Benjamin Scheuer Tames The Lion: Chemo, Family, Obsession and a Cookie-Tin Banjo

Benjamin Scheuer, writer and star of the one-man show The Lion, opens up to Playbill.com about art, illness and his life-long love of performing music.

Benjamin Scheuer
Benjamin Scheuer

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A surprise charmer of the New York summer theatre season has been The Lion, a one-man autobiographical, coming-of-age musical written and performed by Benjamin Scheuer that tiptoed into town with very little ballyhoo.

Following a New York Times review that called him “a naturally appealing performer with an ingratiating soft touch” and said the show had “a directness and good humor that only the hardest-hearted could resist,” Scheuer and his show are little less anonymous.

The singer-songwriter talked to Playbill.com about the album that led to the stage show and the father who inspired much of the script’s material.

This show began as an album. Is that right?
Benjamin Scheuer: I made an album with my band Escapist Papers. The record is called “The Bridge.” It was made with my old friend and collaborator Geoff Kraly, my longtime producer and editor. We were working on this album. When I found out I had cancer in 2011, this first person I called, after I called my mother, was Geoff. He was in the studio working on the record, and I went to work. The first thing I wanted to do was work on this record. 

All the songs had been written before I was ill except the last track, “The Lion.” I started writing it while I was in chemotherapy and I finished writing it afterwards. And I started performing the record. The first performance I gave was at the Lincoln Center Songbook Series. That was January 2012. I wanted to work out what I was going to say between songs. As I started to perform this record more, I wrote down what I would say between songs more. It seems a better idea than saying, “How y’all doing tonight?”

Then I realized I had a script and I had a score. And that’s a musical. I was up at the Goodspeed Theatre in January 2013 working on the project, when it was still called “The Bridge.” When I was up there I met the director, Sean Daniels. He and I began working together. It was Sean who was my mentor and guide, who helped me put together the outline of the piece and was my gentle bully as I wrote the show. He really kept me to task. In fact, I didn’t see him direct until two months ago, because he was dramaturg and editor and encourage and psychologist and best pal and breakfast maker. Only when we got into the rehearsal room at MTC two months ago, did I see him direct.

So he revealed his directing skills only at the very end.
BS: He certainly revealed them to me at the very end. He put together a really remarkable team and made sure all these folks worked well together in advance, so I didn’t know he had been directing the show. I didn’t realize that most of directing is organizing ahead of time and putting together the right people to do their thing. Samples of the fabric of the suit I wear were sent to the designers to make sure the material was the right kind of color and reflected well in the lights. It seems easy, but only because he makes it look that way.

Have you been writing songs since an early age?
BS: Absolutely. The song “Cookie-Tin Banjo” that ends the show talks about how my father — it’s a true story. Well, the whole show is a true story — when I was two years old, my father saw I was completely obsessed with his guitar, so my father built me a banjo made out of a cookie-tin lid and rubber band strings. Just as soon as I was old enough, I guess I was about four, he first got me a ukulele and then a little guitar. It’s all I ever wanted to do. Most kids, you have to get them to practice. My parents had to get me to stop.

Did your father teach you?
BS: My father taught me and I went to a school in Scarsdale called Hoff Barthelson.

You said you had a band. Has your artistic direction been primarily as a musician? Is this your first stage musical?
BS: I wrote a piece of musical theatre that played at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2007 and London in 2010. That show was called Jihad! It was a comedy of terrorism. I wrote a folk opera called The Nightingale and Rose, based on the Oscar Wilde short story of the same name. That was done in New York in 2011 by the Metropolis Opera Project. That was done while I was in chemotherapy, so I have few memories of it. My brain was fried at the time.

What is the future of this piece?
BS: “Cookie-Tin Banjo” is being released July 8 as both [a] single and animated music video. I made a video for “The Lion.” Making the video seems a very natural thing for me. I feel that using each medium to its ability is great. That’s really the way people listen to music now. They listen with their eyes. They go on YouTube.

On the 19th of August, the show opens at the St. James Theatre in London. It will play three weeks at St. James, which is an awesome theatre. We’ll be at Portland Center Stage in the spring. And I hope to keep performing the show all around the United States and Europe and beyond. My mother’s British and my father’s American, so I can go and work in Europe.