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2012
SUNDAY, JUNE 10, 2012
Live at Beacon Theater

Evita Star Michael Cerveris on Sweeney, Tommy and His Most Difficult Role Ever

Evita Star Michael Cerveris on Sweeney, Tommy and His Most Difficult Role Ever
Michael Cerveris
Two Sondheim musicals make Michael Cerveris' Role Call list.

With a resume packed with Tony-caliber work (three nominations; one win) in a list of distinctive musicals and classic plays, Michael Cerveris has a hard time singling out six roles to spotlight for Broadway.com. Should he mention Kurt Weill in LoveMusik? What about King Lear, in which he stole the show as Kent? And let’s not forget his current star turn as Juan Peron in Evita, which he calls “the biggest and most exciting grand-scale musical I’ve ever been part of.” In the end, Cerveris chose to chat about his Broadway debut as the pinball wizard in Tommy, a pair of Sondheim shows, two roles that required physical transformations and, most surprisingly, a production many would consider the least successful of his celebrated 20-year career.

Role That Was the Biggest Surprise
“Everything about Tommy [1993; Best Featured Actor Tony nomination] was unexpected and new. It was the Broadway debut of almost all of us: Sherie Rene Scott, Norm Lewis, Alice Ripley. [Director] Des McAnuff was not a Broadway insider at that point. We were total underdogs, a scrappy bunch of kids bringing a rock opera by the Who to Broadway at a time when Rent wasn’t even a thought in Jonathan Larson’s mind. I think Tommy really changed the landscape of Broadway. [Before previews began] Pete Townshend brought me over to London to hang out. He said, ‘I can’t teach you how to act, but I can teach you what it’s like to be a rock star.’”

Role I’d Like To Do Again
“I would love to play [transsexual punk rocker] Hedwig in Hedwig and the Angry Inch [1998] again. I had the most pure, unadulterated fun in that show, and it drew on everything I had, physically and emotionally. The role combined the rock-and-roll side of my life and the theatrical side in a way that was authentic on both counts. It was also one of the most terrifying things I’d ever done. The character had a fearlessness and bravery, despite all the ways she was not at home in her body or her environment. She never gave up and was constantly searching for completeness within herself. I was wrung out by the end of every show, but I couldn’t wait to do it the next night.”

Role I’d Like to be Remembered For
“Everything came together in Sweeney Todd [2005; Best Actor Tony nomination]. The public embraced it; the critics and other theater artists embraced it. Sweeney has always been, for me, the standard for what music theater can and should be. The original production was the first Broadway show I ever saw—and I saw it seven times! It made me think there might be a place for someone like me, who was not a typical musical theater performer. At its core, it’s a tragedy about a man so blinded by loss that he can’t see what’s in front of him. I tend to play characters who are troubled or dark, but I try to find the humanity in them. John Wilkes Booth in Assassins [2004; Tony winner for Best Featured Actor] was another one. We don’t need to applaud their methods, but we can find out what they believe.”

Role That Was Least Like Me
“Wilson Mizner in [Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s] Road Show [2008] was a total wheeler-dealer and con man—everybody’s friend, always the center of attention—and I am not like that. I constantly second-guess myself, and I have never been a good strategist. It was the thrill of a lifetime for Alex [Gemignani, as Addison Mizner] and me to be the first people to sing ‘Brotherly Love,’ a song Sondheim wrote with our voices in mind. Although the show had been through several versions, it felt like we were doing something new. Steve and John said at the end that we gave them back the show they had wanted to write in the first place, which is the thing I’m most proud of.”

Role I Wish More People Had Seen
“The movie Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant [2009] was a terrific experience. It was based on a series of young adult books about a traveling freak show run by a bunch of vampires, and I played the villain, Mr. Tiny, in a huge fat suit; I looked like I weighed 400 pounds. My character could cross between life and death and take the souls of vampires and turn them into his minions. We got to shoot in New Orleans, which I loved, with terrific actors like John C. Reilly and Salma Hayek. The plan was to do three movies, but the first one didn’t perform well enough. It was an oversized character in every way, and I wish I could have developed it more.”

Role That Was the Most Challenging
“An actor’s career is not just the high points: You learn just as much from the challenges, and Hedda Gabler [2009] was a really difficult experience. The character [Hedda’s husband, Jorgen Tesman] was one that a lot of people seemed to feel I wasn’t best suited to play, but Ian Rickson’s production was vital and interesting and deserved more respect than it received. It takes courage for a company to perform every night after being kicked in the teeth [by critics]. The fact that we did it with such dignity and fortitude impressed me about everybody in that production, and audiences who did see it gave us standing ovations. Acting with Mary Louise Parker was incredibly exciting and unpredictable. I had the best seat in the house for her performance, and we had a terrific working relationship.”