Amazing Journey


Life after rock 'n' roll
Chicago Tribune
September 3, 2004
By Chris Jones

What comes after Who and Hedwig? Sondheim, of course

Perhaps more than any actor of his generation, Michael Cerveris built his career by probing the edgy intersection between theater and rock music. He was the original Tommy in "The Who's Tommy" (the play). He was the original Hedwig in "Hedwig and the Angry Inch." He has his own rock band.

Yet Cerveris suddenly seems to be the premier go-to macho guy for shows by Stephen Sondheim, that most legitimate of legitimate theater composers. Cerveris won the Tony Award last June for his work on the Broadway revival of Sondheim's "Assassins." Just before that, he was in Gary Griffin's production of "A Little Night Music" at the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre. This time last year, he was doing Sondheim's "Passion" at Ravinia.

And Cerveris shows up at Ravinia again this weekend for yet another Sondheim turn: a concert performance of "Sunday in the Park With George." Audra McDonald and Patti LuPone co-star and Sondheim himself shows up on Saturday at 7 p.m. for a pre-show talk in the main pavilion.

So what gives? Do careers just take strange turns? Or did the fellow just grow up?

"I did become a kind of poster boy for rock musicals," Cerveris said in an interview at Ravinia last week. "But I think I've done the only rock musicals I would want to be in."

As Cerveris well knows, there just aren't all that many rock musicals that are, well, any good. What was he going to do? Star as Elvis in "All Shook Up"?

"I came to realize," Cerveris said, "that the kind of music I listen to and the world of the theater only converge in an off-Broadway, downtown kind of setting."

And those don't make you any money. Hence four Sondheim projects in a year. The Ravinia stand, of course, lasts only for a weekend. "People know that it gets thrown together in a Mickey [Rooney] and Judy [Garland] kind of way," Cerveris said. "So it feels very much like a big party to celebrate the piece."

Cerveris has an interesting background: He grew up in West Virginia but attended the Phillips Exeter prep school and studied classical voice at Yale. His first break was a gig as an English guitar student on the campy TV series "Fame."

But it was "Tommy" that made his name familiar. "I backed into the role," Cerveris said. "Just happened to audition on a lunch break from doing `Richard II' at the Mark Taper Forum."

But now Cerveris is tapped as a Sondheim guy. Following that Tony last June, Cerveris now has a different level of clout in New York, although he says that once he got rid of the moustache he grew for the show, people no longer stopped him on the street to offer congratulations.

"Assassins" ran for less than three months despite the critical acclaim. "People who came loved it, even if they were uncertain at first," Cerveris said. "But there were not enough of them who could be persuaded to come in the first place."

And so Cerveris once again is available and interested in Chicago. He says he's in the mood not so much for rock or more Sondheim but classical theater. Discussions are taking place with Barbara Gaines of the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre about a nice juicy role with no singing whatsoever.

`Sunday in the Park With George'

When: Friday-Sunday (Saturday pre-show Sondheim talk)

Where: Ravinia, 200-231 Ravinia Park Rd., Highland Park

Price: $10-$95; 847-266-5100,

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