Feature: Transatlantic Team Revives Powerful One-Man Musical
THE LION plays to rave London reviews; will open 2022-23 season at Arizona Theatre Company
by Robert Encila-Celdran. Originally published on BroadwayWorld.com.
The year was 2013. Sean Daniels met singer-songwriter Benjamin Scheuer at Goodspeed Musicals, where the Johnny Mercer Foundation launched The Writers Grove: a veritable sanctuary for gifted writers to create and develop new musicals.
Scheuer had been working on some songs that he would share with local denizens and pitch to different directors. He caught the attention of Daniels, whose directing acumen reflects a visionary mien for promising new works.
Daniels was impressed by the initial encounter. “I was really moved by what he had. I think I was the one director who said, ‘I think it’s a beautiful show, but you don’t have a show [just yet]. We’re gonna have to start over, from the beginning.’ And I guess that’s when he knew deep down that was actually the case.”
The ascendant partnership would soon transform Scheuer’s tuneful memoir into a cogent theater piece, forging a throughline for the songwriter’s repertoire. Before they knew it, a one-man musical had begun to take shape.
“We took it to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival (The Bridge),” says Daniels. “We did some more workshops, then we did it at Manhattan Theatre Club, then Off-Broadway, and then it toured from there.”
After 500 performances, Benjamin Scheuer concluded his celebrated production of THE LION on February 19, 2017 at The Geffen Playhouse. It garnered the Drama Desk Award, as well as the Lucille Lortel and Outer Critics’ Circle awards for Outstanding Lyrics and Outstanding Solo Performance, respectively. A New York Times imprimatur (“…gets to the heart of the matter”) garnished Scheuer’s stock of national acclaim.
While the creators had every reason to build on a momentous achievement, Benjamin Scheuer felt the time had come to shed his mane, as it were. THE LION, at once tender and funny, details the crucible of a father’s loss and Sheuer’s brush with Stage-4 cancer. Telling the story was cathartic and brought forth healing. Like an afflicted client restored via psychotherapy, Scheuer’s completion of the run rendered the emotional closure he needed.
Daniels understood Scheuer’s desire to move on. “What’s really amazing about the show is that he kind of healed as a person while writing it. That’s kind of cooked into the show. He’d just beaten Leukemia-Lymphoma when he was 28 or 29…and at 30, with a new lease on life, trying to figure out what it was that he had to say or do, and felt this need – you know, as all artists do – to try that alchemy of taking something awful, and say good things can come from it. And it was really in the making of this that he was able to forgive his father, or forgive himself as a kid when his father passed away.”
Because it’s a universal story and public demand was high, Scheuer supported the idea of finding a replacement so the show could go on. Alas, it would prove to be more difficult than expected.
A Welcome London Revival
For Daniels, the inability to find Scheuer’s replacement wasn’t for a lack of effort. “We hired a casting director. We did national auditions; we looked everywhere. And then it died. We couldn’t find anyone. If you can play the guitar this well, you are a studio musician in LA or New York…so why would you want to go on the road?”
The guitar playing is no small feat. It’s not only a requirement, but a significant aspect of the narrative as we meet a young Ben who aspires to play the instrument like his father. After his father’s untimely death, Ben learns to play the guitar on his own and becomes a virtuoso. His songwriting is astounding, his voice bearing the emotional substance of the most turbulent period of his life.
If there’s a musical talent to fill Ben’s large shoes, he would have to be an excellent actor as well. Scheuer derived his enormous success from the organic power of his own story. His successor would play the role of Benjamin with his own interpretive capacity.
Alex Stenhouse is a London director who becomes the unlikely catalyst for reviving what Sean Daniels deemed a lost cause. Daniels heard from Scheuer, who said a young man had been discovered, a student of Musical Theatre named Max Alexander Taylor. This young talent could not only sing and act, but he could play excellent guitar. If it was to go up in London, Stenhouse would be on board to direct it. A revival discussion would be a moot point if not for his discovery of Max Alexander Taylor.
Ever the optimist, Daniels imagined a bigger possibility. As a newly installed artistic director of Arizona Theatre Company, could he find a way to support the production in London and subsequently bring the show to Arizona as part of ATC’s new season? And how would it work if the London production had two directors who could bridge the gap between two timelines, or between Ben the creator and Max the actor? The situation was ripe for a glorious, albeit far-flung, collaboration.
Though two directors may come with different approaches, Stenhouse and Daniels are ultimately on the same page. Stenhouse recalls the first meeting with Daniels:
“I think that was my anxiety, before we were working together. If you’re not on the same page it can be difficult. You had directed this incredibly successful production before, and I was interested in doing something different. And I always believe that when you’re reviving the show, having someone else playing the role of Ben, there would be no point in trying to recreate that original production – and that we could use a lot of the qualities that Max provides, the different Benjamins. What kind of show can we tell with this performer? And actually what’s wonderful is with Sean, that’s exactly what excited us, we’re the same…everything was on the table. We didn’t do anything like the original production. We started from a blank page and built the show with Max.”
Timing was key to the connections that developed in London. Scheuer had already moved to the city where he got married and became a father. Staging THE LION would need a smart producer who saw the potential of its revival.
Enter Danielle Tarento, a British producer who has helmed more than a handful of productions at Southwark Playhouse, among other venues. She also happens to be a good friend of Scheuer’s, and for a while the two of them had envisioned a collaboration of some kind. But at the time Scheuer was living in New York.
“We’ve been in touch for the last 15 odd years,” says Tarento. “It’s certainly a lot easier now that he lives in the UK.”
Tarento is effusive in her praise of the show. “THE LION is just an incredibly special piece. I’ve always had an affinity with it. Benjamin and I have always tentatively said, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to do something together?’ And so when this came about, just at the beginning of the lockdown – and for the many reasons the director wanted to do it, it’s a one-man show and is probably one of the safest things to do. Alex had found Max, and Benjamin said, ‘Great, now you have the beginnings of a team, but you need a producer.’
“Alex had intimated that I was actually on a list, someone he wanted to talk to. ‘How does a young and up-and-coming director get in touch with a producer?’ [To which] Benjamin said, `Well, I’m her friend, why don’t I call her!'”
In the end, Scheuer managed to bridge the gap and complete a dynamic team equipped to manifest the much-awaited return of THE LION. I happened to be in London on the weekend it was scheduled to open, but my good timing to see Max had to be rerouted as the show was postponed when he took ill the day of the opening.
The silver lining: Benjamin Scheuer to the rescue yet again. He agreed to perform a concert version of the show in support of the production team. It was an improbable case of serendipity, a gift I hadn’t expected since we all thought he’d renounced the show. Never having seen it before, I found the show to be heartfelt and brilliant. I expected a rough rendition; instead, he delivered a poignant, funny, and piercingly intelligent performance.
Recently I caught up with Scheuer and asked him how it felt to revisit THE LION, especially on such short notice.
“I see THE LION very much about what it was like for me to turn thirty, about how I became myself. When I began writing the show, in 2012, I was very much the-son-to-the-father. As of now, in London 2022, my wife and I are expecting our second child, a son. When I performed THE LION one last time (Southwark Playhouse, May 2022), it was the first and only time I’ve performed the show as a father. During that performance, I understood the character of “Dad” in a very different way. I also realized that young-writer-me wrote Dad and Cancer as very similar characters; quasi-mythical external forces that controlled Ben and couldn’t be reasoned with.”
Scheuer is writing a “sort of sequel” to THE LION, titled ELODIE’S MOUNTAIN, collaborating with director Polly Findlay. For more on Scheuer’s prolific work, visit his official website here.
THE LION, featuring Max Alexander Taylor, plays to rave reviews at Southwark Playhouse in London. It runs through June 25 and is slated to open Arizona Theatre Company’s 2022-23 season. I would be seriously remiss if I didn’t acknowledge Alexander Taylor’s unique set of talents. Thanks to the Internet, he is ubiquitous and well worth a listen. I asked him to share a few words about himself as he prepares to take the show across the Atlantic and astonish an unsuspecting American crowd.
“I’ve been a guitarist and a musician for as long as I can remember (my dad taught me guitar at age 6), but I only became interested in acting when I was studying Math & Physics at college, and thought – well this is a lot more fun! I auditioned for the show SPRING AWAKENING and landed the role of Melchior. Since then I studied for a graduate degree in Musical Theatre at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and have enjoyed performing in everything from an 80s jukebox musical version of the film Psycho, to an 8-bit Video Game musical about autism, to an online show exploring the culture of ‘incels.’
“I think I’m most looking forward to how different the audiences will be. British audiences are famously very reserved. They’re very quiet throughout the show and only really let on that they’ve enjoyed it right at the end. From what I’ve heard, you’re never in any doubt if an audience in the States is enjoying the show! I’m very excited to be sharing this show in the country where it began.”