Monday, October 03, 2016

Q&A with The Lion's Benjamin Scheuer

The album Songs From The Lion, released in June, is the official cast recording for Benjamin Scheuer's autobiographical one-man show. But if you saw the show, which deals with his father's death and his struggle with cancer, at Manhattan Theatre Club, the Lynn Redgrave Theatre at the Culture Project, or on tour, you will notice some differences--new arrangements, added musicians, backing vocals, and an altered order of the songs. "You don't only have to play the show top to bottom in a recording studio. Doing that is to me making a record only for the people who've seen your show. And I'd rather make a record for everybody, people who have seen my show and maybe people who haven't," Scheuer says. "There are plenty of people in the world who are never going to get to see The Lion, but if I can make a record that they dig, then that's just as exciting for me."

He has also been reaching people with his music in other ways. The video for "The Cure" premiered on the The New York Times' Well Blog. His next video, for "Golden Castle Town," will be out in mid-October. I spoke to Scheuer over the phone before his first performance of The Lion in San Diego, where he will be through October 30, about the album and the future of The Lion.

Q: I had interviewed you before and the album hadn't come out yet, but you said you wanted it to be different from the show, that you don't think recordings should be exactly the same as what's on stage. I think you really accomplished that. Why was that important to you?
A: On stage, the theater director, Sean Daniels, helped me take my material and realize the best version of it for the stage. And for a record, I did the same thing. Meaning, I asked record producer Geoff Kraley to do the same job on the record that a director does in the theater, which is take the material and make sure it works best in the chosen medium. In the theater, you come in and you sit down and you hear all the songs all the way through with stories in between. On a record, you don't have costumes, you don't have lights, you don't have sets, you don't have talking, and you don't have the promise that they audience is going to listen to it all the way through. You do have a lot of other things. You have the opportunity to work with whatever sound you can imagine and whichever musicians you can call.

Let me give you an example. In the show The Lion, during "St. Rick," my character Ben is an angry 16 year old and is imaging he has the band Nine Inch Nails in his head when they play the song. For the record, Geoff Kraley and I thought, why don't we just get actual Nine Inch Nails to play on the record. We called Josh Freese who plays drums in Nine Inch Nails and he came and played on the track. So, suddenly the record sounds the way my character hears things in his head in the show.

We changed words, we changed arrangements, we changed the order of the songs to make a record that stands up on its own. We'd like to get this record, which is an official cast recording, nominated for a Grammy for best musical theater album, to simply show that there is a different way that musical theater records can be made.

Q: As you said, on the record, you can listen to it all the way through or you can listen to each song individually, so what was the thought process behind the order of the songs?
A: The play is one act, meaning there is no intermission, but it is structured in three acts with a coda. A record is two acts. A record is side A and side B. And a record doesn't have any talking, so we thought about tempos, we thought about keys of songs, we thought about the flow of the record.

The song "The Lion" is the last song in the show. I didn't want to put "The Lion" last on the record Songs from The Lion, so we put it third. The song "White Underwear," where dad dies, is the fifth song in the show. I didn't want to put that song fifth on the record before the song "The Lion." "The Lion" is a much more fun song. The song "Golden Castle Town" is a much more fun song. I wanted to open the record in a way that captured a positive energy and I didn't want all the positivity to be at the end, whereas in a piece of theater you want to end on a joyful and high note.

We end with "Three Little Cubs" which is actually a nod to the song "Her Majesty," which ends the record Abbey Road. Geoff Kraley and I played with different orders until we came up with one that felt like a nice journey for people who had never seen the show. It felt like it had good ebbs and flows--the pacing, the timing, the content of the lyrics. For the show, you pick the best order for the songs and for the record, you pick what you hope is the best order for the songs and if people want to put it in a different order, that's what iTunes is for.
Photo credit: Shervin Lainez
Q: You're getting ready to open in San Diego and then Los Angeles. I remember reading that you were looking for someone else to take over so the show can continue when you leave. Are you still looking?
A: We're still looking. I'm looking for a guitar player first. Any age, any gender, any race. The way you audition is you learn the song "Cookie Tin Banjo" and send a video of yourself playing it to us, so I look forward to seeing what people share. I'm excited.

Q: Do you think it will be weird for you to have somebody else perform it, since it's such a personal story?
A: Probably. That's ok, though. I'd like to see if it works as a piece of theater without me in it. And it very well might. It also might not at all. It might need the autobiographical elements to work. I'm not sure, so as a playwright, I'm interested to see how much of The Lion is a play and how much of it is very much a coffee shop gig and the differences there. I'm eager and curious.

Q: You've been performing the show for a couple of years now. After performing it for so long, are you still finding new things in it?
A: Well, doing it in the round is really fascinating because here in San Diego we restaged the entire show. Because we are doing it in the round, I think there are 14 microphones on stage now and it feels very much like a recording studio. And I feel very comfortable in a recording studio, a room with microphones everywhere, so that feels really fun, and it feels pretty different, so that keeps it fresh for me.

Q: Are there any other cast recordings that you like?
A: Hamilton. Questlove, who produced that record, did an amazing job. It sounds like a contemporary pop record. It sounds like a record that can exist outside of a theater. And I look forward to hearing what new musical theater artists do when they now record their cast albums. When they think how can we keep allowing this wonderful genre to grow. Musical theater is not a genre. Musical theater is a methodology. And so, how can that methodology continue to evolve and captivate new audiences?

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