by Linda Lombardi, Artistic Associate and Literary Manager
The energy of Benjamin Scheuer's one-man show, The Lion, is so contagious that, once you see it, you can't stop talking about it. It has captured the hearts of audiences across the country, and internationally. I recently had the great pleasure of sitting down with Benjamin and director Sean Daniels to discuss the origins of the piece and their collaborative relationship. Below is an excerpt of our conversation.
LL: How did you begin writing The Lion?
BS: I was making a record called The Bridge, when I was sick, and there were seven songs I had been recording. The eighth one was “The Lion” which I wrote when I was getting chemotherapy. In January 2012, I played the Lincoln Center Songbook Series, where I talked about each song before performing. Afterwards, a friend said to me she liked my gigs more when I talked about the songs in between them. So I started playing coffee shops in Greenwich Village, and writing down and memorizing what I was going to say between songs. Sean and I met one year later, in January 2013, at the Goodspeed Theatre. He was there with Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis working on their new show, and I was working on how to present The Bridge.
SD: I had lost my father a year and a half before. Ben had a couple of songs, but he really didn’t have the structure of the show. I told him I thought he was a fantastic songwriter and had a great story to tell and I’d be happy to work on it with him.
BS: I was invited to the Weston Playhouse in Vermont, in April 2013, and Steve Stettler, their artistic director, said I could bring a director. I assumed Sean was way out of my league so I asked him if he could recommend someone. He recommended three people and then said, “For what it’s worth, kid, I’ll direct your show. I’ll help you structure it and say what you want to say.”
SD: He didn’t actually have a show at the time. He had some songs. Of all the songs he had at that moment, only one still appears in its entirety in the show.
BS: That’s “The Lion.” And I’ve changed the key, changed the guitar tuning, changed the pacing. That’s the least changed song and it’s still pretty changed.
SD: We went to the Weston Playhouse and we started to lay it out. We had this great moment at the beginning of the show about how he wrote this note to his father —
BS: — it was a mean note.
SD: So I asked him if he’d ever thought about writing a letter to his father now, telling him how great things were going, and just at the thought of it, Ben exploded into tears. Well, the Weston Playhouse is located across from this fancy store –
BS: It’s called the “General Store.”
SD: — but it’s really high end, pricey stuff. So I went over and bought the most expensive bacon they had, which was like $25 a pound, and came back and cooked Ben bacon. Because what do you do when you make your playwright cry?
LL: Bacon makes everything better.
SD: That’s right. The next day Ben started writing “Dear Dad,” which is the penultimate song in the show. Working together birthed that song. And then we thought we had a really solid version of the show.
BS: We did a reading of it at the Weston Playhouse.
SD: And the audience hated it! They were so angry, because Ben’s dad died in the second song. So we played with the calibration of the timeline and investigated how long an audience has to know a character before you can do that. But it was fascinating that that first audience was so upset that a main character was killed off.
BS: You have to try it. You have to see what happens if you put it onstage in front of an audience when dad dies in song-two. And then you rewrite it, and you put it onstage in front of an audience when dad died is song three. And because our show, The Lion, is small, it’s as easy as me writing another song and trying it out in front of a room full of people. It’s harder with a bigger show. We had the great luxury of being able to do it and make drastic changes quickly.
SD: Next we went to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
BS: That was August 2013.
SD: The night before we opened, we did our last run-through. When we came back to the room, I said, “Alright I’ve got some good news and some terrible news. The good news is that the show is in good shape, but the terrible news is that you’re missing a song.”
BS: Dad never sang.
SD: And so Ben stayed up all night, the night before we opened, writing “Weather the Storm” and the reprise. We put it in for opening. Of course now watching the show —
BS: — it’s the best song in the show. The music video for it premiered on March 10th at the British Animation Awards. It’s beautiful. I’m so proud of it.
SD: You won Best Lyrics in the Festival. Then Mandy Greenfield, at Manhattan Theatre Club, saw a video of the show, and brought us in.
BS: That’s right, when it was still called “The Bridge.” Doing it in one chair, no light cues, three acoustic guitars, no guitar microphone, just a vocal microphone.
SD: It’s the Fringe. You’ve got 10 minutes to set up, 10 minutes to get out.
BS: The video that we did was the first time I’d ever done it without a music stand and a script.
SD: Oh really?
BS: Yeah, it was the twelfth show.
SD: And MTC said, “We’ll do it, and we’ll give you a lot of workshop time.”
BS: Before MTC, the song “Saint Rick” wasn’t there, “Three Little Cubs” wasn’t there, the reprise of “Cookie-tin Banjo” wasn’t there. Most of the cancer section wasn’t there. We cut a bunch of songs. The song “Dear Dad,” though I had started it, never made it into the Edinburgh production. We finally put it in at MTC. “Lovin’ You Will Be Easy” changed to a song on the electric guitar.
SD: I think The Lion is a great lesson that sometimes the best way to develop a show is to produce it. By the time it had its American premiere, at MTC, in June 2014, it was actually its second or third time being produced.
BS: Here’s the thing I admire about Sean. I’m very protective of my work so, when we were hashing out the terms of what it was going to be like to work together, I asked him what happens if we end up not working well together but I still like some of the work we’ve done, and he said, “Keep it.” So I asked him why he was doing this and he said, “I think you’re going to like working with me. I think we’re going to do this show, and it’s going to be a big hit and it’s going to do good things for both of us, and we’re going to work together for the rest of our careers.” When I told Sean we got into the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, he bought his own plane ticket. I appreciate that generosity of artistic spirit and comradery.
SD: When the show got ready to go to New York, the theaters there wanted Ben to work with one of the directors they knew and had a relationship with, but Ben said, “No, that’s part of the deal now: Sean and I are working together.” I’ve really grown to appreciate loyalty. It’s so hard to move from development through production to commercial production to national tour, and to be able to fight for those people who you feel have made the show what it is.
BS: If you have the right team in the first place, then it’s easy to fight for them. I knew that I could go to bat and fight for Sean because I knew that he was the right guy for the job. I knew I wanted somebody who wasn’t just going to tell me where to stand, but somebody who understood the circumstances, somebody who’s a friend, and somebody who would tell me when what I was doing wasn’t working.
LL: When you’re working with someone throughout the developmental process, and you’re able to talk to that person like a near and dear friend, then you’re laying the groundwork for how you’ll interact with the audience.
SD: We had one workshop where we were talking about who Ben is telling his story to. Ben came in one morning and told me about how he’d played the songs for a friend of his [songwriter Shaina Taub] the night before in her kitchen and I said, “That’s the show. Don’t perform. Just be in the kitchen and tell us the story.” In many ways it’s more powerful because Ben’s not acting. We’re watching him transform in front of us. There’s something special that’s baked into the DNA of the show that I don’t think anybody could recapture, which is, it’s a show about Ben reconnecting with his father, but he reconnected with his father by writing the show. When you watch the show you feel like you’re watching someone relive those events for the first time; which is, at the end of the day, what great acting is. I think the reason people have such a strong response is because Ben’s not telling us about how he had this experience of reconnecting with his dad. He’s performing the song that helped him do it. It’s immediate in a way that a lot of storytelling isn’t.
BS: It’s really natural for me as a performer and as a songwriter. I write songs about my life and I share them with people. The writing of the songs is the emotional exploration I need to do in order to be able to deal with something. I’m not an actor, never have been. So I’m not acting in The Lion. When I do act — Sean can tell you — it’s just bad. It comes across as fake. So I’ve got to actually talk about what happened. I’m not doing voices, I’m just telling the truth.
(Photo: Sean Daniels and Benjamin Scheuer at opening night of The Lion at Manhattan Theater Club, NY.)