“It’s my hope that people will dig it and connect with it,” said the enormously talented Benjamin Scheuer in a recent phone interview. The “it” he refers to is his well crafted, one man, critically acclaimed smash hit The Lion, which is currently playing at the Lynn Redgrave Theater at Culture Project.
This is the third time Scheuer has breathed life into the show. Prior to this run, he was awarded prizes at both the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and London’s St. James Theatre. His show was also featured at Manhattan Theatre Club where it played nightly to sold out houses.
Without divulging too much information, it’s safe to say that Scheuer’s deeply auto-biographical tale takes the audience into his personal hell and back. And yet, through all of his candidness and pain shines constant rays of strength, hope, and gratitude. With 6 guitars and a set (by designer Neil Patel) that feels like a quaint, comfy living room, this friendly modern bohemian takes us on a journey from his childhood to adulthood through story and song—and we are captivated by each precious moment.
Scheuer is overwhelmed, yet gratified by the response his show has received, particularly among theater goers. “The best reaction is when people approach me after the show to tell me that their story is a lot like mine, ” he said. “And then they tell me something that appears to have nothing at all to do with my story, ” he laughs. “At first I couldn’t wrap my head around this. And then I realized that we all feel the same way about the stuff that happens to us. People simply need to feel understood and when they relate it to other people’s struggles, it makes them feel less alone in the world. I certainly didn’t set out to write anything other than what happened in my own life by just using an acoustic guitar and sitting on a chair.”
His story had humble beginnings and actually sprouted from his gigs at local coffee shops. “I had just written a few songs from an album called ‘The Bridge’, with my band, Escapist Papers. In January 2013, I went to the Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut. It was there where I met Sean Daniels.” Daniels was already an established director, who had directed at Manhattan Theatre Club and The Kennedy Center. He continued, “In April 2013, I was invited to the Weston Playhouse in Vermont. They had encouraged me to bring a director. I immediately thought of Daniels, but thought that he might be out of my league and so I asked for recommendations of young directors with whom I could work.” Surprisingly, Daniels offered to direct him and Scheuer now credits him for the success of The Lion.
Songwriters tend to have a dark, dramatic side, perhaps to add to their mystical talents, but Scheuer rejects the notion. “Writing songs is not painful,” he says. “Fighting illness and battling other serious traumas in life is painful. But going back to create art of these problems is joyful. It’s difficult for sure, but when I can take these awful things in life and turn them into the best things that I can share with people–that is a good thing.”
Through the intermission-less 90 minute show, Scheuer seamlessly strums each guitar as though he were born with a pick in his hand. While most of his songs take on folk/indie-rock flavor, his musical influences have varied from mainstream jazz artists to glam rockers of the eighties. “After college, I studied with Chris Rosenberg, who is a professor at Manhattan School of Music. Chris also played in Ornette Coleman’s band for 13 years.” His childhood icons included Eddie Van Halen and Nuno Bettencourt, lead guitarist of the band, Extreme. “There is a bit near the end of my show that I can attribute directly to them.”
As Scheuer’s story unfolds, we learn that he is given a life changing diagnosis from his doctor. Even then, his positive nature prevailed. “I knew when I was ill that I wanted to make something out of my circumstance, but I also knew that I would have a hard time writing about it,” he recalls. His doctor then said something to him that he found fascinating and curious. “As you heal on the inside, you’re going to look worse on the outside. That visual contradiction just sounded right for photographic documentation.” He connected with photographer Riya Lerner who initially thought to shoot Scheuer against a nude white backdrop once a week to show the changes of his body. “Into the process of capturing that, we both noticed that the disease was expressing itself in many more subtle and surprising ways, particularly in adornment.” He further explains, “In the medical space, it took on an anonymous attribute since everyone was wearing a hospital gown. At the same time, it identifies you with illness. “When I wasn’t in the hospital,” he observes, “one of things I did have control of was what I wore, so I could take pleasure in these little things and clothing was a way to have that control back.” The photographs are captured in Lerner’s book, Between Two Spaces and half of the proceeds for each book benefit the Leukemia Lymphoma Society.
Although he humbly considers himself a songwriter and guitar, Scheuer may have recently changed his tune, thanks to some high-profile guests who attended his show. “I had the great luxury of meeting Mr. Joel Grey,” Scheuer recalls. “He came backstage and told me that he really enjoyed my acting. When I told him that I wasn’t really an actor and was only onstage because the show came from his “between songs” banter, Grey looked him squarely in the eye and said, “Benjamin, You are an actor!” Before that moment, Scheuer wasn’t convinced, but now plans to heed Mr. Grey’s compliment with the commitment to act as well as he can.
Bruce Willis also paid him a visit. After a post-show sushi discussion, Willis (who will make his Broadway debut later this year) decided that he’ll play Ben in the next run of The Lion and Ben will run off to become an International action hero. All spoken in jest, of course.
Two other videos based on songs from the show are in the works, as well as an album called, “Songs from The Lion.” After his New York run, which ends March 29th, Scheuer will head west to Portland Oregon, where he’ll launch a national tour that runs through June 2016.
For tickets and information, please visit http://thelionmusical.com/#home or visit the box office through March 29th, 2015 at the Lynn Redgrave Theater at Culture Project (45 Bleecker Street). For more information about Riya Lerner’s book featuring Scheuer, visit http://betweentwospaces.com/