Ben Lear is photographed at his parents home in Brentwood. (Gary Friedman / Los Angeles…)
When Ben Lear's mother first told him about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch — a gigantic gyre of plastic bottles, tires and other debris floating between California and Japan — he was shocked. But it became a creative turning point for Lear, who in 2009 was struggling to find a focus for his senior project at New York University.
"Lillian," a folk opera blending acoustic guitar songs with chamber and orchestral music, was a promising yet unshaped story about longing and loss. Now, it had a central theme.
"This was the idea I'd been waiting for," the 22-year-old Lear said recently. "There was an ugly island of debris in the ocean and I re-imagined it as a room holding everything I've ever lost. Lillian, a girlfriend, was slowly drifting off to this faraway place, and I had to find a way to get her back."
Lear dreamed up the idea in his dorm room late at night, strumming idly on a six-string guitar, and "Lillian" might have been just another undergraduate project. But the composer clearly had bigger plans in mind: His edgy, experimental work will make its Los Angeles premiere Sunday at The Hotel Café.
Given the family genes, that Lear is drawn to entertainment is not surprising. But where he's going with that is.
"I'm amazed at what Ben has created because I could never have done anything remotely like this," said his father, Norman Lear, the creator of "All in the Family," "Maude" and other trailblazing shows. "I'm just part of Ben's audience now. I sit back and watch."
Imagine a show mixing acoustic ballads with percussive chamber music, striking underwater footage and a chorus of imaginary sea creatures. That's just a hint of what "Lillian" is like in performance, and it's very much a work in progress. The premiere of Lear's show last May at Le Poussin Rouge club in Greenwich Village won cheers from a packed crowd; the production is headed next for a New York summer festival.
"It's not just theater, and it's not just music," Lear said, trying to define his work. "The show is definitely something in between, something I can't give a name to."
Tall, lanky and soft-spoken, the young composer is determined to make his own way but is the first to acknowledge that his family has helped him get where he is.
"My parents have given me infinite support and emotional resources from the beginning, whether I was into poetry, music or filmmaking," Lear said by phone from his family's farm in Vermont, where he was working on rehearsals and rewrites for the Los Angeles show. "I grew up in a home where both of my parents read newspapers every day, and there was a sense you had to be plugged into what was going on in the world, to play a responsible role," he added. "I put that together with a growing sense that I wanted to write and play music."
At NYU he majored in music and was part of a growing circle of friends who enjoyed playing one another's music. The group eventually expanded to include filmmakers, theater performers, video and visual artists, and it was from this lively milieu that "Lillian" began to take shape.
Some of the most crucial influences, however, came from home.
Lear's mother, Lyn, for example, helped launch the Environmental Media Assn. Meanwhile, his father's well-known political advocacy — he founded People for the American Way, a prominent American civil liberties organization — also influenced Ben's evolving view of the world.
"My family is not very musical, obviously, but they grounded me, they taught me that it's important to vote, that it will make a difference whether you believe it or not," he said. "All of this adds up over time."
Lear gives a final, and unlikely, credit to Frank Sinatra, whose music he grew up detesting. His father played Ol' Blue Eyes endlessly in their home, and it wasn't until years later that Ben appreciated Sinatra's powerful ability to tell a story. One song in particular, "In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning," had a profound impact on him.
"Here's this guy in the early morning hours, missing someone so badly, and then I realized that's what I was doing in my own room," Lear said. "And I wondered: Could I put on a concert that takes place in my bedroom, with my band sprawled out sitting there as figments of my imagination? It would be more than a concert, it would be theater."
"Lillian" begins and ends with Lear playing a guitar in his room quietly, while his girlfriend sleeps in bed. She's been drifting away from him, pulled by a powerful current, and he's convinced she'll wind up in the garbage patch — along with everything else he's lost in life. By the end he realizes that the problem, and the answer, lies in his own heart.
"People I talk to have been very enthusiastic, but they all ask: 'What about this big, crazy show you're doing? What's it about?'" he says.
"Part of me just wants to go out on the road and play in a band, and forget this other stuff. But I'm in deep now. For me, it's just beginning."