When Benjamin Scheuer was a kid, his father made him a banjo out of rubber bands and the round lid of a metal cookie tin. While his dad would play old folks songs on his guitar, Benjamin would strum the homemade instrument. Later, he introduced his son to much of the music that would influence him over the years, from the Beatles, Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix, to Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Eddie Van Halen.
But Scheuer’s father, while loving and kind, could also be volatile. He was susceptible to sudden outbursts and sometimes smashed his children’s toys in anger. When Scheuer was a teenager, they got into an argument over a bad report card. His father, a mathematician, told him he couldn’t attend an upcoming school-band trip. Scheuer lashed out and wrote his father a bitter note. The two did not speak for a week.
Before they could reconcile, his father died of a brain aneurysm.
“I think I totally blamed myself,” says Scheuer (pronounced SHOY-er), during a recent phone conversation. “I remember one of the paramedics asked, ‘Have you been really stressed out lately?’ And my father said, ‘Yes.’ That was seared into my brain. As a teenager, I assumed it was me that was stressing him out. I understand now that my father was stressed out about a lot of adult things that I, at 13 years old, had not been privy to.”
A few years ago, in the midst of his own health crisis, Scheuer, now 33, wanted to face those demons. He and his band, Escapist Papers, ended up making a record, called “The Bridge,” filled with Scheuer’s autobiographical folk songs. That record eventually morphed into “The Lion” — a solo coming-of-age show about Scheuer’s sometimes turbulent relationship with his father, a breakup with a longtime girlfriend, and his battle with Hodgkins lymphoma when he was just 28. The musical is embarking on a national tour that begins Wednesday at Merrimack Repertory Theatre in Lowell.
With several acoustic guitars arranged in a semi-circle, “The Lion” features a nattily dressed, floppy-haired Scheuer strumming catchy folk-pop songs and poignant ballads about heartbreak, happy and painful childhood memories, and the turmoil of facing cancer. The show played at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and in London in 2013 and enjoyed two extended engagements off-Broadway, earning Scheuer the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Solo Performance last spring.
As a kid, Scheuer simultaneously idolized and resented his father, so in writing the show he hoped to make sense of the aura that had been built up around the man.
“As a teenager, I grew up feeling that I could never amount to that which my dead father had been,” says Scheuer, calling from the Williamstown Theatre Festival, where he was writing a new musical that will be workshopped there next summer.
“[My father] was a kind and generous man, but he wasn’t a saint, and I am not a saint either,” he says. “Don’t be fooled by the friendly guy with shaggy hair and an acoustic guitar.”
Scheuer was diagnosed with cancer in 2011 while he was in the middle of recording “The Bridge.” The first person he called after telling his mother was his friend Geoff Kraly, who was producing the record. Instead of curling up in a ball, Scheuer immediately wanted to get back into the studio and finish the record.
“I didn’t know if I was going to die [or] if I was going to be incapacitated for some long period of time. So I wanted to make the record while I could,” he says. “And I started working twice as hard. I thought, this might be the last thing I ever do, and I want to get it right.”
Despite the sometimes brutal candor of Scheuer’s storytelling, the genesis of “The Lion” began with the songwriter telling a little white lie. The producers at Goodspeed Musicals in Connecticut had asked Scheuer if he was working on a new show and if he’d consider developing it as part of a four-week writing residency there.
Despite Scheuer’s sketchy intentions, a new musical actually emerged from his time at Goodspeed, where he first met and bonded with Sean Daniels, now the artistic director at Merrimack Rep. After the Goodspeed residency, he was invited to further develop the piece at the Weston Playhouse in Vermont, and he ended up enlisting Daniels’s help.
Daniels explains that the original version of the show was “essentially just a really nice guy that some awful things happened to, which is not dramatically interesting.”
Having lost his own father a few years ago, Daniels was intrigued to work on a story that explores loss, heartbreak, and regret.
“It’s just refreshing to hear somebody being really dangerously honest about how horrible that grief is and how it doesn’t go away after three months. That was cathartic for me,” says Daniels in a phone interview. “When we were first developing the show in front of audiences, we found that the worse Ben made himself out to be, the more people loved it and the more they rooted for him, because the more they got to see themselves on stage.”
One of the biggest challenges of writing about his battle with cancer, Scheuer says, was keeping the stakes high, because the audience knows that he survives. His friend, Ivo Stourton, a fellow writer, made a helpful suggestion. “He said, ‘OK, then what if Ben dies? What if you’re writing this with the possibility that Ben’s going to die? That’s what you need to do in order for it to feel really real, to feel scary for you.’”
Indeed, there’s an intensity to the story that belies the beaming, guitar-strumming fellow with the sandy hair and the dapper duds sitting in front of you. Still, the show aims for catharsis, not pathos.
“When difficult things happen in life, my way to understand it and my way to deal with it is to make art,” Scheurer says. “When I was diagnosed with advanced-stage cancer at 28 years old, I had no control over my entire life. So that alchemy of being able to craft a show where I can take something bad, cancer, and turn it into something valuable, a song or show that lifts people up, is really extraordinary.”
Written and performed by Benjamin Scheuer. Directed by Sean Daniels. Presented by Merrimack Repertory Theatre.
At the Nancy L. Donahue Theatre, Liberty Hall, Lowell, Aug. 26-
Sept. 20. Tickets: $23-$60, 978-654-4678, www.mrt.org