Michael Cerveris has had the kind of year most actors can only dream of. In September of 2006, he wrapped up a Broadway run in the title role of John Doyle's radical staging of Sweeney Todd, with Patti LuPone as the warm-hearted, cold-blooded Mrs. Lovett. In a Tony-nominated performance, Cerveris jettisoned standard notions of the Demon Barber as a hirsute Victorian maniac and re-invented him as a brooding dude in white shirt, black jeans and Doc Martens. Strumming a guitar, this Sweeney might be your sensitive, artistic neighbor—and all the more terrifying for that. Cerveris went from Sweeney straight into the role of Kent—one of the good guys—in the Public Theater's high-profile production of King Lear starring Kevin Kline as the titular monarch. While performing Lear, he was deep in rehearsal for LoveMusik, a new musical directed by Hal Prince focused on the wildly unconventional romance between composer Kurt Weill and his muse, wife and sometimes tormentor, Lotte Lenya Donna Murphy. The ad campaign for LoveMusik, a Manhattan Theatre Club production at Broadway's Biltmore Theatre, can stop you in your tracks: With his bald pate, smooth features and tiny, black-rimmed glasses, Cerveris is a ringer for Weill. In real life, he's much handsomer than the nebbishy composer, but that's show biz. Cerveris's theatrical career has been non-stop since his Tony nominated performance as the title character in Des McAnuff's 1993 staging of The Who's Tommy. The range is protean: He won the 2004 Tony for Best Featured Actor in a Musical for his John Wilkes Booth in Sondheim's Assassins, not long after he had triumphed as a madcap transgendered German rock chanteuse in Hedwig and the Angry Inch. But wait! There's more! Cerveris has an active career as a rock singer and songwriter, heads a band and performs frequent gigs on the road and in East Village clubs. We caught up with the low-key, charming actor just days before LoveMusik opened.
Obvious question first: How did you get cast in this show?
I had performed at one of the many events celebrating Sondheim's 75th birthday —the one at the New Amsterdam Theater benefiting Young Playwrights. I was standing in the wings next to Hal Prince thinking, gosh, I'd like to meet him, but we'd never been introduced. Literally, the next morning, I got call saying, "Hal wants you to come into his office and talk about a new project." I knew nothing about LoveMusik, but I have to tell you, Hal Prince's office is such a fascinating place. It is the heart of American musical theater. So I was excited just to be in the office talking to the guy.
Yes. As we talked, I learned that he and [book writer] Alfred [Uhry] believed that the letters between Weill and Lenya had the makings of a really fascinating piece about marriage. Both Hal and Alfred have had very long-lasting marriages, and they found in the story of Weill and Lenya's marriage the essence of our show. A marriage is what works for two people. It may not work for anybody else; it may not even make sense for the people in it, but it works for them. Hal asked me to be a part of the show. I said yes immediately. Donna Murphy was not part of the project initially; she came on board later. We did readings of it over a couple of years.
What were your thoughts on Kurt Weill? He was interested in writing a broad range of music and working in different musical styles, just as you are.
I have to confess that I knew very little about Weill going into the project. Mostly I knew Threepenny Opera, from a recording of the production with Raul Julia at the Public Theater. I knew some songs from Lost in the Stars and had a recording with a collection of Weill songs done by modern artists. I had seen Happy End in regional theater some time ago. But I hadn't seen other pieces or read anything about him previous to that. So I came to it fairly fresh. Once I started doing research, I couldn't believe I didn't know more. He's someone who, in his approach to music and his desire to push to the boundaries of theater music and just his audaciousness, I relate to and recognize. I can't believe I didn't know more. I feel a real affinity for him on a personal level: My grandfather was a musician who emigrated from Europe to the United States, so I have a familial connection with the idea of European classical artists embracing American culture and ideals and society. That helps make my portrayal of Weill personal.
The show resists the obvious with its use of songs. You and Lenya don't get off the boat in New York and sing "I'm a Stranger Here Myself." Did you have a hand in shaping the show?
Not initially. Hal and Alfred spent a long time hammering out the story they wanted to tell. Then they went searching for songs that would perform the functions they wanted. During the workshops, they were interested in hearing how things were playing, in hearing my observations and impressions. Rehearsals have been fantastic. Donna and Alfred and Hal and [principal actors] David Pittu and John Scherer and I really feel like we have a collaborative process going. There's never any question that this is Hal and Alfred's piece. But they have been gracious and interested enough to want to know what we have to say. It's great to participate in the process.
The use of many of the songs is ironic, not at all what we'd expect.
It's remarkable the way Alfred and Hal found songs that are taken completely out of the context of their original composition but seem to have been written for our production. That's one of the many things that separates this show from other shows constructed using pre-existing music. This isn't a jukebox musical—given the vintage of the songs, this would have to be considered at least a Victrola musical [laughs]. These are mainly songs written by a theater composer for theatrical production, but they aren't shoehorned in here. And we're not doing just the famous songs; there are many lesser-known songs. Weill wrote so many different kinds of songs. "Buddy on the Night Shift" was written with Oscar Hammerstein II for a war bond rally. "It Never Was You" was written in French for a cabaret act or something. To me, hearing these songs in the context of this show makes it seems like a completely new creation. Sadly, it can't be considered a new score, but it has the freshness of feeling new.
The most extreme reworking of the material is when you sing "That's Him," in which Weill sings about how Lenya selects the men she has affairs with. It sure isn't the same as the song's original context—you know, Mary Martin singing about her beau in One Touch of Venus.
Yes, Mary Martin and I are often confused for each other [laughs].
It's a very painful moment for Weill in the show, very vulnerable.
The use of "That's Him" is the best example of that in the show. I perform it as a romantic reflection, and then add other levels of meaning in the context of our show. Weill is singing from a place of jealousy and recognizing that the person you love is in love with someone else— or at any rate is choosing someone else. It all gets very complicated very quickly for an actor, which makes the work exciting. Each song functions on a lot of different levels at once. Every time you perform this show, it's a big challenge and a big adventure.
It's chilling to read the original Weill-Lenya letters and then hear them in scenes in the show. The book Kurt Weill: A Life in Pictures and Documents has photos of Weill and Lenya, and it was remarkable to see Judith Dolan's costumes for specific moments in their lives.
Even some of the props are based on historical fact. When Weill and Lenya got married in the registrar's office, he brought along a bag of sardines. There's a picture of them and he has a bag of smelly fish under his arm. It's such a charming, telling image of the two of them and Judy [Dolan] and Hal and Alfred wanted recreate that. So I've got a bag of prop sardines. Other things are imagined or altered somewhat. In the end, you have to give the audience information, but you also have to tell the theatrical story you are telling. It's always a balancing act, doing a show based on historical characters. Hal and Alfred have been adamant about not wanting to do a bio-pic story.
I always want a character to progress from the beginning to end of the show. I don't want to play one feeling or idea through a whole night. It's the same with theater songs: Ideally in a song you're not the same at the end as you were in the beginning. For most pop writers, the song is about capturing a moment or a mood or an idea or an emotion. Pop writers generally don't develop the character of the singer over the song. The singer is the same at the end as at beginning. In the theater, the character generally comes to understand something in the course of the song. Traditionally a lot of theater songs serve some function—a plot point or comedy or character delineation.
It's been quite a year for you. Sweeney Todd, King Lear and now this show. Exhausting? Crazy? Fun?
All of the above. It's been completely thrilling. It's an ideal year, the kind I couldn't even dreamed of having when I was in school, wondering if I would ever get paid to do this. Each one of those projects is hugely satisfying in its own way. Sweeney Todd was a lifetime milestone—getting to play that character in that particular production. It was the first Broadway show I'd ever seen; I saw it when I visited New York when I was 18. Doing the role meant so much to me. Everyone in the cast was proud of the show before we even started performances, but then to have audiences embrace it so enthusiastically was exciting. The biggest surprise was to see how universally well received it was critically. That was very gratifying, and not something you can ever count on.
And after that, King Lear.
My dream when I graduated from college was to do Shakespeare at the Public Theater. I had done Shakespeare in regional theater, as well as new plays, early in my career, but not much since. I loved every single day of going to work on King Lear. I plan and hope to do more and more Shakespeare. Oskar Eustis is really bringing a fantastic new spirit to the Public. It feels like the Public seemed to be in Joe Papp's day— lively and forward-looking. I was thrilled to work on such a complicated, difficult play with someone like Kevin Kline, who was taking on a gargantuan role. The whole company was terrific, as was getting to work with [director] James Lapine. Here we were, two guys better known for musical forays, taking on Shakespeare. We could commiserate, and we could celebrate the ways it's so much easier not having to do songs—you just say Shakespeare's words.
When you started out, you weren't a musical-theater kind of guy.
After college, I had no plan or expectation that I would ever get to Broadway. I hadn't done musicals professionally. And I thought: I don't do musicals and I'm not British, so I'll never get to be on Broadway.
Your Broadway career hasn't been what most people think of standard musical-comedy fare.
To complete this year with a show that feels as much like a play with music as a musical is great. And there's something kind of perfect that I am winding up this year working with Hal Prince on a new show, having started the year with a show he directed originally. Our production of Sweeney Todd was indebted to Hal's landmark production, and there was a lot of respect for that original production among us. There was never the feeling that bunch of people was going to "fix" Sweeney Todd. We contended with the fact that there was the definitive original production, but that we had to do the show for today, with the tools we have. I think John Doyle re-translated it brilliantly. When we started staging the "Worst Pies in London" number, we thought, OK, we need a counter, we need a rolling pin, we need some dough. But nowhere in the lyric does it say that. We assumed all that because of what Hal and Angela [Lansbury] had done. We realized we could do ours with a cup and saucer. And in the end, I think we got rid of the saucer. So there's something perfect to bookending a year with another Hal Prince show.
Sweeney Todd, John Wilkes Booth. You've been playing a lot of scary guys.
Yeah, this is the first musical in several years that I've finished the night with no blood on my hands [laughs].
But you have also tackled a very different role—Hedwig, in John Cameron Mitchell's Hedwig and the Angry Inch. You looked great in a dress, by the way.
Thanks. My sister Marisa said my legs were better than hers. And that's something, because she danced with New York City Ballet for 10 years and did a bunch of Broadway shows.
John Cameron Mitchell called and asked if I wanted to take over from him. I had seen the show never thinking for a second that anybody but John could do it. It was so personal and idiosyncratic. John and I knew each other a little bit; he would hand me flyers for a drag act and I would hand him flyers for whatever band I had at the time. We both had a foot in two different worlds. The notion of doing a one-person show like Hedwig was incredibly daunting. Could I really pull off that outlandish a character? The idea made me nauseous, so I knew it was something I had to do. I always say yes to the things that scare me. To the surprise of lot of my friends and other people, I left a Broadway show to go downtown for fraction of the salary to smash tomatoes and wear a dress. But it was a liberating experience to do that character and be out there without a net.
You're the only musical-theater actor I know whose website links to the Stone Temple Pilots. Is it easy to go back and forth between rock and theater?
It's easy if you don't insist that you make a living at both of them. I'm equally passionate about music and theater. Acting is my day job for music, where I pretty much lose money. There wasn't really going to be an alternative to doing both. I wasn't going to let go of either one. But I never tried to pursue music as a career. It's something I do for myself and because I love it. Actually, I did a big tour with [rock icon] Bob Mould and got paid to do that. But for the most part the music I do is primarily for the satisfaction and the thrill of doing it. My musical tastes have always tended toward the underground and the alternative. I have recordings by groups that only 47 other people ever bought, and I've made friends with a lot of people in that world.
Your band Cerveris made its recording debut in 2004 with Dog Eared. Anything else in the works?
I have had another record ready to go for quite a while. I keep telling people it's coming, but I just haven't had the time and the wherewithal to manage that. I haven't played with the band since a benefit last August. Hopefully once we settle in here with LoveMusik, I'll get back to writing more and playing some more with my band. And there are other secret new projects that might see the light of day in the months ahead.
So: a Broadway premiere, an album in the works, the occasional downtown gig and secret new projects. You're not busy or anything.
Yeah, I'm pretty much a slacker.
See Michael Cerveris in LoveMusik at the Biltmore Theatre.