Vol. 15, No. 4 Summer 2009
"He's a Sondheim baby" by Leonard Jacobs
News & Notes
Reviews and Reactions
One of the traits that makes Michael Cerveris compelling to watch onstage is the sense that he would survive if he were no longer acting. Maybe this is a function of his being so public about his interest in rock music and his on-again, off-again ambivalence about musical theatre. Indeed, in the early 2000s, following years playing the lead roles in New York and on tour in the musicals Tommy and Hedwig and the Angry Inch in addition to a significant role in Titanic Cerveris even left the business briefly, electing to play guitar alongside musician Bob Mould. For this reason alone, he is arguably one of the more unlikely Sondheim interpreters to come along. But given his equal aptitude for plays and musicals and given a speaking and singing voice of unusual resonance and timbre, Cerveris is, in fact, a natural for the interpretive challenges of Sondheim's most emotionally complex roles.
Consider Cerveris' trajectory: Beginning with Giorgio in Passion in the Kennedy Center's 2002 Sondheim Festival, he has also played Carl-Magnus in A Little Night Music (at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, 2003), John Wilkes Booth in Assassins (on Broadway, 2004, earning a Tony for best featured actor in a musical), George Seurat in Sunday in the Park with George (part of the Ravinia Festival, 2004), Giorgio in Passion (again at Ravinia and on PBS), the title role in John Doyle's actor-musician staging of Sweeney Todd (on Broadway, 2005) and, most recently, wily Wilson Mizner in Road Show (at Off-Broadway's Public Theater, 2008). He has leavened this with roles in King Lear (opposite Kevin Kline, at the Public Theater, a production that included incidental music by Sondheim), Cymbeline (opposite Martha Plimpton, at Lincoln Center Theater), LoveMusik (opposite Donna Murphy, on Broadway) and Hedda Gabler (opposite Mary -Louise Parker, on Broadway), among others. Cerveris is without a doubt an actor who thrives on thinking just the thing Sondheim devotees intrinsically understand.
TSR: What was your first experience with a Sondheim score?
Michael Cerveris: It was actually well before I became an actor. My dad is a musician and a music professor, and he also used to do music directing for university productions and for community theatres in West Virginia, where I mostly grew up. I remember him bringing home the big blue album of A Little Night Music because he was going to be music directing it. He was so taken with it that we would sit in the living room with our old LP record player and, when he played it, he'd show me all the things that were going on in the music. That was 1973, so I must have been about 13 at the time.
TSR: Were you already in touch with your musical interests?
MC: Well, I didn't quite have a rock band by then and I've never kept it secret that I never intended to be a musical theatre actor. In fact, I'd done a few musicals by that point things that my dad music directed or summer stock at Jenny Wylie Theatre in Kentucky, playing tiny parts like the 12th Jet on the left in West Side Story. But beyond that, no, not really.
TSR: But you remember Night Music.
MC: Oh, absolutely. Also, I had been exposed to classical music because my dad would play piano at night that was how I went to sleep, hearing him downstairs practicing. So without having pursued classical music, for example, I received an education by osmosis. Also, because my dad was passionate, it made me listen passionately. And Sondheim's writing is one thing that really rewards the passionate listener. Now, the first time I ever performed Sondheim was during my freshman year in college I played Carl-Magnus in well A Little Night Music, so there you go! But still, I left Yale undergrad thinking that I'd do regional theatre, Shakespeare, Sam Shepard and O'Neill. What I did do was see Sondheim musicals my first Broadway show was Sweeney Todd. Literally, we sat in the next-to-last row of the upper mezzanine of the then-Uris Theatre. And that was the first time I thought there could be a place for me in musical theatre, because Len Cariou's performance was so actorly and vivid and he's also classically trained. I thought if there is any kind of musical theatre that you can throw yourself into with abandon and ferocity, maybe there is a place for the way I like to work. But as I continued seeing musicals generally, I didn't find many examples of that.
TSR: Enter Hedwig, Tommy, Titanic
MC: But to tell you the truth, by the time I'd done those shows, I was getting burnt out on acting. I was starting to think the enterprise as a whole was unfulfilling.
MC: I think partly I was tired I'd done Tommy for four years alone. And it was partly that after doing Hedwig in New York and Los Angeles and London, I did a tour as guitarist with Bob Mould I was getting in touch with my rock-and-roll side. In London, I was dating a girl who was in a band called Ash, so I was in no rush to return to New York. Now, this was right before there was going to be a SAG [Screen Actors Guild] strike, and my agents told me that if I was going to work, I'd better do it soon. So I did a series for Fox that shot in London six episodes and then I came back to the U.S. to wait for it to air; they told us it would be the replacement for Ally McBeal. Well, it aired and then Fox pulled the plug. And then the girl dumped me. So I found myself back in New York with no job, no girlfriend. And I said to my agents that I'd done nothing but musicals for the last several years and I felt people would think that's all I can do, so I didn't want to audition for any more of them the only exception being a Sondheim musical. This was 2000, 2001, and it seemed you weren't really seeing them done as often as they are now. I'd auditioned for Passion on Broadway, but I was seldom seen for Steve's stuff, and I figured I didn't have the voice or the temperament.
TSR: And then the Sondheim Celebration came along.
MC: Yes, and if I remember right, everything was cast except for Passion. So here I am, I'm available, I go in, meet with Eric Schaeffer oh, this was the day after I was dumped. Now, just about anything from Passion is going to be emotionally fraught. And I was a mess. But they didn't know that my audition was anything other than me being a good actor. So I get hired, and I call my agents and say to them, "You know, I hope they realize I may not always be that raw."
TSR: You kind of were, though.
MC: Yeah, I was. But that's the nature of that show.
TSR: And then, in terms of your career, it's been a steady stream of Sondheim ever since.
MC: It has been, and it's because I started to rediscover my interest in acting because of the material that I was being surrounded by. In D.C., it was just so fascinating to see Company one night, then rehearse Passion the next day, see Sweeney the next night, rehearse Passion the next day, see Merrily the next night it was being immersed in this man's world.
TSR: Had you met Sondheim at that point?
MC: Not really. I'd sung for him for the Broadway Passion, but he was in the dark in the house, and I was on the stage. At that time, also, I was just the Tommy guy. In D.C., he did come for one of our last run-throughs in the rehearsal room. I remember I was sitting on the prop bed leafing through a newspaper and evidently he'd been in the room for a bit, and suddenly I looked up and there he was. Wow! And then we did this run-through it demanded so much concentration that I couldn't even think about him sitting there, but it was also pretty nerve-racking. At the end, he jumped up in tears I have to say that a lot of my conversations with Steve have begun with his eyes welling up. In the beginning, I wasn't sure if that was because he was so upset about what he'd just witnessed.
TSR: He's certainly more emotional than most people realize.
MC: I've never understood why people criticize him for being too cold, critical and intellectual. I feel that even in some of those shows that don't seem to have been written with a focus on exposing layers of emotion A Little Night Music, maybe they usually can withstand that kind of emotionally layered performance. Sometimes I wonder if Steve even knows what he's written. There are forces at work in his creative process that I think he's not fully aware of.
TSR: Might Assassins fall into that category?
MC: Absolutely, yes and Road Show, too. I think it took John Doyle to sort of focus John [Weidman] and Steve, to strip away some of the embellishments to [focus on] an emotional story of two brothers and family relationships. That was the progress that the show made from Bounce, and I don't think, in terms of the run at the Public, it was entirely recognized. As often happens, Steve's shows are densely written I'm fortunate that I get to live with it for five weeks of rehearsal and that I can talk to the creative team. So, as with Assassins, I think in 15 years someone will do Road Show and people will turn around and say, "Ah!"
TSR: Was it tough for you to do Road Show, given the earlier versions and its long gestation?
MC: As an actor, you fortunately don't have the baggage the history that John and Steve might have, and you can't take it on. But if you have a question, if you don't understand something or you have a concern, the process by which you get some answers can sometimes be fraught with "Wow, I bet they've heard this one before." That said, I tried to be conscious of never asking something that implied anything about the show taking so long to finish or develop, or that it was a failure. I mean, I just didn't think that was true I saw Bounce in D.C., and while I didn't find it complete, I felt there were four or five interesting shows there, and it was just a matter of clarifying which one I was meant to follow. At the Public, John Doyle's reconception helped Steve and John refine what they wanted to say. I was grateful they changed the show's title to give an outward statement that Road Show would be a piece unto itself.
TSR: What do you think they're trying to say?
MC: I think Road Show examines, much as Assassins does, a crucial flaw in the American psyche, and it holds up a not entirely flattering mirror to society. When you write into your constitution something like "the pursuit of happiness" being an inalienable right, what does that mean? You haven't said it's important to ensure that everyone is happy. You have said that my happiness is what has primary importance. It was really something else to do Road Show as the whole bottom fell out of the economy.
TSR: Was it just irony, and did it affect the work?
MC: Every day in rehearsal we'd talk about it John likes to work so that you spend time discussing how you're responding to the material. Nothing was really changed or rewritten to accommodate the economy falling apart except for the very end, the very last lines. Also, John always had the image of dollars in the air, but he works so organically it wasn't like we were trying to address current events so much as address the underlying things that led to current events, which was always, I think, embedded in what Steve and John had written.
TSR: What about the darker sides of Sweeney, Booth and Willie in Road Show?
MC: One difference between playing a historical figure, as opposed to a fictional one, is research. I watched a lot of Ken Burns' documentary The Civil War; I also went to the Players Club, Edwin Booth's home, and they showed me papers and photographs the public doesn't see. It can make it easier to conceive of the person you're playing as a living, breathing human.
TSR: What do you do with that information?
MC: You sort of carry it around with you and see what it does to you. What happens a lot of times in musicals well, there are obviously choices that have been made about what parts of the story are being told. After all, Assassins isn't just the John Wilkes Booth story there are nine other people. Sometimes historical details can also be contrary to what's in the script which is the danger of too much research, struggling to play things untrue about your character. In Assassins, for example, the line in the lyric "27 years of age" is sung by the Balladeer, right? But Booth was actually 26 when he shot Lincoln. I know that other people have noticed this, too.
TSR: And Sondheim knows this, I'm sure.
MC: It's very funny, actually. When I mentioned this to him, Steve said, "That's true, but 27 scans better." My point is you have to use research for an emotional grocery store, not for fact-checking. It's what colors things or helps you imagine a character's situation. Now, if you don't have that and you're creating something from scratch like Sweeney Todd what you want is your character's viewpoint, the sense of the reason for doing what they do. It's also, luckily for actors, in the script of a Sondheim show. Above all, the most difficult thing to do is to not sit in judgment. In other words, I don't know if many people ever think they're evil. John Wilkes Booth thought he was going to be a hero and he had very good reason to think that, too, since Lincoln was about as popular at that point as Bush. Sweeney has good reasons to be pissed off. True, he gets carried away, but he was a very loyal husband and father. You could also argue that the need to avenge can be a mitigating factor.
TSR: Does that mean you have to know innately what it feels to be capable of or to commit murder ?
MC: I think this is the fantastic thing about Assassins and Sweeney and Road Show has this, too. It gives you examples of reprehensible behavior and people that you naturally want to think of as monsters. And at first the authors give you a safe little distance where you can tell yourself, "Gee, I'd never do that." Then they open up a window where you say, "I get where this guy is coming from. Maybe I wouldn't do what they did, but I've felt a little like that sometimes and I can understand being angry in this way." Then they pull the rug out from under you, and you think, "My God, I could sympathize with those people!" I think the best art makes you look at yourself and answer questions like "America is the place that kills more of its presidents than any other what's that about?" Even though Steve doesn't think of himself as a political writer, his writing is profoundly political. He makes the political personal, and that's the way you hear it as an audience. As an actor, it's not like I restrained myself from murdering when I played Sweeney. But having access to that depth of loss, hurt and rage, that desire for vengeance it has to be enough near the surface to dip into.
TSR: Can you discuss Sondheim's music specifically? Were there notes you had to hit or intervals you had to access that made you nuts? Or key changes you wanted?
MC: Here's how I think Steve feels about keys: they're important, but not more important than the singer. When I was doing Sunday at Ravinia, it was a challenge, for example everyone knows he originally wrote it for a baritone, and then here comes Mandy Patinkin with his incredible range. With Road Show, the first couple times I went through the last thing I have to sing the duet with Addie with Mary-Mitchell Campbell, the musical director, I said I felt singing as high as that, at that point in the evening, might be really damaging. I mean, if it's too high, all you can do is sing loud and high. Steve was fine with that, so first we lowered a whole step, then down a half-step. But after the first week of rehearsing, I realized it was actually easier to sing where Steve originally wrote it that's because he's also thinking about where the character is at that point in the story when he's writing. So in the end I asked for it to be put back where it started.
TSR: And lyrics?
MC: Well, just as Steve's music can often be fiendishly hard, I think the most agitating thing is having lyrics repeated with just enough of a change to make it seemingly impossible to remember. A lot of people have talked about this, of course. However, when you map it out for yourself, it always makes emotional sense and it's never, ever arbitrary. You have to observe that everything you need is in the meters, rhythms, the choices of words, all as indications of how the mind of your character is working. Steve's book writers understand this especially. It's why, as an actor, you needn't do any historical research at all, necessarily. I did read The Legendary Mizners, but as it didn't have much to do ultimately with what we were doing, I focused on creating the characters and the world.
TSR: But you have also faced the challenge of performing "Epiphany" in Sweeney Todd eight times a week.
MC: That's true. And that song is absolutely an enormous challenge to sing eight times a week amid the challenges of the telling of the story and accessing all of its emotional content. Obviously there's a part of any actor's brain, especially in a Sondheim show, that is preparing for this or that note to come. But in performance, it's less conscious although I'm sure there's something in my head that's saying, "Here it comes, remember to take enough breath!" What's thrilling in a Sondheim piece is everything is happening at really lightning speeds, yet you can't put all of your attention to it or it becomes a technically proficient, theatrically uninteresting exercise. The funny thing is, once I started doing Sondheim, that's what I did for four years, and doing anything else was well, for example, I did a workshop of 110 in the Shade. This was with Audra McDonald, in anticipation of the Roundabout revival that came to Broadway. And I have to say, I just had the hardest time figuring out how to sing it. It's so simple, all in C, all in 4/4! I thought, how do I sing this?
TSR: Are there Sondheim roles at this point you'd like to play but haven't?
MC: I'd have loved to play George for longer. But I also think Daniel Evans was great, and I was so happy they got to come over. And Raϊl Esparza and I would have had a bitch fight for the role, anyway.
LEONARD JACOBS is the theatre critic for The New York Press and the author of Historic Photos of Broadway: New York Theater, 1850-1970.
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