By Simon Hodgson
Benjamin Scheuer was 31 years old when The Lion (then called The Bridge) premiered at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2013. The one-man musical ran off Broadway at Manhattan Theatre Club in 2014 and 2015, earning Scheuer the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Solo Performance. The young New Yorker seemed like an overnight success, a charming musician with a winning smile, a gift for storytelling, and a wardrobe of sharply tailored three-piece suits.
|Benjamin Scheuer in The Lion. Photo by Matthew Murphy.|
The reality was quite different. Scheuer had endured a series of setbacks—from losing his father at age of 13 to being diagnosed with stage IV Hodgkin’s lymphoma—challenges that he transformed into The Lion’s story. “Being able to take the worst parts of our lives, then using those things as a means of communication, is a kind of alchemy,” he says. We caught up with Scheuer as he was preparing to bring his award-winning show to The Strand Theater.
How did The Lion come to be?
When I’m having a bad a day, I try to write a song about it. Sometimes you can’t improve a bad day, but you can write a song about it, and suddenly, something good has come of it. So I’d written a series of autobiographical folk songs. I never intended for it to be a musical. But when I was playing these songs in coffee shops around the Village [in New York City], I didn’t know what I was going to say between the songs. I figured, well, I’ll just write that down too and memorize it.
How have your personal feelings about the themes in The Lion shifted since the show originally premiered in 2013?
Before I started performing the show, I worried that many of the things I sang about were so personal that no one was going to understand. I’ve learned that the opposite is true. The very things we think make us unlovable are so often the things that other people relate to.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
I wanted to be Eddie Van Halen. I wanted to have long hair and wear leather pants and play guitar as fast as I could. Then I came to the realization that Eddie Van Halen is already Eddie Van Halen, and he’s pretty good at it. I wanted to do something with a guitar, and I realized I’d better tell my own story.
How is musical theater evolving?
Nine Inch Nails is musical theater just as much as Guys and Dolls is. Both use music and words to capture attention, generate emotion, and tell stories. When writers acknowledge that musical theater is a methodology, rather than a genre, it frees them to create whatever they want.
Songwriting seems like a solitary process. What was it like collaborating with director Sean Daniels?
Sean Daniels is a brilliant man. If it weren’t for him, I’d still be playing in a coffee shop to four people a night. Sean challenged me to dig deeper, to tell harder truths, to say things in fewer words. He also makes a tremendous breakfast sandwich. And he can wear mismatched plaid like no one else.
Any advice for young actors, performers, and writers?
Songwriters: get a rhyming dictionary. All artists: get a copy of Roget’s Thesaurus. Then try this: Write down the one thing you don’t want anyone to know about you. The single most terrifying thing. Start writing your next piece there.
Emulation is important as we learn our craft. But ultimately, we need to do our own thing. The one thing that every person can do better than anyone else is be themselves.
The Lion opens April 19 at A.C.T.'s Strand Theater. Get your tickets here!