An Autobiographical Musical with Bite

Benjamin Scheuer brings his acclaimed show, “The Lion,” to the Milwaukee Rep.

Benjamin Scheuer begins his one-man performance, The Lion, quite simply: He walks onstage, picks up an acoustic guitar and sings: “My father has an old guitar and he plays me folk songs.” He then unleashes an effortless but dazzling finger-plucked riff and launches into the show’s opening song, “Cookie-tin-Banjo,” a sweetly nostalgic story of a father and son playing guitar together–Scheuer’s first steps as a musician.

Benjamin Scheuer in "The Lion." Photo by Matthew Murphy.
Benjamin Scheuer in “The Lion.”
Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Those first moments are a testament to the brilliance of Scheuer’s candid, evocative musical, which opened this weekend at the Milwaukee Rep’s Steimke Theatre. Everything about his story is contained in that first 15 seconds: a father and son, a guitar, and an adult with prodigious musical talent, who obviously takes great joy in sounds he creates by moving his fingers over a fretboard.

The Lion moves far beyond that idyllic image of father and son strumming guitars together. But to recount Scheuer’s story in full would rob potential audiences of some of its many pleasures. Several coming-of-age stories in a single narrative, the hour-long show is richly detailed autobiography, and as with all memorable life-stories, touches on the universals: family, mortality, memory and the power of stories.

It’s told with such engaging, personable style that it’s a kind of “anti-show-biz” musical. Scheuer is self-effacing and not afraid to gently mock the follies of his youth—high school garage bands and New York City dreams. And The Lion’s most dramatic moments are rendered with muted simplicity—surely a sign of the experienced hand of director Sean Daniels as well as of Scheuer’s natural gifts as a storyteller.

Of course, The Lion is more than just a story. Scheuer has come a long way from his cookie-tin banjo. His playing never draws attention to itself, but his technique as a guitarist is formidable. His melodies are memorable, and his way with a lyric is both elegant and plainspoken, always putting the story and its emotions first.

The Rep production is The Lions second stop of an American “tour” that will continue through the summer of 2016. Which means Scheuer will be performing his story for a total of nearly three years (it began in 2013 at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2013). It’s a story worth telling, and worth hearing.



Paul Kosidowski is a freelance writer and critic who contributes regularly to Milwaukee Magazine, WUWM Milwaukee Public Radio and national arts magazines. He writes weekly reviews and previews for the Culture Club column. He was literary director of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater from 1999-2006. In 2007, he was a fellow with the NEA Theater and Musical Theater Criticism Institute at the University of Southern California. His writing has also appeared in American Theatre magazine, Backstage, The Boston Globe, Theatre Topics, and Isthmus (Madison, Wis.). He has taught theater history, arts criticism and magazine writing at Marquette University and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.