BWW Interview: THE LION's Renaissance Man/Alchemist Benjamin Scheuer Roars
Singer/songwriter Benjamin Scheuer has been sharing his most recent creation - his autobiographical, one-man show THE LION playing in various cities in the US (and the UK) the last two-plus years. Benjamin will be completing his current tour with his Los Angeles premiere performances at the Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater at the Geffen Playhouse.
Thank you for taking the time for this interview, Benjamin. What was the impetus for THE LION?
I wanted to feel understood - by other people and by myself. I figured I'd write some autobiographical songs and play them at acoustic gigs. In 2012, I began playing at Cornelia Street Café, Vagabond Café and Jack's Coffee in Greenwich Village. At a coffee shop gig, you can tell when people get bored because they check their phone, they go to the restroom. I paid attention to where folks lost interest, and I'd rewrite that material for the next gig. I'd write new songs, new between-song-banter, I'd re-order the material. I tried to tell the truth as hard and as clearly as I could. The more carefully people listened - the more interested they were - the more understood I felt.
I cannot imagine the emotions that went through your head in learning of your stage IV Hodgkins Lymphoma diagnosis in 2011. And you managed to turn your journey into an award-winning piece of art. THE LION must be an incredible healing tool for yourself, would you agree? Another focal point of THE LION is your father passing away when you were only 13. THE LION must be an incredible healing tool for you also in this instance, would you say?
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." As I wrote THE LION, I wrote about what it was like when I grieved for my father; what it felt like, physically and emotionally, to go through chemotherapy and bone biopsies. Clarifying and specifying these experiences into words allowed me greater insight into the experiences themselves and allowed me a sense of control over experiences that I'd previously had no control of. As I took the worst experiences in my life and created songs from them, I felt like an alchemist, turning bad into good.
What made you decide to have photographer Riya Lerner chronicling your treatments (which resulted in your book Between Two Spaces)?
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 thought this was horrifying. As an artist, I found it fascinating. So I asked Riya Lerner, a photographer who teaches at the International Center of Photography, to photograph me once a week during my treatment. We put these photos, alongside text from the journals I kept, into a book called "Between Two Spaces." The book's for sale in the lobby of the theater and proceeds from the book go to the Leukemia/Lymphoma Society. And there will be an exhibit of these photographs at a cool gallery space in Los Angeles during the run of THE LION (Details at www.BetweenTwoSpaces.com).
With such serious topics in THE LION, should audiences expect to cry a lot when they attend THE LION?
There's an old theater saying: "Make 'em laugh, you'll run for a month. Make 'em cry, you'll run for two months. Make 'em do both, you'll run forever."
In your first draft of THE LION, were a more significant number of meaningful incidents of your life included than there are now?
Details that I didn't have room for in the show wound up in other places. An early draft of the show had a song called "Sounds Like Stars" as the closing number. I recorded it with my band Escapist Papers and put it on iTunes. The "Cookie-tin Banjo" animated music video presents a side of my father that isn't in the show. The video emphasizes his gentleness. Also, in THE LION, I don't mention any friends. Not a single one. Instead, I wrote my two brothers as stand-ins for all my real-life friends. It streamlined the show. But in actual fact, so many pals of mine took me to chemotherapy, cooked for me, looked after me, and showed me lots of love.
How were you able to edit it down to its current running time? Did you invite input from any friends, family, or collaborators? Any particular mentors you would like to give appreciation to?
I had so much help creating THE LION. I met Sean Daniels, director and mastermind of THE LION, in 2013 at the Goodspeed Playhouse. I'd been there by the marvelous Donna Lynn Hilton and Bob Alwine when I had four songs and a big idea. Sean Daniels helped me outline the show. He was my guide/therapist/best-pal/hiking-companion/breakfast-buddy/artistic-visionary/cheerleader. Songwriter Geoff Kraly (who later produced the album "Songs from THE LION") was a huge help. Songwriters Jean Rohe, Shaina Taub, Sam Willmott, Kate Ferber, Zander Cote and Alan Schmuckler all offered great wisdom and notes.
My guitar teacher Chris Rosenberg was invaluable to my development as an artist, and I learned how to tell stories with microphones from record producer Peter Denenberg. Playwright/songwriter Andrew Lippa was an extraordinary guide and mentor to me during the writing of THE LION. Steve Stettler, artistic director of the Weston Playhouse, was extremely generous in his guidance, and gave Sean and me a place to work in Vermont. The show's first producer, Mandy Greenfield, was a huge help in offering guidance and a space in which Sean and I could work in NYC. Animator/director Peter Baynton and photographer Riya Lerner offered invaluable artistic advice on how to tell this story. And the show wouldn't exist in its current form were it not for sound designer Leon Rothenberg, light designer Ben Stanton, set designer Neil Patel, and costume consultant Jen Caprio.
How long did THE LION take from your first song to its completed form?
Seven years. In 2007, I wrote the first draft of a song called "The Bridge," the title track on a 2012 album that I made with my band Escapist Papers. I eventually re-wrote the song - it's now called "Build A Bridge" - and put it in the show.
You are a Renaissance Man. You sing, play guitar, compose lyrics, write books, and create animation. What was your first passion in the arts growing up?
When I was a little boy, I used to listen, mesmerized, as my father played guitar. I wanted to play just like him. When I was three, dad built me a toy banjo out of a cookie-tin lid. The first song in the show is called "Cookie-tin Banjo." You can see the animated music video for that song here: www.youtube.com/watch?v=L2kq1zGkUvM
Who were your idols growing up?
Eddie Van Halen and Nuno Bettencourt were my guitar heroes. The first and only concert I ever saw with my father, before he died, was Extreme in New York City in 1996. Nuno walked on stage with blond waist-length hair and black painted fingernails; his low-slung Washburn guitar plugged into a stack of Marshall amplifiers. He hit an A-chord and I'd never heard anything so awesome in my life.
Your songs in THE LION have been called a mix of rock and folk. What types of music do you grow up listening to?
My dad played lots of Beatles, Stones, The Who; took us to see Gilbert and Sullivan and TOMMY, GUYS AND DOLLS, BRING IN DA NOISE, BRING IN DA FUNK, Charlie Parker, Coltrane, Miles. Dad gave me tapes of the Van Halen albums "1984" and "5150," which I'd listen to while rollerblading. I got interested in Def Leppard, Extreme. Then later, Led Zeppelin, Jeff Buckley, Stone Temple Pilots, Nine Inch Nails. Then Tupac, Eminem, Nas. "The Love Below" by Outkast blew my mind. Jurassic 5, Ours, Rachmaninov, Mozart, Chopin, Debussy, Lauryn Hill, D'angelo, Dylan and Joni Mitchell and James Taylor. Lately, I've been listening to the metal band Meshuggah.
Which is more gratifying to you: being in front of an audience or being creatively behind the scenes?
I'll have given more than five hundred performances of THE LION once I finish the LA run at the Geffen Playhouse, and I'm excited to focus my energy on writing. My fiancée and I are getting a puppy this spring, and I can't wait to be at home writing at the piano, with my pup hanging out under the instrument!
In which medium do you prefer making your magic: stage, print, film?
Collaboration is exciting to me. I enjoy seeing how my musical vision of something is augmented by someone else's vision in a different medium. Record producer Geoff Kraly breathed sonic life into my songs on the album "Songs from THE LION." And then London-based director Peter Baynton made animated music videos for four of these songs: "Weather The Storm," "Cookie-tin Banjo," "Weather The Storm," and "Cure." I loved seeing how Peter's vision of my songs and Geoff's vision of my songs work together. I'm a happy guy when I have collaborators who are smarter than I am. Geoff and Peter certainly are.
Would you ever consider having some other performer 'do you' in THE LION?
Guitaristically, the show is very challenging. Each guitar on stage is tuned to a different alternate tuning. 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. I'd love for someone else to play the show. They can be any race, any age, any gender; so long as they can play.
Have you left wiggle room in your script to improv with crazy audience reactions - á la nightclubs versus in a more traditional theatre setting?
You'll have to come see the show twice to know if it's different night to night.
You have been touring THE LION since mid-2014. What was the most unexpected response you received during your show?
Someone died. At the end of the show, an old fellow stood up to applaud, wobbled, and sat back down. He passed out and never woke up. I know all this because his widow wrote to me. (Gosh, I hope he enjoyed the show, cause it's the last thing he saw...)
What was the most wondrous response you experienced?
In London, a woman came to see the show. We had dinner afterwards and she must have not completely hated the show, because we're getting married this summer.
How would you compare or differentiate the theatre audiences in London with that of the different US cities you've brought THE LION to (Lowell, Milwaukee, Rochester, New Haven, Washington D.C., Pittsburgh, San Francisco, San Diego, Portland, the Hamptons, Williamstown)?
London audiences are quiet and listen-y during the show, then go bonkers at the end. Portland, San Francisco, downtown in NYC, and Pittsburgh were all rowdier audiences; young, savvy, dressed cool. In D.C., there were a few nights when Secret Service were in the audience to protect government folks who'd come to see the show.
Your website has a heartfelt testimonial from Mary Chapin Carpenter. How long did you tour with her? What tips did you pick up from this seasoned performer?
Mary Chapin came to see THE LION in New York, and invited me to tour the UK, opening for her. We played four dates together - The Royal Albert Hall in London, Sage Gate's Head just outside Newcastle, Bridgewater Hall in Manchester, and Usher Hall in Edinburgh. Mary Chapin taught me that being a performer is a full-time job, and being a writer is a full-time job. Trying to do both is trying to have two full-time jobs, and that's untenable.
Your shows at the Geffen Playhouse will be the final shows of your current tour. What do you have planned afterwards? Writing THE LION 2? Taking a deserved, rejuvenating break? Another book? Another animation in the works?
I've got three projects in mind. With producer Geoff Kraly, I'm going to make a new album of songs I've written about travel and what "home" means. I'm also writing a new musical for a cast about Peter Mark Roget, the fellow who created the Thesaurus. And I'd like to make a feature-length animated musical film with director Peter Baynton.
What would you like the Geffen Playhouse audience to leave with after your performance?
I hope the show leaves people feeling a little less alone. And I hope people leave the show with a copy of the book "Between Two Spaces" and a copy of the album "Songs from THE LION." I'll be hanging out after each performance, so make sure to come say, "Hi!" I'll sign your stuff for you!
Thank you, Benjamin! And I look forward to experiencing your music and life in THE LION.