The singer/songwriter is on tour with The Lion, a roaringly honest one-man/six-guitar musical.
Benjamin Scheuer cracked open the door of Blue Taleh Restaurant in Lowell, Massachusetts, splayed two guitar-calloused fingers, winked at the hostess, and we were set. Scheuer’s Drama Desk-winning musical The Lion kicked off a national tour in Lowell at the Merrimack Repertory Theater earlier this fall, and Scheuer had become a regular at this cozy hideaway two blocks from the theater.
The show features Scheuer and six guitars, as he sings the conjoined stories of his relationship with his family and his battle against cancer in his late 20s. Although the tour will mostly hit larger cities – Milwaukee, New Haven, and Washington D.C. – Lowell and the MRT are the home base of Lion director Sean Daniels, with whom Scheuer built the show from the ground up.
“Sean Daniels is a community builder,” Scheuer said. Daniels, the newly minted artistic director of MRT, has been with the Lion project since its inception. Initially, Scheuer had concerns about the partnership: What would happen if Scheuer valued some of the material that the duo generated, but simply didn’t like working with Daniels? Daniels had an easy response: Scheuer could keep the material, no strings attached. From that moment on, Scheuer knew that he had found a perfect partner, and The Lion roared into being.
Scheuer’s lyrics are the fundamental drivers of his songwriting, and so it is no surprise that at Harvard Scheuer studied English and wrote the lyrics for the Freshman Musical. He also spent plenty of time playing music inside and outside his Cabot House dorm. He crafts verses that help him spill open and bare his story.
“I was told by a songwriting teacher, ‘If you want to write a good song write what you don’t want other people to know about you. And if you want to write a great song, write what you don’t want to know about yourself,’” he said.
Scheuer said he was excited about the new Harvard concentration in theater, dance and media, which existed in back-room whispers when he was in college. “I hope that it allows people to think of their biggest pie-in-the-sky dreams creatively and artistically, and then move towards achieving them,” Scheuer said between bites of crispy chicken and sips of green tea. “I hope that the community also fosters that sense of creativity after graduation.”
Around 20 minutes into the meal, Scheuer worked out that I am a big fan. This was my second time seeing The Lion; I attended closing night of the New York run. I even sang a song from the show at a coffeehouse event this past summer. Most important, my admiration for Scheuer, who broke onto the scene as the lead vocalist and guitarist of indie-folk-rock band Escapist Papers, comes largely from his Harvard connection. Scheuer is an incredible role model for having achieved success in the folk/rock singer-songwriter world. That evening, you could say I was a little starstruck.
For aspiring writers of musical theater, Scheuer shared this advice: “If you’re going to write songs for characters, you better be able to write songs about yourself as well. And you better be able to tell your truth twice as hard as you can tell somebody else’s truth, because your characters – when you write for your characters – have to trust you. And they’re not going to trust you if you can’t tell your own truth. If you can tell your own truth, they’re going to trust you better to help tell their stories.”
Listen to Scheuer perform music from The Lion and read The New York Times review of the show here.