When a stage role comes along that is not merely difficult but has the potential to sink a show, producers turn to one man: Tony winner and four-time nominee Michael Cerveris. Smart and friendly in real life, this Yale grad doesn’t hesitate to play villains and control freaks of all kinds, in both plays and musicals. Cerveris is currently winning acclaim as closeted father of three Bruce Bechdel in Fun Home, the moving musical adaptation of Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir. In other hands, this funeral home director, high school teacher and borderline pedophile could be unwatchable, but Cerveris makes us understand why Alison (played by three actresses of different ages) was obsessed with her father. The actor chatted with Broadway.com on his 53rd birthday (“my present is doing this show”) about Fun Home, Evita, his new country music CD and more.
Fun Home is such an unusual musical. Did you feel from the beginning that it was going to work on stage?
No, I don’t think any of us were certain. We knew that what we were trying to do was really interesting and valid, but we had no expectations about how it would be received. Before I got involved, [director] Sam [Gold], [composer] Jeanine [Tesori] and [librettist/lyricist] Lisa [Kron] went through a lot of versions involving projections and images from the graphic novel, but at some point, they realized that trying to re-create the book on stage was not going to work. The process became figuring out the theatrical equivalent of the book. The subject matter is not the easiest sell, and I’ve been in shows in that very theater [at the Public] that I expected to get a great reception, and then they didn’t. It still surprises and disappoints me that people weren’t ready for [Sondheim’s] Road Show to be seen more widely.
Is Fun Home going to move to Broadway?
Who knows? People have been talking about it. I can see arguments for it, and also against it. It’s a very particular kind of show. Next to Normal is the example people cling to when they talk about whether this could find a broader commercial audience. I actually think our play is more universal. The book is Alison [Bechdel’s] perspective and speaks beautifully about a world view that hasn’t been part of musical theater before. But Sam, Jeanine and Lisa made it a story that people from all walks of can find something to connect to. Anybody who has had parents or had children, who has fallen in love for the first time and tried to figure out who they are, can connect to this.
What’s your view of Bruce Bechdel?
I’ve tried not to sit in judgment of him. An actor’s job is to represent his character’s point of view, and that’s even more necessary than usual with this character because there are so many negative things about him. I didn’t know the man. We have Alison’s version of him, but to this day I think he remains a mystery to her. I feel a lot of sympathy for what I imagine to be the inner turmoil he was struggling with, living a life that wasn’t entirely true to himself and being unable to express his love for his family or for the people he wanted to love. That must have been a horrible way to live.
You have a gift for showing the complexity in unlikeable characters.
I do play a lot of very dark, troubled people, and I try to make some kind of argument for their humanity—and for us recognize something of ourselves in them. Everybody thinks they have good reasons for doing what they do, and in that way, we’re not as different from the Sweeney Todds and the John Wilkes Booths and the Bruce Bechdels as we would like to flatter ourselves we are. By connecting with the humanity in people who frighten us or repel us, ideally it makes us more compassionate.
Are you enjoying working with so many women on this show?
It’s really wild! It is a very, very estrogen-centric world. Even our running crew is more female than male. There are women everywhere you look, and it’s fantastic. I grew up with a mom and sisters, and I would say that my experience at Fun Home has confirmed more than ever that it’s time for a female President [laughs].
You’ve got an album [North of Houston] coming out with your country band, Loose Cattle. Do you enjoy pursuing a different style of music when you’re not on stage?
Well, I’ve always had a parallel life as a musician. I was the rock musical poster boy after Tommy, and I’ve had a lot of bands. When I went to New Orleans for work a few years ago [on TV’s Treme], I began reconnecting with my southern roots. I grew up in West Virginia as a rock-and-roll kid, but I found myself gravitating to the Appalachian and country music that surrounded me when I was young. We started [Loose Cattle] playing with friends in my living room, purely for fun. Then we realized that with a little effort, we could be really good too. It’s a great balance for me, but I know it confuses people because it’s so different from what I do on stage. Hopefully there’s a common thread in storytelling and expecting the unexpected—which could be the subtitle of my whole career!
How would you sum up your experience playing Juan Peron in Evita?
Evita was like a thrilling, Technicolor big-screen adventure. I went into it primarily because I wanted to work with [director] Michael Grandage, but I became so invested in every aspect of it. I gained a new respect for what Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice had written—how remarkably constructed that musical is—and I had the most fantastic time with my colleagues. Elena Roger is one of the most extraordinary singing actresses who’s been on the Broadway stage, and I think she was incredibly underappreciated. And Ricky Martin has such a wonderful spirit and presence and energy. It was amazing being around that level of stardom and excitement, especially when it’s attached to someone so generous and down-to-earth.
So, there was no awkwardness when you were the only cast member who got a Tony nomination?
Oh no, everybody in the company was happy. If anything, I was frustrated and disappointed because I felt like my colleagues deserved recognition that they didn’t get. But I made sure they were aware of how much I appreciated them.
Let’s talk wigs. You’ve worn them in your last three shows [Evita, Nikolai and the Others as George Balanchine, and Fun Home]. Do you have much input in how they look?
Oh yes, I request that Paul Huntley make my wigs because we have a long history. He made the first wig I ever wore in a show, in Tooth of Crime at Hartford Stage decades ago, and he is brilliant. Richard Mawbey’s wig for Evita was fantastic, too, and very true to the character; Peron’s hair looked like it was fake to begin with. The highest compliment is when people say, ‘I didn’t realize that was you for the first 10 minutes.’ When I disappear into the character, I feel like I’ve done my job, and the wig is a big part of that.
Are you excited about the Titanic reunion concert that's coming up in February?
I can’t wait. We had hoped to do it for the show’s 15th anniversary and the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, but that fell through at the last minute. Having so much of the original company together [including Victoria Clark, David Garrison, Brian d’Arcy James and Martin Moran] will be a delight, but most of all, I hope it rekindles an interest in Maury Yeston’s gorgeous score. It hasn’t be revived and performed that much, and it will be great if the concert introduces young people to a score that they somehow missed along the way.
Any advice to young actors who want to jump back and forth between plays and musicals, as you have?
It’s not a brick wall between the worlds of musical theater and dramatic theater, but sometimes people are skeptical about actors who try to cross that border. You just have to ignore that, acquire the skills needed to establish credibility in both worlds and resist the temptation to become comfortable on one side or the other. I went from working with an international pop star in Evita to being one of 18 actors in [Nikolai and the Others] a play about Russian artists in the ’40s. Most people would want to follow up Evita with another flashy, visible thing. But the excitement of doing a new Richard Nelson play at Lincoln Center was, in its own way, equally thrilling to me.
And then came Fun Home.
Again, when I took this job, there was no promise it would be successful. But here we are, with a play that has been embraced at a particular moment in time. The thing that’s so wonderful is the way that audiences are taking it personally. It feels like more than a job—it feels like something vital and meaningful.
See Michael Cerveris in Fun Home at the Public Theater.