Benjamin Scheuer and a life told in heartbreaking song at the Geffen

When he was 13, singer-songwriter Benjamin Scheuer got into a terrible fight with his dad.  Son wrote father a mean note afterward. A few days later, before the pair had reconciled, Scheuer’s father had a brain aneurysm and died.

A lasting image from the end of his father’s life: the stern mathematician tangled in his bed sheets, wearing only white underwear.

“White Underwear”  is one of the most heartbreaking songs in Scheuer’s one-man musical, “The Lion,” which comes to  the Geffen Playhouse on Wednesday.

Mortality — how intimate knowledge of it changes a person — is at the heart of the show, which won the Drama Desk Award for solo performance after it premiered off-Broadway in 2015.

The men in Scheuer’s family die young — many before age 50. His great-grandfather was killed at Auschwitz, and his grandfather died of alcoholism. Scheuer himself was diagnosed with advanced Hodgkin’s lymphoma at age 28.

It was this diagnosis, and the dread that it might bring his final chance to make a lasting piece of art, that drove Scheuer to create “The Lion,” which is at times a painfully candid autobiographical sojourn down memory lane. It begins with Scheuer’s musical father building his 2-year-old son a cookie-tin banjo and ends when Scheuer is cured of cancer and can finally forgive himself for his father’s death. These experiences bookend the coming-of-age story of an antagonistic young man brandishing an electric guitar, and his tender experience of first love.

“The only thing anybody can do better than anybody else is be themselves,” Scheuer says by phone from his Greenwich Village apartment. “Writing ‘The Lion’ required me to remember what it felt like to grieve for my father, and what it felt like physically and emotionally to go through chemotherapy. It gave me a sense of control over experiences that I previously had no control over.”

Originally, the show was a collection of songs Scheuer methodically tested out at a forum that loves a good confessional: coffee-shop open-mike nights.  Playing his folky, lyric-driven melodies on an acoustic guitar, Scheuer paid close attention to when audience members got bored, fiddled with their phones or headed to the bathroom.

Later, at home, Scheuer fine-tuned those moments, often rewriting them completely. The more he concentrated on scripting and perfecting his coffee-shop gigs, the more people came and the longer his sets grew. A year later, he was invited to workshop his songs during a writers residency program at Goodspeed Musicals in Connecticut.

That’s where he met “Lion” director Sean Daniels, who told him that he didn’t have a show, not yet. But he had a fine collection of songs, and if Scheuer were willing to basically scrap everything and start over, he might have a great musical.    

Of all the songs Scheuer started with, Daniels says, only one made it into “The Lion.”

“When I came across Ben, I thought, ‘Here’s a guy who’s dangerously honest about what he’s been through,’ ” says Daniels, who had lost his father a year before he met Scheuer.

At the time, Daniels was also contemplating his new, intimate knowledge of mortality.

“Is there art to be made about it? And how do you not let that be the only art you make?” Daniels asks.

His solution was to encourage Scheuer to build the show organically, almost as if he were performing for friends in a kitchen — something Scheuer was prone to do from time to time.

“We’ve all seen wildly confusing one-person shows, but a friend in a kitchen telling you a story is never confusing,” Daniels says. “We wanted that level of intimacy in it. He metaphorically undresses himself as he shares more and more with the audience.”

Although it seems so casual, the show is actually choreographed to an extreme, Scheuer says.

“Everything from where I drink water to when I move my capo is in the script,” he says. “It’s meant to feel spontaneous, but it’s rehearsed to the second — to the fraction of the second.”

This is because Scheuer is at heart a musician, not an actor, Daniels says. For Scheuer, it’s helpful to think of the whole show as one big musical gesture. At the core of this musical is the thought — the profound hope — that good things can come from awful things. If Scheuer had never gotten cancer, he wouldn’t have created “The Lion” and come to terms with his father’s death.

Before his plunge into the opaque world of hospitals, needles, hair loss and fear, Scheuer was finding his way in the world as a musician, making a record called “The Bridge.” He had discovered the joy of musical theater at a private high school in England, and he later attended Harvard, where he studied English.

In college, he tried his hand at writing a number of unrealized musicals, played in a funk band, dyed his hair blue, pierced his bellybutton and read voraciously. He delved into the literary canon revered by angry young men everywhere: Nabokov, Eliot, Shakespeare, Keats, Wilde, Fitzgerald and Hemingway. His taste in music included Led Zeppelin, Joni Mitchell, Naz, John Coltrane, Bob Dylan and Jeff Buckley.

It wasn’t until he built a little recording studio for himself that he finally found his voice.

“Microphones could tell my story, and I could paint with sound,” he recalls.

He loves musical theater for the same reasons.

“I feel very strongly that musical theater is not a genre, it’s not a style of music, it’s a methodology,” he says.

Music also lends itself to art forms Scheuer loves. With director Peter Baynton, he has made four animated music videos for his songs. He has also created a book of photography with Riya Lerner, “Between Two Spaces,” that consists of moody black-and-white images Lerner took of Scheuer when he was battling cancer.  

Bringing these important works of art together will be a fitting farewell to “The Lion” for Scheuer. After more than 500 performances, he intends to make his L.A. engagement his last. Next up, he’s working on a musical for actors other than himself.

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‘The Lion’

Where: Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater at the Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Los Angeles

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, through Feb. 19.

Tickets: $60 to $82

Info: (310) 208-5454, www.geffenplayhouse.org

jessica.gelt@latimes.com

@jessicagelt

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