My name is Benjamin Scheuer. I’m 32 years old. I live in New York City. I write songs. I’m the writer/performer of a one-man piece of musical theatre called THE LION. THE LION is the true story of my family. In the show, I address the death of my father when I was a little boy; a romantic relationship I was in when I was a young man; and my diagnosis with, treatment for and cure of advanced-stage cancer. All before I turned 30. I perform the show with six guitars.
Why did you decide to write a musical?I love creating worlds. I love music. I love words. I love clothes, and lights, and sets. I love stories. Musicals have all these things. Here’s where my musical THE LION came from: With my band Escapist Papers, I made a record called THE BRIDGE, the last song on which is called "The Lion." Most of the songs on THE BRIDGE are about my family. As I was performing these songs in little coffee shops around New York, I realized I wanted the between-song-talking to be relevant to the songs. I wanted the talking to make the songs better. So I wrote down my between-song-talking, and memorized it. I realized I had a script and a score; which is, ostensibly, the start of a musical.
What are the steps someone needs to take to write a musical and get it to an audience?Write what compels you. What you absolutely need to write. What you’re scared to write. What you want to write when you’re older but think that perhaps you’re not ready to write yet. Write that song. Write that show.
Think as big or as small as you’d like; there is no wrong way to do it. I’m a great believer in content-before-form; ie, figure out what story you’re going to tell, and then figure out how you’re going to tell it.
What are the best parts of writing a musical?I love rhyme. Words that rhyme. I love playing with words. And I love a really good melody -- one that gets stuck in your head. Writing the right song for the right theatrical moment is so very satisfying. And then, when it’s on stage, to see the audience react by crying, or laughing, or cheering? It’s pretty awesome.
There are three jobs in the writing of a musical. There’s lyricist, who writes the words in the songs. There’s composer, who writes the music for the songs. And there’s book-writer, who writes the spoken words in the show.
These three jobs can be done by three different people. They can all be done by the same person: Any combination you can think of can work. I love collaborating. And a musical takes a lot of people. Other people help bring your show to life. Cast; director; set designer; lighting person; choreographer; costume person; band. Now maybe the costume person is your roommate with a flair for clothing, and maybe your "band" is your older sister who plays the piano. Or maybe you’ve got Georgio Armani designing your costumes and Nine Inch Nails in the pit.
What are the biggest challenges in writing a musical?Songs in musical theatre should be active. They should start somewhere and end somewhere else. Every single song in a musical should serve the purpose of forwarding the plot, heightening dramatic action, and/or deepening character relationships (between the character and the audience, between the character and other characters on stage, etc).
At a concert if an audience member doesn’t like a particular song, they can go pee. Or go the bar. Or talk to their friend. Or check their phone. At a musical, an audience member can’t skip a song. They have to sit there and listen. Thing is, the audience WANTS to listen. They WANT to be entertained; they enter the theatre willing to give their full attention, and by giving it, they expect that every moment in the show, every lyric, every melody, ever story-point, will be worth their time and attention. So you, the writer, better make sure it is.
Best advice you've ever received?If you want to write a good song, write what you don’t want other people to know about you. If you want to write a great song, write what you don’t want to know about yourself.
I got this advice from Lari White, a teacher of mine at the Johnny Mercer Songwriters Project, held for a week in the summer at Northwestern University.
Songwriters between the ages of 18 and 30: Apply to The Johnny Mercer Songwriters Project. It’s FREE. And it’s extraordinary.
If you want to write for the theatre, see a lot of theatre: Every play you can. Every musical you can. Read scripts. Watch old (and new) musical movies. Figure out how they’re put together. Act in shows. And then write. Write lots. Tell as many stories as you can.
If you want to write songs? Listen to a lot of songs. Not only musical theatre songs. All types of songs. Ballads. Story songs. Hip hop. Folk songs. Love songs. "I Want" songs. And write a lot of songs. Write songs about other people’s lives. Write songs about your own life. And tell the truth. If you can’t do it about your own life, you sure won’t be able to do it about other people’s lives.
Any other helpful resources or links on this topic.Here are some books and essays that might be helpful for aspiring songwriters (and are DEFINITELY helpful for working professional songwriters)
- "Rhyme and its Reason," the essay in Stephen Sondheim’s book Finishing the Hat . Buy the book. There are other equally wonderful songwriting essays in it.
- Roget's Thesaurus . Words organized by theme. Get the hard-copy. The big one. Trust me. It’s well worth it.
- Several Short Sentences About Writing , by Verlyn Klinkenborg. This is one of the best books on making stuff I’ve ever read.
- Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces . This book is the codification of the "hero’s journey," a story-structure that has worked successfully for thousands of years.
- Rhyme Dictionary . This book is your best-friend, songwriters. No reason to waste time accidentally forgetting some of the rhymes that might help you; get a book where you have them all available.