by Josh Azar
A math teacher at Eton College in London approaches a student and says, “Ben, you know how I tell you to stop writing songs in the back of my classroom?”
“Yes,” Ben replies.
“Well I came to your show this weekend, and it was very good.”
“Oh, well thank you.”
“You’re never going to be any good at mathematics. You’re always going to be terrible.”
“And you’re going to be a professional musician, I think we can agree on that. So it would seem to be in everybody’s best interest for you to sit in the back of my classroom and write songs. You do that, and I’ll pass you, and we’ll all be happy.”Looking back thirteen years later, 31-year-old composer, lyricist, and professional singer-songwriter Benjamin Scheuer says, “That was good teaching.”
The show the teacher had seen was a rock opera Scheuer wrote on a dare from his high school director. It had an original score written for an eleven piece orchestra. Soon after, Scheuer was admitted to Harvard University, where he studied English. He believes the show had a lot to do with the decision. “I don’t think they realized,” Scheuer says, “I had done what I had done through naivete rather than ambition, though I suppose those two things are quite connected.”
Whether naivete or ambition drove him, that rock opera was only Scheuer’s first show. In 2007, a show called Jihad! The Musical opened in Edinburgh. Scheuer was composer and co-lyricist, along with Zoe Samuel. The show was meant to satirize extremism, but not everyone appreciated its humor. A petition to the Prime Minister of England to have the show banned was circulated, but it only had 26 signatories. One day, Scheuer received a call from a reporter for The Times of London, asking him to confirm that General Musharraf, Prime Minister of Pakistan, had come to see the show. After checking with his producer, he was able to confirm that Musharraf had indeed been present. He recalls the conversation going as follows:
“Don’t you think that’s strange?” the reporter asked.
“I’m not sure I understand your question. Do I think it’s strange that General Musharraf watched a show? No.”
“Well, he’s Muslim, right?”
“Don’t you think that’s strange?”
“I’m sorry,” Scheuer began. “Again, I don’t understand your question.”
“Well doesn’t your show make fun of Muslims?”
“No, our show makes fun of terrorism. Are you having difficulty distinguishing between the two?”
Jihad! also had a run in London, in 2010. Every seat was sold out for every night of its run. In April of 2011, the Metropolis Opera Project presented a folk opera called The Nightingale and the Rose for which Scheuer had written the libretto and music, based on the Oscar Wilde story of the same name. Scheuer was not satisfied with The Nightingale’s run, however. “I was in the middle of chemotherapy, so I don’t remember it very well.”
That story begins with Scheuer running through Grand Central Terminal in December of 2010. He tripped and fell, and spent the next day in bed. He had recently lost 25 pounds, and had been sweating through his sheets each night. A few months before, he had split up with a long-term girlfriend, and credited this with the weight loss. But a trip to the doctor to get checked out after his fall revealed more. When the x-rays came in, the doctor told him that he’d broken his pubic bone in three place, and that he had lytic lesions.
After more tests, including a PET scan (which screens for cancer), Scheuer was waiting to discuss the results with an oncologist. “I’m expecting him to say you’re fine,” Scheuer recalls. “You’ve got holes in your bones, you need to drink more chocolate milk. Instead, he asks me ‘have you lost 25 pounds lately? Have you been sweating through your sheets at night? Has the left side of your lower back hurt when drinking alcohol?” The test results showed that he had advanced stage cancer, of an unknown kind. He’d have to undergo a biopsy to learn more, but wouldn’t know the results of that biopsy until a week later.
After leaving the doctor’s office, Scheuer first called his mother, then his bandmate Geoff Kraly.
“Hey man,” Scheuer said over the phone. “Where are you?”
“I’m in the studio, working on the new Escapist Papers record,” Kraly replied, referring to the band in which Scheuer writes and sings.
“Great, I’m gonna come work with you. So if you wouldn’t mind picking me up from the station…?”
“Sure, how were the tests and everything?
“Yeah. Just pick me up from the station.”
Geoff Kraly had been expecting a call that day. He and Scheuer had talked previously, and they knew that cancer was a potential outcome. “Not mentioning the test results certainly communicated a lot,” says Kraly. The two worked on a song called “A Surprising Phone Call” with a newfound sense of urgency. “It seemed suddenly that making records was very important,” Scheuer says. “I didn’t know if I was going to be incapacitated or if I was going to die. I didn’t know anything.”
The next week, Scheuer got his answer. It was stage four Hodgkins Lymphoma, which Scheuer says is currently between 85 and 98% curable. He remembers the doctor cheering when the results came in. It was now early January, 2011. He began chemo in February. “It made me very tired and fat and stupid and mostly bald. And at the end of it, it was a success. I am completely 100% recovered,” Scheuer pauses, and sighs. “Physically.”
The day before he began chemotherapy, Benjamin Scheuer accompanied his mentor Andrew Lippa, composer for current Broadway musical Big Fish, to the Lincoln Center Songwriter Series. Lippa told the curator that Scheuer was “the real deal,” and should be given a slot in the series. Exactly one year later, he was on stage performing. “I had completed quite the journey, from the day I was sitting in the audience very very ill to the day I was sitting on the stage, very very well.”
Scheuer received the 2013 NC Special Jury Award for Best Commissioned Film for a music video, the Musical Theatre Network Award for Best Lyrics, and most recently, the 2013 ASCAP Cole Porter Award for Excellence in Songwriting, among other awards. “Ben takes great risks in his songwriting,” Geoff Kraly says. “Put another way, Ben is honest in his songwriting.” Mike Morello, musician and former owner of the Vagabond Cafe, a West Village venue that has booked Scheuer on numerous occasions, agrees. “He is deeply personal, emotional, and nakedly honest in all of his music,” he says.
To Scheuer, music is more than just awards. When asked what he believed to be the best of his many artistic endeavors, Scheuer contemplated in silence for a few moments before saying he plays once a month for the kids at Mount Sinai Children’s Hospital. “It’s fun to win awards, it’s nice. People say ‘hey, well done. I thought this song was good, here’s a plaque with a paper in it that says you did a good job.’ But when you’re playing for sick kids, and that actually brings them real joy…that, I think, is a very tangible example of the power of music. I do think that’s much more important than any of the accolades that we as artists can bestow upon each other.”
Music has always played an important role in Scheuer’s life. His father loved music, and growing up in Larchmont, New York, the Scheuer household was always filled with it. Scheuer’s influences range from Guys and Dolls composer Frank Loesser to Eminem. It was Scheuer’s father who first taught him to play the guitar. Scheuer describes the passing of his father, which happened near Scheuer’s 14th birthday, as “the catalytic event of my songwriting.” His death has influenced Scheuer’s music both thematically and logistically. “It was a lot of chasing his ghost around, that I’ve been doing,” Scheuer says. He used part of the inheritance from his father to open a studio, where Geoff Kraly was the day he received the call with the news of Scheuer’s illness. It was there that Scheuer recorded Escapist Papers’ first two albums, and the space (dubbed Escapist Studios) is still in use today. Scheuer was 20 years old when he opened the studio.
Now, at the age of 31, he spends his days writing (with Schaeffer fountain pens, according to Morello), recording, and mixing. He curates the Cornelia Street Songwriter series, and teaches private lessons. He is involved in a one man show which has had runs in Edinburgh and London, under the name The Bridge, which is also the name of Escapist Papers’ most recent album. However, there is talk of changing the show’s name to The Lion. The show deals candidly with Scheuer’s life, including themes and anecdotes of his victory over cancer, past relationships, and the death of his father. Central to the show is the sort of raw emotional honesty that is present in Scheuer’s music. “I’m not a virtuosic singer,” Scheuer says. “So the thing I can bring to the table as a singer and performer is trying to find the honesty and the delivery of the lyric, which doesn’t come from flowery vocal technique. It comes from a straight forward delivery.”
This attempt at frankness has earned him a lot of praise from his peers. “To say that to me Ben is the most talented songwriter I know would be a gross understatement,” says Morello. “He is one of the few musicians that I always want more from. He has a professional poise that makes him stand above so many others. He just feels famous. He was meant to perform and share his art with the world.”