Singer-songwriter Benjamin Scheuer explores life's darkest moments in his new song-cycle at Manhattan Theatre Club.
Benjamin Scheuer walks into the room in a navy-blue suit through an old wooden door, an acoustic guitar slung around his neck. The room sort of looks like a recording studio: gold walls graying with age, floorboards ready to give, microphones missing their windscreens. Ben, as he introduces himself, is an affable chap in his early thirties with a big smile on his face. For the next 70 minutes, he presents to us The Lion, a story told through song about perseverance in the face of the darkest odds — and about the power music has to save one's soul.
Ben isn't a person the theater community knows too well, though he does have a collection of accolades to his name, including 2013's ASCAP Foundation Cole Porter Award for songwriting, and a pair of albums with his band, Escapist Papers. This unfamiliarity works in his favor as he looks back upon his life within the confines of Manhattan Theatre Club's Studio at Stage II.
Ben is the eldest son of a mathematician with a dark, hidden temper and an extreme skill at playing the guitar. He recalls begging his father, Rick, to teach him how to play as well as he can, and how this love of music could turn their family, two brothers and mother included, into The Beatles. Ben tells about Rick's death, when they were in the midst of a weeklong argument over Ben's math grades. Ben remembers Julia, his first real love, whom he met while waiting for a train at Grand Central Station. Ben discusses the cancer diagnosis that left him bald and unable to exercise his greatest passion: writing songs.
The Lion, directed with an invisible hand by Sean Daniels, is the kind of theater that defies labels. Ben not only plays himself, but everyone else, and without changing his voice. But we know who each person is, and clearly, from Sylvia, his British mother, to Julia, the woman he loved for a time, and even to the boarding-school principal who sent Ben to detention for insolence. We meet all of these people briefly in Ben's songs, which are more than songs, but stories set to music — lovely, pleasing, folksy-rock music played by the performer on a number of different guitars.
It's hard not to be wary of autobiographical stage shows and their tendency to embellish some of the details for theatrical affect, but Ben, as a performer, and his songs radiate a pull-no-punches sense of honesty that makes all of the details, coincidental or otherwise, seem entirely believable. This is especially present when he dives into The Lion's bleakest chapter as he undergoes chemotherapy for stage IV Hodgkin's lymphoma: "Back to the office, mid-July to learn if I'm actually going to die," he sings toward the end as he stares bleakly out at the audience.
Yet it is always darkest before the dawn, and Ben's story, at this moment in time, ends the way you want it to. The lion, as he calls himself, continues to roar, and we're extremely lucky to have made his acquaintance.