There's an old theatre adage that a show doesn't really become itself until it's had several productions. For proof, just look to The Lion.
Benjamin Scheuer's autobiographical one-man musical was developed in workshops and at coffee shops before enjoying several productions around the world, including a successful Off-Broadway run last year. Now it's back in New York through March 29, playing at the Lynn Redgrave Theater at Culture Project.
Each of these steps has fine-tuned the 70 minute show, and by this point, Scheuer and his director, Sean Daniels, know exactly why every moment exists. However, it took all those previous iterations to grasp every nuance of the material.
Take the lion as a metaphor for self-discovery. The show chronicles Scheuer's complicated relationship with his father and his own eventual battle with cancer, and along the way, he frequently ponders "what makes a lion and lion." His eventual answer is cathartic, but it wasn't until last year's Off-Broadway run (presented by Manhattan Theatre Club) that Scheuer fully clarified the image's dramatic effect.
At the suggestion of his brother Simon, he wrote a song called "Three Little Cubs," in which young Ben asks his father about the lion's essential lion-ness. Now, when he revisits the question in the final scene, the narrative comes full circle.
Along those lines, Scheuer didn't write the song "Weather the Storm," in which his father gives him valuable advice, until the night before his opening at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2013. That was thanks to Daniels, who felt the audience needed to connect more deeply with Ben's dad before he passed away.
Meanwhile, Daniels has helped finesse Scheuer's movements, so that even simple gestures like taking off a jacket are choreographed. Ironically enough, Daniels says these small touches need to be carefully planned, so that everything can seem spontaneous. "What's wonderfully refreshing about the show is that Ben isn't a traditional musical theatre performer," he explains. "He's a lyricist. He's a singer-songwriter. And he's a really sick guitar player. The idea was, 'How do we build a show where your friend Ben has come over to tell you a story?'"
When a moment rang false, Daniels would simply ask Scheuer what really happened. "And then," Scheuer recalls, "I would tell him, 'Maybe this sounds boring, but my father came outside and took the water gun out of my hands and stomped on it and I didn't know why.' He'd say, 'Put that in the show, man. What you just told me. I find that interesting. Don't act.'"
Scheuer was happy to get that last note. "I'm a terrible actor," he says. "That's not me being humble. I'm just not an actor. But I do know what happened in my own life, and I can talk about that… if I practice!"
Crafting the show has not only taught Scheuer how to make this particular production work, but also clarified the ways he thinks musical theatre needs to change, especially in terms of how cast recordings are used to sell shows. "Cast recordings are being made as souvenirs to sell in the lobby to people who are seeing the show," he says, but he has an approach to make <em>The Lion</em>'s music reach a wider audience: changing, cutting, and rewriting songs specifically for a recorded medium.
To that end, he is working on an album called Songs from The Lion, and he has released music videos of "The Lion" and "Cookie Tin Banjo," which underscores that many people find and listen to music via YouTube.
Yet for all the adjustments and plans for the future, the heart of The Lion remains the same. "It's amazing to have $20,000 worth of microphones onstage. It's amazing to have seven guitars on stage. But you don't need that," Scheuer says. "I can sit here and tell you the exact same story, and it would be the same songs. And if the story didn't work, no matter how many thousands of dollars of microphones you have, it's not going to be good."