Amazing Journey

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Actor moonlights as indie-rock artist

The Journal
August 16, 2002
By Emily Cary

Michael Cerveris credits his incredibly broad background to the fact that nobody told him at a critical age that he had to decide what he was going to be. He's a veteran of the title characters in Pete Townshend's ``The Who's Tommy'' and ``Hedwig and the Angry Inch'' both here and abroad, he starred in ``Titanic'' on Broadway; performed on off-Broadway and regional stages as Shakespeare's Romeo and Mercutio, Dickens' Puck (sic --ed.) and other distinctive literary characters; made a splash in television and film in both starring roles and guest appearances; and enjoys a solo career as a singer/guitarist/songwriter/recording artist who often finds himself in the company of Boy George, the Stone Temple Pilots and a host of indie-rock acts.

This summer, he has been emoting as Giorgio in ``Passion,'' one of the rotating musicals celebrating Stephen Sondheim on the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater stage. To add a bit of variety to his life, he will appear with his band on the Millennium Stage next Sunday, one of five artists from the Sondheim Celebration who will present solo concerts that showcase their diversity.

``The Kennedy Center audience will see an entirely different side to me than they see in `Passion' - one as important to me as the one on display at the Eisenhower Theater,'' he said. ``Still, there are common threads in what I do because I have a real personal investment in both.
``I've played with a lot of different people and don't sit still. I never wanted the vanity of being a solo songwriter, but for this appearance, I'll perform songs from my latest solo project, `hellbaby.' They're dark and melancholy, pretty melodic and guitar-based with some electronic loops. It's experimental and contemporary - the most personal music I've written based on what I was feeling at the time.''

Cerveris will be joined by London drummer Alex Lutes, New York bassist and Baltimore native Jeremy Chatzky and ``Passion'' co-star Tracy Lynn Olivera on keyboard and backing vocals. There may even be surprise visits by Tony Award-winning cast members Judy Kuhn, who plays Fosca, and Rebecca Luker, who plays Clara.

Cerveris dedicates his performance to his father, Michael, the spark behind his diverse interests.
``I was born in Bethesda Naval Hospital when my dad was stationed in Washington in the Navy, but I grew up in Huntington, West.Virginia.,'' he said. ``My dad was a classical pianist and music educator at universities around the country, so he set pretty high standards for me. ``He taught inter-disciplinary arts, no jazz, rock or pop music, but he liked genre-breaking artists like [French composer] Erik Satie, and that's where I got my appreciation for alternative music." ``He introduced me to Sondheim's music and gave the first amateur production of `A Little Night Music' when the rights became available. When he took me to `Sweeney Todd,' my first Broadway show, I was so impressed that I went back seven more times.''

His fascination with Sondheim persisted, taking Cerveris to London, a city that continues to intrigue him. ``Like a lot of teenage rock fans at the time, I wanted to be an English kid,'' he said. ``In 1977, during high school, I went there on a theater tour and fell in love with it. Later I went back and did a theater place and played guitar and kept getting jobs there. I was there when punk was starting to happen.''

Cerveris went on to make his mark in Pete Townshend's ground-breaking ``The Who's Tommy.'' He won the role after auditioning with his guitar for a rock show during a lunch break while performing in a production of ``Richard II'' in Los Angeles. He played David Bowie's ``Young Americans,'' which he has considered his lucky song ever since.

The Bowie link persisted when Cerveris landed the lead in ``Hedwig and the Angry Inch,'' co-produced by Bowie in Los Angeles. The link resurfaced not long ago when Cerveris and drummer Alex Lutes attended a performance of the Breeders in London, one of the earliest alternative-rock bands. ``They recently came back together after being around for some time,'' he said. ``We were amazed to hear Kim Deal, the main girl, remark from the stage that they have the tape of `Hedwig' and listen to it non-stop on their tour bus. I'd never met them, so afterward I went backstage and told them I had originated `Hedwig.' They said, `You're kidding!' That was all they wanted to talk about, even though I went as a fan of the Breeders.'' That chance meeting led to another of Cerveris' serendipitous experiences, singing with the Breeders at a recent show at Washington's Nation.

Looking back, he regards ``Tommy'' and ``Hedwig'' as two of the best rock musicals ever created. Because no subsequent offers have tempted him to return to the Broadway musical format, he has focused on traditional theater, film and television.

``I don't like repeating myself, so in the back of my mind I thought that the only exception would be a Sondheim musical,'' he said. ``When this celebration was first planned and I was approached, I was in `American Embassy' on Fox network, and it looked like it would be picked up for the next season and we'd be going back to London to shoot. But as it turned out, it wasn't renewed and I was available. It was too great an opportunity to pass on.

``Even though it's a very exhausting role and difficult to perform, the experience of working with director Eric Schaeffer has been great. I'd go anywhere to work with him. Now that we've had a taste of it, Rebecca, Judy and I would love to do the show again in New York or London in a small place.''

The combination of starring in ``Passion'' and playing his own music on the Millennium Stage gives Cerveris just one more reason to rejoice in ``the kind of career I always dreamed of, but never could tell anyone because it didn't make sense,'' he said.

Michael Cerveris appears at 6 p.m. Sunday on the Millennium Stage, Kennedy Center, Washington. Admission is free. Call (202) 467-4600.


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