Roaring back in response to cancer, family trauma
Six years ago, at age 28, singer-songwriter Benjamin Scheuer began suffering night sweats, severe weight loss and pain in his left lower back whenever he drank alcohol. Doctors initially dismissed his symptoms as psychosomatic, stemming from stress over his recent breakup with a longtime girlfriend.
But after Scheuer slipped and broke his pelvis, scans revealed a far more serious diagnosis: Stage IV Hodgkin’s lymphoma, which was literally eating his bones.
“I had cancer in my spine, lungs, ribs and lymph nodes, from my neck to my thighs,” he said. After six months of excruciating chemotherapy, and the requisite five years post-chemo waiting, he was declared cured last year.
Along the way, he began turning that ordeal and others from his ultimately uplifting life into an autobiographical one-man musical, “The Lion,” now at the Geffen Playhouse. Through folksy song and banter, the heart-rending show tells not only of his struggle with cancer but also of his fraught relationship with his late father, his joyful but eventually doomed romance with a quirky ex-girlfriend, and more. The 70-minute production won a Drama Desk Award for solo performance after its off-Broadway run in 2015.
In an interview at the Geffen, the charismatic Scheuer, 34, appeared the picture of health, with an ebullient manner and a mane of blond curls. But he remembered how writing the musical “was a way to control things over which I had no control. It was a kind of alchemy — making something good out of something bad.”
“The Lion” begins as Scheuer bounds on stage, surrounded by six guitars, and sings about one of his earliest memories: How his father, Richard, made him a toy banjo out of a cookie-tin lid and rubber bands when he was a toddler.
Richard Scheuer had a bachelor’s degree in economics from Harvard and a law degree from Columbia, and he worked on Wall Street. But he was also a talented amateur guitarist who instilled a love of music in his son. Father and son often played music together, along with Benjamin’s two younger brothers.
Years later, Benjamin even put his own musical spin on his bar mitzvah. “My cantor told me, disparagingly, that I sang my Torah portion like a musical theater performer,” he told The Journal. “But I didn’t find that derogatory at all; I took it as a great compliment.”
All the while, Richard suffered from depression and sometimes behaved unpredictably. In “The Lion,” Scheuer describes how his father once stomped on his water gun. “I ask my friend, ‘What do you do when your Dad breaks your toys?’ ” he says in the show. “He looks at me like I’m insane.”
During the interview, Scheuer recalled a heated argument with his father when he was 13: “I remember him making me feel stupid and small,” he said. That night, Benjamin taped a note on his parents’ bedroom door, “thanking” his father for “showing me the kind of man you really are… The kind of man that I don’t want to play music with. The kind of man that I don’t want to be,” he says in “The Lion.”
Not long after, Richard Scheuer lay tangled in his bed sheets, thrashing and foaming at the mouth, while screaming “headache.” The paramedics asked Richard if anything had upset him recently, and he nodded yes. Just weeks later — before Benjamin found a way to apologize — his father died of a brain aneurism at the age of 48.
“I was wracked with guilt,” he said. “I entirely blamed myself for his death.”
As a result, he said, “I wanted to try to chase my father’s ghost, and to live up to him. I went to Harvard primarily because he had gone there. I was not a good student, but I got in because I [submitted] a piece of musical theater I’d written that was really about my father. Everything I write is about my father in some way.”
That musical theater piece touches on themes of mortality, which had haunted his family even before his father died. Benjamin’s Polish great-grandfather perished in Auschwitz, and his mother’s father died of complications from alcoholism when she was a girl. “Three generations of men in our family died young,” he said.
The musician himself was close to death after being diagnosed with Hodgkin’s, when he again drew upon his impulse to turn trauma into art. Collaborating with the photographer Riya Lerner, he created a book of portraits and journal entries, “Between Two Spaces,” which documents his illness. Seven photographs from the book are on display at the Geffen, including one in which a gaunt Scheuer appears dapper in a custom-made suit. “I was all dressed up on the outside, trying to hide the disaster inside,” he said. “When there weren’t a lot of things I could choose in my day, the only thing I could choose was what I put on in the morning.”
Even after his treatments proved successful, the ordeal continued to haunt him. “When you’re young and have had cancer, going on a date is really hard,” he said by way of example. “Either you say, ‘I’ve had advanced stage cancer, in which case that’s all you talk about for the rest of the evening, or you don’t mention it, in which case you lie the whole time.”
Yet Scheuer longed to share his experience and to feel understood. “I realized that one way you’re allowed to be incredibly confessional, and to tell your deepest, darkest secrets, is to perform at open-mic events,” he said.
And so he began playing new songs at coffeehouses and clubs near his home in Greenwich Village and, in 2013, started shaping some of that work into what would become “The Lion,” with the help of director Sean Daniels.
“Benjamin, in addition to being crushingly charming, is also dangerously honest,” Daniels said in an email. “It’s what makes him irresistible to watch. You never know what’s next, but you know it’s going to be the truth.”
“I didn’t want to sugarcoat anything,” Scheuer said of the show.
“Songwriting is therapy for me,” he added. “It’s a way by which I can explain what’s actually going on, whether guilt or shame, fear, anger or frustration.”
For Scheuer — who will be married this summer — the show has also been a way to continue mourning his father. “I feel like I’ve gotten to know him a lot better by writing ‘The Lion,’ ” he said.
And no longer does he yearn to become just like his dad. “I’ve [learned] I can only be myself,” he said.
“The Lion” will be performed at the Geffen Playhouse through Feb. 19. For more information, visit geffenplayhouse.org.