“Music is my spirituality,” said Benjamin Scheuer, the singer/songwriter/author of a heartbreaking and heartwarming one-man musical, The Lion. Music is also his saving grace.
The Lion runs through April 10 in the intimate Arlene and Robert Kogod Cradle, where Scheuer uses six guitars to play and sing through 16 tightly entwined original songs. Together they tell his story — his truth — about love, loss and beating cancer.
Scheuer grew up in Larchmont, N.Y., immersed in music. “My father had a marvelous vinyl collection,” he said. “I still have most of it: Rolling Stones, Miles Davis, Oscar Peterson, John Coltrane, Steely Dan, Art Blakey, the Who, the Beatles. There was always music playing.”
When he was practicing for his bar mitzvah, the temple’s cantor said to him, somewhat disparagingly,“You know, you sing like you’re a musical theater performer.”
“I thought this was great,” Scheuer said last week, sitting in Arena Stage’s green room. “In fact, theater and religion come from the exact same place, which is telling stories — telling stories of our ancestors, telling stories of wisdom we have gleaned.”
In The Lion, we get awash in nostalgia with “Cookie Tin Banjo,” a song about how his father, a Wall Street investment banker, taught him and his two brothers not just how to play a homemade instrument, but why to play music. We see and hear how the brothers grow, the family friction, and the sudden and devastating loss of their father.
It’s not that Scheuer had a rough time with his dad. “In the show I talk about that which is fraught in my relationship with my dad. The moments of tension in our relationship are so magnified because he died suddenly when I was 13 after a fight that we just had.”
For decades, Scheuer carried around guilt that he somehow was responsible for his father’s death. “Now, if he had lived another week, it all would have been settled and things would have been fine,” he said, “but because he didn’t and because I had upset him and he died, I naturally made the connection that I stressed my father out, and I somehow was responsible for his death.”
It was in writing this show more than 20 years later that Scheuer finally came to terms with his dad and released the guilt. In The Lion, Scheuer also discusses his intense love affair with a now-former girlfriend, Julia, for whom he wrote both his “meet-cute” ballad, “Lovin’ You Will Be Easy,” and “Invisible Cities,” about the growing distance in their eventually dysfunctional relationship.
And then, as he tells it, a slip and fall in Grand Central Station takes him to a doctor where routine X-rays reveal he has Stage 4 Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He found a way to make his six-month course of chemotherapy, with its potent cocktail of immune and cancer-killing drugs, extreme weight loss and delirium, into an artistic venture. A photographer documented the changes his body went through, and he kept a journal, mostly about his medical statistics.
But at one point, on re-reading, he found a paragraph in which he wrote, “I want to write a song called ‘The Lion.’”
“I can’t tell you why I wrote that,” he admitted, but it settled into his system. As a songwriter, he tries to write every day; he believes making art is as much about craftsmanship as it is about inspiration. On the day we spoke, he announced he had written a new song. “It’s not ready yet, but it’s coming along.”
His song “The Lion” took longer. It has both a musical hook and a powerful but poignant statement of self-actualization: “I always show my teeth when I am smiling/I always say I love you when I’m sure./Inside my gentle paws I’ve got some devastating claws/and I’m learning what it means to really roar.”
These days, beyond a yearlong national tour with The Lion, Scheuer is writing two new musicals, and releasing both video and album versions of The Lion this month. He envisions himself as a 21st century musical theater performer, though growing up his biggest wish was to play guitar like Eddie Van Halen.
As loquacious as Scheuer is in his show, there is a matter-of-factness to his stage presence, though not to his dress. He wears a beautiful bespoke suit and crisp white shirt, a nod to his high school years in London, his mother’s hometown, which is both sentimental and endearing.
“This is what I’ve always done: play the guitar, sit around and talk to people, write about what’s been going on in my life and sing those songs,” he said.
The fine suits? While he was going through chemotherapy and treatment, the only thing he found he could control in his life were the clothes he put on every morning. He made it a point to dress well, even if he looked horribly gaunt.
Since that first homemade banjo his father made for him as a toddler, music has been his source of strength, of expression, of creativity and, now, ultimately of healing. He sings, plays and tells his story, like its title suggests, with a roar.
The Lion, by Benjamin Scheuer, through April 10, Arena Stage’s Kogod Cradle, 1101 6th Street, SW, Washington. For ticket information, call 202-488-3300 or visit arenastage.org.