Benjamin Scheuer’s one-man musical The Lion opened in Geva’s Fielding Stage on Friday night and will run for 9 more performances this week. Ben, who besides performing the show is also continuing to write new songs and plan new projects, graciously agreed to share with us the story of creating The Lion.
What was the process of writing The Lion?
John Lennon said, “tell the truth and make it rhyme.” In writing The Lion, I tried to take his advice. He knew a thing or two about songwriting. The Lion is a true story.
Had you written any other plays or musicals?
I have written, and had produced, a number of other musicals. Five, in fact. All of them are very bad. I LOVED writing them all. I learned a great deal about how to tell a story with music and words; I learned how to work with a cast; and (without meaning to) I learned how to be IN a cast, when one of the actors dropped out four days before opening night. I put up my first piece of musical theatre in high-school in England.
How did your first audiences respond to the show?
I first started playing the songs from The Lion in coffee shops in Greenwich Village. At the time, I didn’t think of it as a musical; it was a gig. And during this coffee shop gig, if someone got up to go pee, or checked their phone, or stopped paying attention, I knew that they were bored. So I’d better make that part of the show more interesting for next time.
And, in the current version of The Lion, while people tend not to leave mid-show to get a beer, about once every ten performances we do get someone fainting in the more intense part of the show. I’ve gotten used to stopping the show and calling –from the stage- to hold the show, asking for the lights in the theatre to be turned on and for medical personnel to be called. It’s a weird part of my job.
How did Sean Daniels get involved? And what did Sean contribute to the show’s development?
The Lion wouldn’t exist without Sean, plain and simple. I was a writer-in-residence at the Goodspeed Theatre in January 2013, and living in the house next to me were Mark Hollmann and Greg Cotis, the fellas who wrote Urinetown. They were there working on their new show about Zombies with a director called Sean Daniels. And I was working on my coffee-shop show. We’d all meet around the piano in the evenings, share songs, ask advice, chat. Sean and I became friends. Sean understood, from a very personal place, the kind of songs, and the kind of story, that I was working on; Sean had recently been in a relationship that had ended badly; his father had recently died; and he’d battled a life-threatening illness.
I got invited to the Weston Playhouse in Vermont to work on my piece for a week in April 2013. The artistic director, the lovely Steve Stettler, said “Ben, bring a director; you could use another pair of eyes and ears.”
Going to Weston for a week with Sean was very much a first date. We found out what it was like to work with one another. I’d write from 6.30am-10.30am, at which point I’d come out of my room, exhausted, and show Sean what I’d done. And then we’d make breakfast. Sean makes very good breakfast. And then we’d go hiking in the afternoons. We talked about our fathers. We talked about girls.
And we outlined the show on note-cards. White ones for scenes. Blue ones for songs. And really, you want to turn the white cards into blue ones. (Meaning, in a musical, you want the songs to do most of the moving-the-plot-along, the character-development, the tension-building, the action.)
What is it like to share such a personal story with strangers? Did you worry about whether people would connect with what you have to say?
Was I worried that people would “connect?” The Lion is a true story. And I wanted the audience to understand what had happened to me. I wanted the show to be clear and compelling. People needn’t necessarily connect with the show to be compelled. If people DO connect with the piece, great. But I don’t need to “connect” with the performers of Fuertza Bruta to dig the show.
What changes have you made since the first production?
Well, the first production of The Lion was called The Bridge, and it was at the 2013 Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Since then I’ve cut two songs, written six new songs, and completely re-written the script. We’ve gotten a set designer (Neil Patel), a sound designer (Leon Rothenberg) and a costume designer (Jen Caprio, with Kirk Miller.) In every run since Edinburgh (NYC, London, NYC again, Portland…) I keep tweaking the script, tightening it, making the show sharper and crisper. Oh, and I’m better at playing the guitar now then when I first started performing the show.
What’s next for you after the tour of The Lion?
I’m making an album called “Songs from The Lion” with record-producer Geoff Kraly. The album should be finished by late 2015. And I’m working on two new music videos of songs from this album: “Weather The Storm” and “Cure.” I’m making both of these with the brilliant British animator/director Peter Baynton, who made the animated videos for my songs “Cookie-tin Banjo” and “The Lion.”
The Williamstown Theatre Festival have commissioned me to write them a new musical. As of yet, it’s in the early figuring-out-what-the-show-is stage. I’m interested in writing about how the things we want most are the things we’re least comfortable asking for. (Think of YOUR version of that thing. I know you know what it is.)