BWW Interview: Michael Cerveris Reveals All on NINE LIVES Musical, His New Home in New Orleans & More!
Tony Award-winner Michael Cerveris and producing partners Rick Duplantier and Roxy Bergeron present NINE LIVES: A Musical Witness of New Orleans at Le Petite Theatre (616 Saint Peter St, New Orleans) for three performances only, tonight through Friday, August 27, 28 and 29th.
NINE LIVES: A Musical Witness of New Orleans depicts the personal stories of a diverse selection of New Orleans across the forty years between Hurricanes Betsy and Katrina. Based on the Dan Baum book Nine Lives, the musical is adapted with music and lyrics by Paul Sanchez and Colman deKay, additional lyrics by Michael Cerveris, book by Kimberly Kaye and directed by Jim Fitzmorris.
This 17 person cast features Tony Award-winner Michael Cerveris, New Orleans natives TV and film actor Bryan Batt, former Cowboy Mouth member Paul Sanchez and trumpeter Shamarr Allen who recently debuted in the James Brownbiopic Get On Up, alongside popular singers George Sanchez, Jesse Moore, Robin Barnes, Vance Vaucresson, Alex McMurray, Debbie Davis, John Michael Haas, Ashley RoseBailey, Tara Brewer, Erica Falls, Bill Malchow, Craig Klein and Sam Craft with musical direction by Matt Perrine.
Cerveris took the time to chat with BroadwayWorld about the new project earlier this week, and you can check out the full interview below!
How did you become involved with this show?
I came down here to work on a film, CIRQUE DU FREAK, in 2007. While I was working on that and falling in love with the city I was introduced to Paul Sanchez. I had been to see him play- he happened to be opening for another artist that I went to see at House of Blues and I loved his songs. I actually was talking about it back on the set and my dresser said, "Oh, well his wife, Shelly, is working on the movie." And she said she'd tell her that I enjoyed Paul's music. Then Shelly said that Paul loved to have singers come and play with him and that he was playing tonight at this club. I'm generally not the kind of guy who just sits in like that, I'm honestly too shy most of the time, but in New Orleans I find myself doing lots of things that I'm normally too shy to do. So I did! That's how I met him initially - he gave me my first performing opportunity on stage in New Orleans and we got to be quick and close friends.
Then at a certain point, he came to me and said that he was writing this bunch of songs and recording them and wanted to know if I would do this one role of JoAnn in the demo. He said, "I have to warn you that the character is transgender and began life as John Guidos." Then I said, "Well A., I've read the book that you're talking about, and secondly, clearly you aren't familiar with my work, because it won't be my first time in a dress...professionally." [Laughs] So we did the recordings of all the songs he had written with this all-star cast of New Orleans musicians and it was a tremendous achievement. It provided work for literally over 100 musicians and made this beautiful document of these stories and songs.
This whole project originated for Paul when Colman deKay, a screenwriter friend, suggested that he write these songs. At the time, he thought he was still a little too close to Katrina and wasn't sure if he was ready. He finally did and said, "You're right, we have to do this."
And how did it progress from there?
So now we had this great song-cycle recorded and he said "We'd love to turn this into a stage piece. I'm a singer-songwriter, but I don't really know how to do that. Can you help me?" So that's when I became involved. We call it a producer because that's the closest description of what I've been doing, but really I've just been trying to facilitate making this happen. I'm more of a producer in the old Hal Prince-mold. I'm a creative matchmaker. So I'm trying to use my experience of having watched several projects turn into full productions, and to take the things I've learned from people who are much smarter and wiser than me and offer those observations. I'm trying to make bridges and connections for them so that they can assemble a creative team and support team to make stuff happen. Now after several years of chipping away at it, we now have a book writer in Kimberly Kaye. So now we have a script that stands on equal footing with the songs. That's where the focus is now- trying to get from a song-cycle to a theatrical piece. It's still in development but we are much further along now.
And wrote some of the lyrics as well?
I contributed as we were recording, primarily suggestions and thoughts on the songs that JoAnn sings to help the lyrics to tell her story and represent the character. Although I have to say, the thing that struck me from the beginning when Paul came over to play the demos was how narrative his songs were in the first place. I think what I responded to even when I heard his own songs was that he has a real storyteller's way. These songs do what I think composers often find challenging when they are writing theatre music. They tell a story. They start in one place and end up someplace else by the end.
I just made small contributions though. To be honest, Paul is very generous with sharing credit.
What can you share about your character?
Nine Lives is the story of nine very different New Orleanians in the years between hurricane Betsy in the 60s and Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The musical follows the stories of those nine people and it's a multi-faceted portrait of the city in music and stories during that time. I play John/JoAnn Guidos, who began life as a big football player kinda guy and realized early on that he wasn't in a body that he felt comfortable in. Over the years he transitioned to become JoAnn and now owns a bar called Kajun's Pub that she kept open during Katrina and it became a place of refuge for a wide-range of people in the city who she took care of. The misfits of society found security and safety.
You get to perform this in a historic space!
It's so great that we are able to do this at Le Petit Theatre, which has a long history of producing theatre being right smack in the middle of the French Quarter. Bryan Batt made the introduction for us- he's on the board here, so were really grateful to him for facilitating all of this.
This is benefitting The New Orleans Musicians Assistance Foundation- what does that mean to you to be able to help them out?
So much of the reason why I've become so invested in this community is because of the way people rallied together to help each other after the flood. I feel like because there is so much to do on a smaller scale, anything you can do to contribute, those ripples are easier to see. You feel like the contributions that you make are having a real, identifiable effect on the lives of the people around you. It's a very gratifying place to be able to contribute to the community because you feel that your efforts are really appreciated. When I was here for the movie I was working with Habitat for Humanity to help build houses and working with Lusher and NOCCA [New Orleans Center for Creative Arts] to try to contribute and participate.
The fact that Nine Lives is benefiting the New Orleans Musicians Assistance Foundation is really gratifying. The spirit of the piece is very much celebrating the community self-reliance of this city. To take that into the real world and have the show help the artists who are the life and blood of this city is meaningful for everyone involved. There are even people involved in the production who have benefitted from what NOMAF does, so this is our way to give back.
You officially moved to New Orleans recently, right?
I've been coming since 2007 and have become really invested in and in love with the city. I made very good friends here back then and I've been coming back and forth a lot. Anyone who follows my Facebook page knows more than they probably care to about what's going on with the Saints and what's happening with local politics!
I very nearly bought a place while I was here doing the movie until I realized that I couldn't really afford to do that. But I had a dream of having a real, literal stake in the city and putting my money where my mouth is so that I could be here, pay taxes, and be a part of the community in a substantial way. It was really EVITA that gave me the opportunity to put aside enough money so that I could do that. I think of my little house in New Orleans as the house that EVITA built.
So being a Broadway actor, how does that work for you? Is there alot of back and forth?
There is. It's actually right around this week a year ago that I bought the place. Until then I had been going back and forth often and staying with people. The thing is that people down here have the space to have a guest room more often than in New York. And it's also a part of the culture- they make space available to neighbors and friends. Southern hospitality is alive and well in New Orleans.
Then when I bought the place I was doing FUN HOME and we kept getting extended, so actually didn't get to start moving in until January when it closed. So it wasn't until then that I really took residence and starting being down here. I'm still learning how much I can be in each place. I'm doing THE GOOD WIFE still, so I'm commuting to New York to do that. Obviously, I'm not disappearing from New York. My professional life is still based there and I still have my apartment. I just like to think of it as a slightly longer commute.
It was recently announced that FUN HOME will be opening on Broadway in the Spring- are you excited that it's going to be getting a second life?
I'm so thrilled that it will be seen by so many more people, and by people who might not have known about it happening. People might be more inclined to see it now that it's uptown. I think it is a powerful, important, and extremely entertaining show, and I'm so thrilled that more people will get that opportunity to see it.
It seems like to was a really positive experience for everyone that was involved...
Absolutely! And the trip that we made to Charleston, South Carolina galvanized it even more. That was really an important thing for all of us.
What's next for Nine Lives?
We always knew we had a great set of songs and know we have a great script. We know we are still in early steps of a long process, but we're really excited about it. Being at New York Stage and Film this summer gave us a real focus. We're gonna get it up to New York one way or another! After this point I think our next step is to try to do a real workshop in New York. It's been very important to us to do a lot of the development here in New Orleans to have the community here benefit from it, but hopefully we'll get to work on it in partnership with a theatre in New York. We'll be looking for that kinda thing soon!
Michael Cerveris received the Tony Award for his portrayal of John Wilkes Booth in Assassins, and received Tony Award nominations for his roles in Evita, LoveMusik, Sweeney Todd, and The Who's Tommy. Other Broadway appearances include In The Next Room (Or The Vibrator Play), Hedda Gabler, Cymbeline, and Titanic. Known for his versatility as an actor, Cerveris has also performed in Off-Broadway productions of King Lear, Macbeth, Nikolai and the Others, and Sondheim's Road Show, among others, and brought his performance as Hedwig to the West End in Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Most recently, Cerveris performed in the Public Theater's highly acclaimed production of Fun Home, receiving the Lucille Lortel Award. Cerveris has also appeared in many film and television productions, including roles on the "The Good Wife," "Treme," and "Fringe." As a singer, he has performed with the NY City Opera and the NY Philharmonic, and at venues including Carnegie Hall, the Kennedy Center, and Lincoln Center. As a solo recording artist, Cerveris has released two albums, Dog Eared and Piety. His country band Loose Cattle recently released their live debut record, North of Houston. http://www.amazing-journey.com
Tickets range from $20-$50 and are available by calling 504-522-2081 or here.
Le Petit Theatre has partnered with the New Orleans Musicians' Clinic (NOMC), www.nomaf.org to raise funds for the nonprofit which provides comprehensive health care and mental health/social services to local performers. NOMC representatives will be present at each performance with information on its services and how to donate. Nine Lives cast members will "pass the hat" for donations to the clinic after each show. For more information, visitwww.lepetittheatre.com.