Amazing Journey

A musician's double life

The Chicago Tribune
By Anne Taubeneck

January 13, 2004

In the men's dressing room at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Michael Cerveris is talking about his double life.

An actor and burgeoning Stephen Sondheim specialist (he'll open in "Assassins" on Broadway in March), Cerveris is also an indie rocker who has toured with punk icon Bob Mould and performed with Pete Townshend, whom he met while starring in The Who's "Tommy" on Broadway. He'll strap on his acoustic guitar tonight for a solo gig at Schubas.

His double-edged talent confuses his friends from both sides, he says in the dressing room before slipping into the blue military tunic he wears as Count Carl-Magnus in Sondheim's "A Little Night Music." "My theater friends can't understand hanging out in dark, smelly rock bars, and my rock friends can't understand dressing up in a funny jacket and a little fake moustache."

The first time I saw Cerveris, he was wearing glittering red lipstick and a blond wig in "Hedwig and the Angry Inch," the long-running show about a German transvestite rock diva -- an impressive stretch for a straight guy. It was Valentine's Day, 1999, at New York's seedy Jane Street Theatre, in an ancient functioning hotel that housed surviving members of the Titanic's crew in 1912.

The day I invade Cerveris' Chicago Shakespeare space is a two-show Saturday -- a 10-hour workday for the "Night Music" cast that starts at 1 p.m. Cerveris, a regional theater veteran who lives in Manhattan, arrives with his black-and-white lop-eared mutt, Gibson ("named for a guitar -- Rickenbacker was too long"), and escorts her through the lobby to director Gary Griffin's office. She stretches out under a desk.

On the way to a vocal warm-up with music director Thomas Murray, Cerveris squeezes voluptuous Londoner Samantha Spiro, who plays his wife Charlotte. "Who won the Arsenal game?" he asks, eager for news about the English soccer team they revere. (Cerveris became a fan while doing "Hedwig" in the West End.) "I think they're on the telly tomorrow -- against Leeds," she says. Their mutual team devotion, Cerveris teases, "works out well for the work onstage."

With Murray at the piano, "Night Music" cast members pace the rehearsal room, reaching operatic resonance. Cerveris, who has a huge baritone voice, is Yale-trained as an actor and singer with notes in his genes. (His father is a retired music professor and classical pianist.) By doing "Tommy" and "Hedwig," Cerveris says later, he became "sort of the poster boy" for the rock-musical, and after starring in "the two best examples of the art form, I really wasn't interested in doing anything less."

Mastering Sondheim

The 43-year-old performer, who has tattoos on each wrist, a shaved head and three hoop earrings in his right ear, set his sights on Sondheim. "He is the most challenging composer. His music is dense and complicated, and lyrically, from an acting standpoint, there is so much going on."

When he was finally cast in one of Sondheim's most difficult musicals, "Passion," which played in Washington in the summer of 2002 and ran last August at Ravinia, he was terrified of the musical's "really dissonant harmonies" and "strange time signatures." "I thought, there is no way I'm going to learn all these notes, really, exactly, correctly." During rehearsals, he says, he worked himself "to death."

Today, however, he seems disarmingly relaxed. "I'm not one of those actors who has to sit in a dark corner for 10 minutes before I go on."

He pokes at a chamomile teabag and tosses out an electricity metaphor. Acting, he says, is like a lamp. "When you plug it in, it immediately goes on." Demonstrating the electrical current method, he chats offhandedly up to a moment before an Act One cue, stiffens -- like a panther ready to pounce -- before bursting through the theater lobby's double doors, then bellows a line and sweeps down to the stage, cape flying.

Back in the green room, he sinks into a couch and talks about his theatrical career's odd confluence of rock and Sondheim. "My definition of rock 'n' roll is something full of passion and energy that may or may not have a technical perfection to it, but is very immediate and visceral and genre-smashing and boundary-expanding, and I find that in all kinds of things. To me, Sondheim has a rock 'n' roll element to him, in terms of being very personal, idiosyncratic and adventurous."

But doing any show eight times a week -- an actor's version of "Groundhog Day" -- "is really kind of soul-crushing over time," he says, and that's where rock comes in. "The chances to stand on stage and sing and play as me -- that feels like freedom."

Between shows, over chicken pot pie at a Navy Pier restaurant, I tell him that one intimate cut on his new album, "Dog Eared" (due out Feb. 24), reminds me of Elliott Smith, the introspective indie rocker who died last October. Smith turns out to be a shared passion. "I like to give a sense of a voice that comes from inside the listener's head," he says. "Elliott Smith draws you in that way. It's like he is singing what you are thinking and feeling."

Cerveris says he gets more nervous in the recording studio than onstage. "It feels so exposed. I find it harder to be on pitch in the studio in an unadorned way."

Kudos to the cast

After dinner, he heads back to the dressing room to press on his mustache for the 8 o'clock curtain. By 10:45, the second show is over. "Bravo, everyone," says Murray over the backstage intercom, but no one seems to notice. Some cast members are already in sweats, ready to scurry out the door.

I meet Cerveris in a hallway after catching the end of the show from out front. "You missed the excitement," he says. The prop girl didn't have his pistol for the Russian Roulette scene. Searching frantically, he spied it, grabbed it and dashed, nearly missing his entrance. "I was afraid I was going to have to go on with my, uh, poison boot."

He has peeled off his mustache and shed his military tunic. Without jacket and cape, he seems smaller than he appears onstage. His stiff collar has flapped open. In 14 hours, he'll be back, ready to start again.


Michael Cerveris appears at 8 p.m. Tuesday at Schubas, 3159 N. Southport Ave.,773-525-2508. Admission: $6.

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