“What makes a lion a lion?”
That’s one of those silly riddles an adult might tease a child with, keeping the answer a secret in order to string the child along.
It’s also the question at the heart of Benjamin Scheuer’s solo performance work The Lion, where it first appears in the context of a nursery song that Scheuer remembers his father having made up to entertain his three young sons. But the song never provides the answer to that riddle, and when Scheuer’s father suddenly dies and leaves thirteen-year-old Benjamin to take on the role of man of the house, he takes that answer – along with all the other wisdom, advice, and support he might have provided to his sons – with him. In fact, he also leaves behind a great deal of mystery, as Scheuer discovers – like so many of us who lose our parents before we really get to know them as adults – that his father was a very different person to his children than he was to his friends and colleagues.
The personal journey Scheuer recounts through song and narration is a powerful one. Scheuer’s had a life rocked by misfortune: the tragedy of losing his father was followed up by a diagnosis of stage IV Hodgkins Lymphoma a decade later. But as painful and wrenching as his life has been, Scheuer recounts his autobiographical tale with a dryness and distance that keeps it from falling into sentimental tear-jerking. He’s wry and funny and self-aware to a perfect degree, so that even as, for example, he recalls his thirteen-year-old self’s devastation at the fact that his father died while he was on a band trip, after he had argued with his dad and refused to speak to him for a week, his adult self reassures us that he knows he didn’t cause his father to die. The theatricality of Scheuer’s presentation of his story is buttressed by Neil Patel’s deceptively simple set, which has an embossed upstage wall that comes to vivid life under Ben Stanton’s ingenious lighting design. As Scheuer moves through his story and from one guitar to another, the lighting makes it feel as if the stage is in a constant state of transformation around Scheuer.
The seventy-minute performance strings together a series of original songs that span a wide variety of styles, from children’s song to folk to ballad to rock, with Scheuer accompanying himself on one of the six guitars scattered around the stage. Music, Scheuer tells us, was his father’s primary gift to him, and he has honored the giver in the nurturing of that gift. Scheuer’s voice is smooth and lovely, and his guitar technique is masterful, whether he is plucking out complicated, delicate melodies or using the guitar primarily as a rhythm instrument. The beauty of Scheuer’s music is matched by the poetry of his lyrics, which contain unexpected gems. For example, although he had long avoided confronting his feelings about his father’s death, an urban misfortune triggers reconciliation: “Someone stole your old guitar/ and unlocked hidden tears/ It helped me start to face my fear/ Build a bridge before you fully disappear.” I don’t really have the words to describe how terrific Scheuer’s music is, so I’ll just cheat and embed a video here.
Scheuer eventually figures out for himself what makes a lion a lion – and sings a showstopping, triumphant song about it – but he’ll never know what his father’s real answer to that riddle was. And therein lies the poignancy of this gorgeous and moving musical: we can never really fill in the gaps our fathers leave behind, and those unanswered questions may be the ones that come to define us.