Benjamin Scheuer Interview
photo credit: Shervin Lainez
Reviewing the Drama: Hello. Thank you for taking the time to talk to me today.
Benjamin Scheuer: My pleasure.
Let’s dive right in. I had the pleasure of seeing The Lion twice. I saw it when it was at MTC and then I saw it when it was downtown.
Oh man, cool.
Yeah. To be perfectly honest, I didn’t know who you were, and so I didn’t know what to expect, but I saw a man and several acoustic guitars so I said, “OK, I’ll probably enjoy this.”
And then I was incredibly moved by your story, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it, so I’m really excited to get to talk about it some more, and to get to talk about it directly with you.
Awesome. I’m glad you came back to see it, and I’m excited to talk about it with you, as well.
Great, thank you. In seeing The Lion and listening to the album, it tells such a personal story and it’s one that delves into deeply emotional territory, so I have a few questions for you about that. The first one is: What is it like, as a performer, going to those places eight times a week? I know that actors do it all the time, but it’s usually with material that someone else wrote and it’s not nearly or directly as personal. What was/is that experience like for you?
The writing was the thing that made it most personal. Sitting down and actually writing it, required me to look very deeply within myself and go back to those terrifying places. Remembering what it was like physically to have cancer; remembering what it was like emotionally to not know if I was gonna die. And that was terrifying. I could write for about two hours a day, and then I was done. Then the rest of the day I was just kind of a zombie because it was so exhausting emotionally. I thought of Bobby Fisher, who said, “I gave up chess and took up tennis because chess was too physically exhausting.”
Performing it—I’m acting. I can’t physically and emotionally go to those places and actually live there, because if I do, I won’t be able to sing the words to people, I won’t be able to play the guitar to people. And, so, my job is to allow the emotions to live in the audience. Because when I live in those emotions while I’m performing them, if I did it the entire show I wouldn’t be able to get through it.
I mean, I found myself in rehearsal, here in San Diego at the Old Globe, caught in the emotion of remembering watching my father die. I was 13 years old, and imagining if he knew, if there was sort of a few minutes when he knew he was gonna die. And then I imagined what it would be like for him, and then I couldn’t sing anymore when that happened. I had to sort of take a moment. So I do get caught sometimes. I mean, conveniently, because it’s a one-man-show, I could stop [laughs] and just take a moment. Similarly, if somebody’s cell phone goes off, good luck, ‘cause I’ll go after you, I’ll make fun of you.
I wanna feel like I’m hanging out with people. I want it to feel like the audience just came over to my house. And it’s really cool doing it here, in San Diego, where it’s in the round. We had to re-stage the entire thing, and the set feels like a recording studio. Instead of two chairs on stage, there are four, all around the stage. I also play three of the numbers standing up, which is something I’d never done before. I play the electric numbers standing up. So, the electric numbers feel much more like a rock concert, so I can sort of embody that petulant, angry teenager that I was when I used to play at CBGB and all the rock and punk clubs downtown in New York City. I can sort of be that character standing up, and I feel really comfortable in the recording studio.
I’m glad you mentioned the record, Songs from The Lion. I’m really proud of that record. Just the way Sean Daniels, who directed The Lion, he’s such a brilliant guy. He took my material and envisioned it for the stage. Similarly, the record producer, Geoff Kraly, he’s a brilliant producer. And he’s like, “OK. I’m gonna take your material and envision it for the medium of a recorded album.” Now, as you probably heard, the songs are in a different order.
Oh yeah, I noticed that. In fact, I tweeted at you about that.
That's right. And number of people asked, and I said, “Well, for the show, I wanted to put the songs in the best order for the show. Whereas, on the record, I wanted to put the songs in the best order for the record.”
What was the approach to figuring out the best order for the album, and what did you want to convey with the album that’s different from the show?
A theatre show is consumed in one whole piece. The audience comes in, they turn off their phones, they sit down, and they hear the show from beginning to end. And there’s talking, and there’s lights, and there’s sets, and there’s costumes. And then there’s that cute person who’s sitting three rows ahead who, maybe, you wanna flirt with after the show.
A record doesn’t have any of that. You can listen to a record in any order, you can listen to one song again and again. You can listen to individual songs and skip other tracks. And so, I wanted each song to live independently of the narrative, each song to be able to live independently of any of the other songs.
And in the show, it’s just me on guitar and vocals. On the record, I brought in some of my favorite musicians in the world. Josh Freese, from Nine Inch Nails, playing drums. Jean Rohe, one of my favorite singer/songwriters in New York, is singing back up. Chris Morrisey, who plays bass with lots and lots people, like Sara Bareilles, among others, is playing bass on “Weather the Storm.” Josh Dion, who plays in the band Paris Monster, is playing drums on a number of the tracks. And so, I wanted to get together my favorite musicians in the world and build a record of singles.
And similarly, create music videos for these songs that can live entirely independently of the show. And they made a video for “Weather the Storm,” and it has nothing to do with the show The Lion, and it’s played in film festivals and music video festivals all over the world, and it just won the Public Choice Award for Best Music Video at the British Animation Awards.
My interest is in cross–pollinating audiences, and bringing material of mine to people who, perhaps, have never been to see The Lion, who’ve never heard of The Lion, have no interest in going to see a piece of musical theatre. They simply say, “Oh, this is a cool piece of art. Oh, this guy Benjamin Scheuer made it. Great, he’s performing in San Diego, I’ll go check it out.” [Then there's] the music video for “Cure,” which was inspired by the photography of Riya Lerner. Riya and I made a book called Between Two Spaces. She photographed me while I was ill, and Peter Baynton… he saw this book, and he said, “This is amazing. I’d love to make a music video for the song 'Cure.'"
Pete and I were interested in talking about the paradox of how cancer invades your body and kills your cells to kill you, and chemotherapy invades your body and kills your cells to save you, and often times you don’t know which is which. And so Pete made this video to show that paradox, and we premiered it on the New York Times health page, which had never been done before. Nobody had ever done a music video on the health page, and suddenly a community that I feel really connected to—this community of people struggling with cancer—I can share the work that I’ve done with them, perhaps people who never get to the theatre ‘cause they can’t. And it’s extraordinary to be able to share, to feel connected to folks and share this story with that group. So, use each medium to the best of its ability, and not be restricted by what I’ve done in other mediums. The show doesn’t have to dictate the record doesn’t have to dictate the videos.
That makes a lot of sense. So, going back to the personal nature of the material, you said that the writing was actually the most personal experience. This is something I’m always so curious about when talking to songwriters because I’m a private person. I don’t even want to share, say, what I had for breakfast with five people, so I can’t even imagine having the courage to share what you shared, and continue to share, with thousands of people through your work. So how do you get to that place of, what I’m going to call, confident vulnerability, and letting people in through your songs?
Well, what is your fear in sharing what you had for breakfast?
That’s obviously an extreme example, but I just don’t like people knowing my business, Maybe it comes from some bad gossip experiences in high school, and petty things that bother us as teenagers but leave these indelible marks on us as adults. I don’t like people knowing my business, and I don’t know that I would ever feel comfortable sharing some of these deep, emotional feeling with strangers, in particular.
Yeah, well, “comfortable.” I think that’s a really great word. It’s frightening to share our vulnerabilities. When we think back to high school, you share your vulnerabilities; that’s when people know what’s important to you, and know where our vulnerable spots are, and they can make fun of us, and they can alienate us. And how do we feel comfortable showing those parts of ourselves?
Well, I think we don’t. I don’t feel comfortable sharing these things. My interest is not in being comfortable. When I’m writing something, and I feel uncomfortable, that’s when I think, “Aha. I’m on to something. This is what I should be writing.” If I’m comfortable, then it’s boring—to you, to me. My interest in showing the vulnerable parts of myself comes from my belief that we’re not all that different. When I show the thing most vulnerable about myself, you probably have your version of that thing; maybe your thing and my thing are different things, but we both have the same version of that. We both have a fear that if we express the things we want the most, whether they’re professional or sexual or familial, that people, in showing our vulnerabilities, are gonna not want to be our friend, or not love us, or not want to have sex with us, and that’s terrifying. But, actually, if we show our vulnerabilities to other people, it allows them to say, “Oh, this person is giving me, the listener, permission to be honest about my version of those things.” They are creating an environment where I don’t have to worry quite as much as I do about what I had for breakfast this morning.
Yeah, it helps you feel like you belong, like you found your community.
Yeah. You know, Andrew Lippa, a wonderful songwriter, and a friend and mentor of mine, said, “The most powerful words in the English language are, ‘me too’.” When we hear “me too,” we feel less alone.
Mhmm. That’s true.
In sharing the things we think separate us the most from other people, it’s beautiful to discover that, actually, often times, those are the very things that connect us to other people.
I totally understand that.
And so whenever my pen hesitates above the page, that’s when the real writing begins.
I know you recently began a search for a “new Ben.” What is it like to see someone else tell your story, and what are you looking for in this new Ben?
First and foremost, we’re looking for a guitar player.
That’s a good start!
The show is crafted on six different guitars, each of which is tuned differently. I work in a lot of what’s called alternate tunings, where you tune the guitar to different chords. Some are traditional alternate tunings, like the tuning DADGAD, a traditional Irish alternate tuning. Some of the tunings are non-traditional alternate tunings, meaning ones I’ve never seen before in other pieces of music so you have to re-learn the guitar each time you’re learning a new tuning, and it’s a lot of work.
The guitars do most of the talking in the show, and so first and foremost we’re looking for a professional guitar player who, then, can sing a bit and act a bit. We’re not looking for an actor who also knows how to play a little guitar. So that’s the quite technical answer to what we’re looking for. Beyond that, I’m not bothered by how old you are, what race you are, what gender you are… I’m fine with anything so long as you can make the guitar talk.
So what this person looks like on the outside is much less important. It goes back to what you were saying about songwriting, and that there’s a universality to this, and so it doesn’t need to be someone who looks just like you.
No. In fact, that would probably be pretty boring.
Right. The interesting thing would be to see what someone else does with it, what someone different does with it.
Yeah. Because the new person playing the role of Ben isn’t Ben, at that point, we know you’re acting. So, you don’t need to look like me. If you’re a 60-year-old trans black person, great. If you can play the guitar, I’ll buy tickets. Actually [laughing] they’ll probably give me comps because I know a guy who knows a guy.
So how’s the search going?
I’m optimistic. I think it’s challenging to find that person.
You’re in San Diego now.
Yeah, we’re in San Diego now. Actually, we’re putting out a new music video.
Oh, tell me about that!
[Getting excited] Yeah, we’ve got a new video that’s gonna be coming out in October, just a few weeks’ time. I think you’re the first reporter I’ve told about this, actually. It’s for “Golden Castle Town.” It’s an animated video. I’m working with a new animator this time, a guy called Andrew Benincasa. I’m a big fan of his work. He’s done a lot of really cool music videos. You can check out his stuff at andrewbenincasa.com. Obviously, I’m a huge fan of Peter Baynton, who’s done the last four videos for me. He’s just had a daughter so he’s enjoying family-land—he’s a little out of commission right now. And the video for “Golden Castle Town” tells a story of a female protagonist. It’s the first video I’ve made with a female protagonist, and I’m really excited about that. And it’s gonna be out in october, and similarly, I’m hoping that the record, Songs from The Lion, gets nominated for a Grammy for Best Musical Theatre [Album]. It’ll be in the running this year, so spread the word!
I’ll do my part.
Thank you. The record is an official cast recording, and I realize that it’s done really differently than all other cast recordings, putting songs in a different order, changing some of the words, but to me, cast recording have such an opportunity to share the material of the show well beyond the confines of the theatre walls, and that’s something that’s really important to me. That’s why I’m so glad to make this video with Andrew Benincasa for “Golden Castle Town.” It’s going to coincide with the release of Songs from The Lion on vinyl.
Oh, I didn’t know it was coming out on vinyl. That’s great!
It’s coming out on vinyl, we’re gonna be selling it in the theatre at the Old Globe, here in San Diego, and I’ll be signing copies of the CD, of the vinyl, and of Between Two Spaces, the book, [the proceeds from which raise] money for the Leukemia-Lymphoma Society, and we’ve raised over $5,000 so far. I’ll be in the theatre every night after the show to say hi to people, and to sign copies of the book and the record, and I look forward to seeing everyone there.
Ben, thank you for taking time to talk to me, and for your thoughtful answers. I look forward to sharing what you’ve shared with my readers.
Thank you very much. It’s great to speak with you, too.
Benjamin Scheuer is in San Diego with his show, The Lion, through October 30, 2016. Visit theoldglobe.org to purchase tickets, and visit benjaminscheuer.com to follow Ben on tour. Songs from The Lion is now streaming on thebluegrasssituation.com, and you can order a copy at your favorite music retailer.