Two-year-old Benjamin Scheuer received a banjo that was constructed by his father using a cookie tin, rubber bands and a red necktie – his first exposure to music.
The story of Scheuer’s late father introducing him to music is the inspiration behind the first number in Scheuer’s autobiographical musical, “The Lion.”
New Yorker Scheuer premiered the one-man musical with his six acoustic guitars and one electric guitar in 2014. The solo format of “The Lion” allows Scheuer to recount events in his life, including his father’s early death, a romantic relationship and his personal fight against lymphoma at age 28 in an intimate way, Scheuer said.
As part of his tour for “The Lion,” Scheuer is now bringing his show to Los Angeles, where he will perform his musical “The Lion” at the Geffen Playhouse until Feb. 19.
The Daily Bruin’s Adrija Chakrabarty spoke to Scheuer about the landmark events that shaped the songs from the “The Lion,” his commitment to honestly telling the stories of his past and his decision to share his story alongside seven guitars.
Daily Bruin: What served as your primary inspiration behind your musical, “The Lion?”
Benjamin Scheuer: The Lion is a one-person show where I play six different guitars to tell the story of my family and how I beat advanced-stage cancer when I was 28 years old. … It is a story where I talk about how I became myself – it is really a coffee shop gig. (The show) started in a coffee shop in Greenwich Village in New York City, where I am from. I wanted to share what was going on in my life as honestly as I could and feel less alone. I wanted to take bad things and make them into good, and for me, songwriting is the perfect vehicle for that.
DB: How did each of the landmark events in your life shape the musical styles of the individual songs from “The Lion?”
BS: As a lyricist, my interest is in telling the truth as hard as I can. I am not interested in writing poetically – I am interested in writing candidly.
For instance, in “The Cure” the lyrics use a very simple rhyme scheme. My interest is in telling the truth about each landmark event as best as I could. … I let the truth of each event be captured. Whether I am writing about young love or chemotherapy, I hope that feeling is shown simply and clearly.
DB: “The Lion” features six different guitars throughout the show. How does this format connect to your own life story and what is the purpose of featuring guitars as your supporting cast?
BS: Each guitar is tuned differently and each of the guitars are tuned to different notes instead of just the standard tuning. … The reason I tune guitars differently is because it allows for different textures, sounds and harmonies. The different guitars allow for a greater variety of sonics on stage. I could have done the show with one guitar, but I would have to retune the guitar between each song but that would have been boring. …
I have six acoustic guitars and one electric guitar, which I used in two songs to represent my angry teenage years. The electric guitar showed me when I was living in New York playing in punk rock clubs and (the electric guitar) just captures my adolescence.
DB: Is there an evolution in the musical style of your songs throughout the musical?
BS: I would say the songs themselves represent an evolution of a character who becomes more mature and complex, but I would not say that the songs necessitate complexity to show the character becoming more complex. As an example, the rhyme schemes don’t get more dense to show a growing emotional complexity.
For instance, Lin-Manuel Miranda is a wonderful example of a writer who will complexify a rhyme scheme in order to demonstrate the situation’s complexity. That was not a technique I employed in “The Lion,” with perhaps an exception of the song “The Lion” which has the most dense lyrics and the most complicated rhymes to show the character’s maturity.
DB: What were some of the biggest challenges you faced while writing the show?
BS: I was told by a songwriting teacher that if you want to write a good song, write what you do not want people to know about you. And if you want to write a great song, write what you do not want you to know about yourself.
It is frightening as a writer to write about the one thing you do not want to know about yourself or anyone to know about you. If you are a songwriter, make this the hook of your song. When I first started doing this it was terrifying, but as I had to do it every day for three months it became my job. Now, the things that used to control me, I now control them.