– Peter listened to and drew visual cues from every song on the album. The song “Julia, Julia” – which we ultimately cut from the show – has the line “I wanted to take you away on a trip and decided on Israel; that would say nice Jewish boy.” So Peter’s detective work allowed him to deduce that “hunted in the jungle” was talking about my great-grandparents being murdered in the Holocaust. He was correct; they died in Auschwitz.
Most of writing, I find, is leaving things out. We writers chose the very few things we absolutely NEED to include, and everything else ends up on the cutting room floor. I didn’t mention being Jewish in the show THE LION because it wasn’t necessary to the piece. The same way that I didn’t mention going to college, and didn’t mention any of my friends.
MS: How does your family feel about you presenting your story—which is also partially their story—to the world?
BS: My mother doesn’t like THE LION. She doesn’t want to see her husband die on stage. She doesn’t want to see her son (me) get sick and nearly die on stage. And she’s a private lady; she doesn’t want to see herself on stage. She’s also proud of me and the work I’ve done to create the piece. She likes the music video for “Cookie-tin Banjo” because it shows the positive side of my relationship with my father.
MS: What are you most proud of?
BS: I’m most proud of having made good things out of bad things.
For updates on his upcoming projects, stay tuned on Twitter at @BenjaminScheuer or on Facebook at Facebook.com/BenjaminScheuerOfficial. THE LION is currently on tour in Pittsburgh, PA at the City Theatre. Find out more about the album, Songs from THE LION, containing studio recordings of the music from the show, in the album release interview.
The Book Between Two Spaces documents Ben’s journey through photography and text. 50% of proceeds go to the Leukemia/Lymphoma Society.