| The Mysterious
Contradiction: Michael Cerveris and his Passion for Both Rock and Theatre"
By Matthew Jellison
The haunting screech of Michael Cerveris' voice pours through the microphone and echoes down the halls of the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., as he sings Joy Division's "Love Will Tear Us Apart" at a free concert on the Millennium Stage. He is performing rock music to a crowd of friends and supporters not very familiar with the genre, but eager to learn. Only a day before, Cerveris was down the hall in the Eisenhower theatre performing something this crowd is much more familiar with: The lead role of Georgio in Stephen Sondheim's dark, but brilliant musical Passion.
Michael's career has been a juxtaposition of two passions: Rock n' roll, and theatre. His career has brought him from rock bands (He's been performing in them since junior high school.), to rock musicals (He was the title character in both The Who's Tommy on Broadway and Hedwig and the Angry Inch. ), and beyond.
At first glance, Michael Cerveris is a mysterious contradiction. He is neatly dressed in a fleece and blue jeans. His voice is so proper that he could be mistaken for being British. It isn't until you look at his face that you realize he's a rock guy. His wide eyes are as hollow, dark, and beckoning as the up-and-coming indie rocker Conor Oberst, and his bald head brings to mind an image of Billy Corgan, the former lead singer of the nineties alternative rock band, The Smashing Pumpkins. This same contradiction is apparent of Cerveris' apartment. His collection of compact discs and records range from The Flamlng Lips to Stephen Sondheim. There is a poster on his wall of last year's Strokes/Guided By Voices concert at the Apollo theatre, as well as a poster of the Broadway show Titanic (in which Michael also starred). Michael's inspirations range from Shakespeare to Sheppard; from Bach to Greenday; from Pacino to Malcovich. His cold look forces him to come off as an intellect, but the care he has for his dog Gibson proves that he is warm-hearted. "
Michael discovered rock music first. Michael was raised in West Virginia. "This was pre-MTV days so you didn't have as much access to music and media." says Michael. "Stuff just got to West Virginia later than other places. The sixties kind of got there sometime in the late seventies," Cerveris jokes. Missing out on bands more influential to the history of rock n' roll. like the Velvet Underground and The Who, Michael got into more mid-west rock. He enjoyed Deep Purple and KISS, as well as progressive rock bands, "because they had violins and used strings and stuff like that and I could go to my dad and say, 'see, they are making real music. ' And he wasn't convinced. "
Michael's father was a University teacher. He taught classical music. Therefore, Michael's love of rock n' roll was not the most encouraged passion at home. When his father made him take up an instrument. Michael first started playing the violin. but then switched to guitar. "So, I was playing in bands from the time I was in 8th or 9th grade and it just always appealed to me. Rock music always appealed to me." Michael's first band was Ukaiah. It was formed in junior high, when Michael and his friends talked the school into creating a rock band class. "Basically, just once or twice a week, we would go into the music room with instruments that the school bought for us and just make noise."
After playing with Ukaiah in junior high, and other bands during high school, Michael attended Yale University , which he calls a "really quirky , sort of rag-tag kind of place. There were really bright, really interesting people who were a little left of normal. " Though Michael played some music with friends for fun, he wasn't playing much music at the time. "I had sort of decided that I had a very firm idea of what a musician is from watching my dad. Someone who would call tbemselves a musician would have to know the theory and would have to know just a lot about music and have studied and trained. ..and I had not done that. I didn't read music. I didn't do any of that."
After college, Michael came to New York, with the decision that he would try his luck (and talent) as an actor. He was cast in the television series Fame as an English guitar student. ' The series was filmed in L.A., a place where "you are what you play." Cerveris started going to clubs and listening to a lot of English indie rock. "What I started to think was, well, I may not be the best songwriter in the world. I may not be the best guitar player, but I can at least do what these guys are doing and they've got record deals, so why not. And that's when I started finishing songs I wrote and trying to put bands together."
It was tough to start a band as his acting career propelled. "The good thing about that is that I haven't had to do anything other than what I want to do with music because I'm not doing it to make money. If I write songs that aren't going to be commercially successful, it doesn't matter."
While doing Tommy on Broadway, Michael perfonned at many benefits and concerts. After assembling a band of friends and cast members for a concert, Cerveris decided to keep these friends together in order to form an alternative band, which he called "lame" (spelled with a lower case "L "). "lame" played regularly at a lower East side coffee house called Sin-E (where famous nineties rocker Jeff Buckley recorded his first EP). After "lame," Michael did a tour playing guitar for Bob Mould, the indie rock legend from the eighties underground band, Husker Du" I had so much fun doing that, cause he'd been a hero of mine growing up. So, getting the chance just to play that stuff and finally learning to work and live just as a musician, and do a tour where other people set up your amps was real exciting to me." In England, Michael formed a rock band, Retriever, with an ever-changing group of friends. "Retriever was always me, but I didn't want it to go under my name. We played a bunch of shows. "
In the fall, he will be finally be releasing his own album. He was going to call his music project "hellbaby" (the "H" is also lowercase). However, he has been recently persuaded to record under his own name. "I think I was just afraid of the whole ego-ness...and also that just whole singer-songwriter kind of thing... It is a more of a band kind of thing, sonically. ..The other thing was that I didn't want it associated with the theatrical stuff because there is a lot of prejudice against actors trying to be musicians."
Michael Cerveris' love of rock music led to his love of musical theatre. Michael bought the original concept album for Jesus Christ Superstar (It was an album before a musical. ), because Ian Gillan, the lead singer for Deep Purple, sang Jesus' part on it. Through this rock album, he discovered a whole new world called musical theatre. "In a way, those two have been linked in my mind for almost as long as I've been listening to music. I would go see these gigs and really the best gigs I saw were these dramatic events even if there was no set, no concept. Just if the singer had a dramatic flair it felt like it was a performance and even bands like Sex Pistols and Iggy Pop, they were actors as much as they were just singers. They had a whole persona and a whole performance going on. And the best theatre that I saw, even if it was straight drama, was the stuff that was rock n' roll theatre. Even if there was music or not. It just sort of had the same spirit of rock. So, I always was interested in having the two put together. I was always looking for good examples of how to do it and there just aren't that many ."
He found one with Tommy. "Tommy was the dream way for everything to happen," says Cerveris. The play, which brought the famous Who album and film to the stage, began at the La Jolla playhouse in California. "The first day of work we read through the script and at the end of the reading I wrote down on the front of that script, 'this is it. ' And I just sort of knew from that moment that this was really going to be something special. " It sure was something special. Tommy went to Broadway and Cerveris was nominated for a Tony award for best actor in 1993. However, before he went to Broadway, he had to audition for the role again. "My audition was a mess. ..I was sick and lost my voice and just completely blew the audition. It was probably the worst audition I've ever given." A few days later, Des McAnuff, the director, and Pete Townshend took Michael out to dinner. "[pete] said 'you know, we saw hundreds of people for this part. ..and I think it's really fitting that the single worst audition of the whole process is the guy who we're going to have play the part.'I somehow took comfort in the perversity of that."
After doing Tommy in Germany, Michael came home to New York. He told his agents that he didn't want to do another musical, but when an audition came up for the role of Mr.Andrews, the shipbuilder of the Titanic, in the new musical that was to tell the story of the ill- fated voyage, he pounced on the opportunity .The entire idea of a musical about the great ship that sank appealed to Michael because it was such a "bizarre" concept for a Broadway musical. He got the job as the lead role in the play, which won the Tony award for best musical in 1997.
When Michael was planning to leave Titanic for his tour with Bob Mould, another offer he couldn't refuse came up. One evening, Michael saw the Broadway musical Rent. He felt that though the music was pretty good, the attempted combination of rock and theatre was awkward and forced. "Why is it so hard to combine rock n' roll and theatre without selling out one or the other?" The next night his question was answered when he saw Hedwig and the Angry Inch, an off-the-wall musical about a transsexual rocker from Berlin. "I had known John [Cameron Mitchell, the star and creator of the show] for a while. We had been doing a workshop of this musical they were writing about Queen. John and I became the bad kids in the class, cutting up and not paying attention." A few months after he saw Hedwig, Michael got a call from John, who said that he was taking time off from the show. John asked Michael to step in. "I connected with the story and the character and with the attitude and the music so personally that it was really easy to make it fit and make sense. With that huge character protecting you, you can say anything at all. I used to chase people into the bathroom during the show sometimes. I got away with anything dressed like I was. Anything could happen and often did. I got food poisoning once and I had to go to the bathroom. ..and it was just part of the show. Whatever life threw at us became part of the show that night and I loved that about it. " Michael followed his New York run by playing Hedwig in L.A. and London on and off for two years.
Then came Passion at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., just this past summer. Again, he came back from Europe, this time from England after working on a television show, and told his agents that he did not want to do another musical. "[I told them], 'The only kind of musical I'd be interested in would be a Stephen Sondheim musical that he's actually involved in." A few months later, he was given the opportunity to do this kind of musical. Passion was part of a Sondheim celebration at the Kennedy Center that included eight other works by the celebrated composer. "Passion was the hardest music I've ever had to learn. As I said before I always had this kind of inferiority complex where music is concerned and I'm not really fully trained." Because ofhis "inferiority complex," Michael, and his co-stars Rebecca Luker and Judy Kuhn, decided that they must learn every little part of the music perfectly. When Sondheim saw it, he told the leads, "You guys have been so meticulous about learning this music and every little nuance of it. Now you should just relax about it and sing it and let it flow and not worry so much about it. "
Michael's acting career has not only been made up of musical theatre. He recently appeared as the gay postal worker who befriends Julia Roberts and falls in love with James Gandolfini in The Mexican. He has also worked on Sam Shepard's Tooth of Crime, "this sort of rock n' roll, science fiction. ..thing" in Hartford, Connecticut. Cerveris has done a lot of Shakespeare. "Shakespeare for me is like doing Sondheim in musicals. It's just like the material you have to work with is so rich and is such a challenge and there's so much to sink your teeth into that it's just a work out."
In his spare time, Michael goes to the movies, listens to music, plays guitar, and watches British comedy. Sometimes he will rent a car and take his dog Gibson out to the woods somewhere, just to get out of the city .Michael goes to see a lot of bands, sometimes every night of the week.
Now that he's back from Washington, he is moving from one passion to the next: the play he just finished to the music he's about to record. Cerveris feels his influences seep into his music. "When I listen to my songs I hear all these different influences of different people." One song he's written, he feels sounds exactly like a Sonic Youth song. Ironically, Sonic Youth's drummer, Steve Shelley, will be recording with Cerveris. When Shelley heard the song, he thought it sounded like a totally different band's music.
Maybe one day, Cerveris' own music will inspire some new rocker or one of his performances will inspire a young actor. Michael has done more in his lifetime in two professions than many people do in one. His work, his life, his art are all defined by the intermingling of these two passions. Michael Cerveris is, in the best way possible, a mysterious contradiction.
Amazing Journey - Official Web Archive for Michael Cerveris
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