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InDepth InterView: Michael Cerveris Part II: Sondheim & A Career Retrospective

Last weekend marked the opening of his new vampire-centric horror film STAKE LAND, and you can catch him every week on FOX's hit series FRINGE, but Michael Cerveris is certainly best known for his series of stunning performances in some of the finest musical theatre productions of the 21st century - John Doyle's SWEENEY TODD and Joe Mantello's ASSASSINS chief among them - as well as for originating the title role in Pete Townshend's singular Broadway foray, The Who's TOMMY. With a captivating new double-disc concept album - NINE LIVES - out now, it seems that Cerveris has found a way to juggle it all. In this extensive two-part conversation, we take a look back at his experiences in the aforementioned Sondheim musicals, as well as his series of performances in Sondheim shows under the direction of Lonny Price at the Ravinia Festival co-starring Audra McDonald and Patti LuPone, and also touch upon his work in plays, such as his recent Kent in Kevin Kline's KING LEAR at The Public, HEDDA GABLER opposite Mary Louise Parker, and Sarah Ruhl's IN THE NEXT ROOM (OR THE VIBRATOR PLAY) with Laura Benanti. Additionally, he shares his Tony memories, singing SWEENEY TODD at the recent SONDHEIM! Celebration, HEDWIG & THE ANGRY INCH, TITANIC and much, much more in this compelling and comprehensive conversation - plus, first news on his upcoming TREME appearance and FRINGE renewal confirmation. His new feature film STAKE LAND is in selected cities now!

Part II: A Tony Award, Shakespeare, Sondheim & Beyond

PC: What was winning the Tony award for ASSASSINS like?

MC: Well, of course, it was a thrill. The most meaningful thing to me is just that you are standing in a room of your peers and having your work acknowledged and being recognized. I mean, essentially, the thing that I think is the most meaningful about it and what I have always carried with me and hoped everyone could share was that feeling of being, literally, recognized and, you know, being acknowledged. It's so easy as an actor to spend your life struggling away and wondering whether if anybody even notices what you are doing - and what you sacrifice and what you put up with. So, a moment like that makes you feel like, "Well, I guess some people have noticed at least." It's not a feeling a victory - or, it wasn't for me, anyway. I have a very ambivalent feeling about awards in general and the whole competitive aspect of it seems completely foolhardy and, over the years, has increasingly warped and perverted the choices that people make - from actors to producers to everything - so, I'm really not a fan of it.

PC: But, you are grateful for being recognized for your work.

MC: Oh, it's so, so gratifying. And it does mean that, at the end of the day, no matter what happened, that happened.

PC: So, it validates you in a way.

MC: Yeah, it makes you relax and it makes you start to think, "Well, what do I really care about?" For me, awards are not what I really care about - the work is what I really care about. And, I am especially proud that I was acknowledged for doing work that I was so proud of and that meant a lot to me. You know, to receive it for a Stephen Sondheim musical - I can't think of much better than that, certainly in the musical theatre.

PC: For his most controversial and provocative piece, no less.

MC: Yeah. And, being a part - several times, between that and PASSION and ROAD SHOW, too - being a part of a group of people who kind of managed to reclaim these pieces for him and for history to sort of be part of productions that made clear that the initial, kind of dismissive - in some cases, the dismissive - reactions were wrong. You know, often, those shows have been the kind of poor stepchildren of the canon.

PC: Indeed.

MC: You know, people say, "Oh yeah, FOLLIES and A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC and COMPANY - those are the big hits! SWEENEY TODD!" (Pause.) "But, PASSION? ASSASINS? I'm not so sure about those." So, to be a part of productions that had reviewers who had gone around the first time and dismissed it, coming back, saying, "Clearly, we just weren't ready for what Steve was writing." To be able to give that back to Steve as a result of giving those shows to the world again? That has been the most tremendous, best award - to be a part of that.

PC: What was it like to do PASSION with Audra McDonald and Patti LuPone on national TV for LIVE FROM LINCOLN CENTER?

MC: Well, it was thrilling, but, it's nerve-wracking to do a live broadcast of something - especially, something that we didn't do a long run of. I think we had done it for, I think, three performances at Ravinia a year before, and then we remounted in the span of a week or two. So, yeah, it's a little nerve-wracking.

PC: I can imagine!

MC: And, then, there's just something about knowing that, you know, somebody could be sitting in their underwear in Nebraska watching what you are doing right now that's just... (Laughs.)... a little insane. (Pause.) But, I guess with the internet, that's true all of the time now.

PC: What do you think of the new trend we are seeing with shows like COMPANY and MEMPHIS being broadcast in movie theaters - in COMPANY‘s case, in over 500 theaters?

MC: I think it's terrific for people who don't have the luxury of being able to fly to New York to see shows and to be able see all of these productions. I think it's great. I mean, I miss the days of the Texaco Theater where you could see live theatre on television. They would go into the theater of a production that was up and running and shoot it specifically for television.

PC: Right. They did that with DAMN YANKEES and ANNIE GET YOUR GUN and a bunch of shows.

MC: Yeah. Exactly. I wish we could get back to those days. And, maybe, this is a step in that direction - you know, not just doing a one-hit kind of concert version, but doing real productions and really shooting them specifically for film. You know, Lonny Price is becoming a real master at filming live theatrical performance for television and film.

PC: Could you tell me about working with Lonny Price on the shows you've done over the years? You've done tons together.

MC: Yeah, yeah - we have. I mean, I am proud to be one of his little stable of players. I adore Lonny and I think he's got the biggest heart and cares so much about the people that he works with and about making an environment that feels safe - because what he is asking people to do is really challenging. You know, you are not going to have a lot of time to rehearse and feel the security that you normally would feel, and it's really essential that you have a kind of environment where you can trust the people you have guiding you - because you're just going to have to go on faith a lot. You don't have the time to rehearse it and do it over and over and over again and find something that you are sure you feel good about - you're gonna have to go with your early choices pretty quickly. And, in that situation, you really need a director who, when he says, you know, "This is OK," or "This needs to be this way," or "I know this feels uncomfortable, but it's really right," you have to be able to trust him completely and know that he's got your back - and Lonny totally does. So, that's why Audra, Patti and I keep showing up over and over again to do things - you know, whatever he asks; we say yes.

PC: You three were great in so many shows, but, especially ANYONE CAN WHISTLE - and, along with the recent Encores! production it seems the show is quite viable. What do you think of the material?

MC: I love that show. I had the most wonderful time playing Hapgood - I would love to do it again. And, the score is just fantastic. And, I know the book is a challenge for a lot of people, but I think the things that are there are so radical and so relevant to today - I just find it hard to imagine that there isn't a way to do it that people will find more satisfying.

PC: I agree.

MC: I think at some point soon that is going to happen and hopefully it will be celebrated the way ASSASSINS is now.

PC: Angela Lansbury recently told me her favorite Sondheim song is "Everybody Says Don't" - and, she should know!

MC: Yeah! Yeah.

PC: Did you see it at Encores! With Donna Murphy, Sutton Foster and Raul Esparza?

MC: No, I wasn't around then. I was really sad to miss it because I bet it was wonderful.

PC: Moving on to SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE - which you also did with Lonny, Audra and Patti and Ravinia - would you consider taking on that role in a full production?

MC: Oh, yeah. I think of all the Sondheim characters that is the one I relate to most personally. I had a wonderful time doing it at Ravinia and would relish the chance to do it again. Daniel Evans, who just did the revival, he's a lovely guy, and, coincidentally, he and I have sort of done the same roles on opposite sides of the Atlantic a number of times - he was in CYMBELINE right around SUNDAY IN THE PARK.

PC: What did you think of that revival?

MC: I thought they were terrific - Daniel and Jenna [Russell]. And, it was great to see that kind of production. (Pause. Sighs.) So, I don't imagine it will be done on Broadway for quite some time now - but, yeah, I would relish the chance to sing those songs again sometime, somewhere.

PC: Have you ever sung Sondheim's setting of the "Fear No More" speech from CYMBELINE that he wrote for THE FROGS?

MC: Yes, I have. Yeah.

PC: What do you think of it, having done CYMBELINE?

MC: I sang it at a benefit for something. It was just beautiful. And, also, the KING LEAR that I did with Kevin Kline, Steve wrote some instrumentals and incidental music and wrote The Fool's songs in that, as well.

PC: Who did you play?

MC: I was Kent.

PC: How interesting - I would think you an Edmund.

MC: I know. I know. (Laughs.)

PC: What was it like doing LEAR with Kevin Kline?

MC: It was a roller coaster and an acting lesson every night. I really, really enjoyed that production. And, I love working at the Public and at the Anspacher, too. You know, the audience is literally within arm's length - and grappling with that play, as Kevin said, you know, "You don't do KING LEAR once - you just do your first KING LEAR. And, then, you just kind of grow old through it as you go along."

PC: How insightful - and how true, for an actor of his caliber. He would know!

MC: (Laughs.) Yeah. Yeah.

PC: Do you look up to him and the career he has had?

MC: Oh, very much. I have for ages. I first met him when I was doing ROMEO & JULIET in Chicago at the Goodman with Phoebe Cates - and they were not even engaged at that point, but they were together. And, the director was ill for a bit and Kevin kind of stepped in and worked with me and Phoebe separately just to kind of keep us going and working while they were tending to other stuff.

PC: Wow. What a replacement director!

MC: Yeah! It was great to sort of just be sitting in the apartment and looking over the table and you're, you know, working with Kevin Kline on Shakespeare.

PC: It even sounds a bit surreal - or, too good to be true.

MC: And, then, Joe Papp came out to see it!

PC: No way!

MC: I'll never forget standing there talking to Joe - having this highlight-of-my-life conversation with Joe Papp about playing Romeo - and, over his shoulder, is Kevin Kline like making faces and trying to make me laugh the whole time.

PC: That's hilarious.

MC: Yeah, so, that pretty much captures the two sides of Kevin Kline.

PC: What a wonderful story. I have to say that you seem destined to do THE WINTER'S TALE someday - as does he.

MC: That's one of my favorite Shakespeares, as well, and I really hope to play Leontes sometimes. I'd love to play him.

PC: What other Shakespeare roles are your scratching to do?

MC: I love all the latter plays, actually. PERICLES is so fascinating and bizarre.

PC: You've got that right - plus, the seventeen year jump between two of the acts.

MC: Yeah! But, I love that in the latter part of his life he went back to all of the themes he had approached as a young man, but, now, with an openheartedness and a sense of reconciliation and compassion that is so, so beautiful.

PC: They are so rich and multi-layered.

MC: I also love how he, you know, starts to play with magical sorts of things - in THE TEMPEST, especially.

PC: And Act IV in THE WINTER'S TALE is a musical, pretty much.

MC: Oh, yes! That's right. Exactly. Exactly.

PC: William Finn has set those songs - after the recent LEAR, will Sondheim?

MC: Yeah. I hope so.

PC: Besides SWEENEY TODD, perhaps the most Shakespearean protagonist of Sondheim's is Ben Stone in FOLLIES. Is that role on your radar?

MC: Yeah, I've had a couple of near-misses with that recently with a few times I was possibly going to be doing it but the scheduling didn't work out. But, it's absolutely the role that I really hope that I will get to do at some point. It does feel very right.

PC: Why so?

MC: Well, I often identify with a lot of Steve's shows and a lot of Steve's characters, but I think Ben Stone is one that I feel kind of unusually well-suited for.

PC: What straight play roles do you see in your future? Albee? Mamet?

MC: Yeah and yeah! You know, I'm not one of those actors who's very good at having a list of roles that I want to play someday - which is bad, because I really need to do it. I have people in theaters ask me what I want to do and I don't have an answer!

PC: You go where the Dionysian spirit moves you.

MC: Yeah, to me, it's about the people. It's about, "I want to work with this director whose work I really like." Or, "I want to get in a room with this actor or actress." And, in a way, the material is just kind of the vehicle for getting to have this experience with these creative individuals.

PC: It's the experience, not the material.

MC: Yeah, so, you know, I concentrate more on "I'd like to work with these people," or "I'd like to work in this place." But, I would love to do a lot of the classic American writers: Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Albee...

PC: O'Neill.

MC: Oh, O'Neill, definitely! And, with Chekhov, HEDDA GABLER was a really trying experience in a lot of ways, but it was really gratifying work to be doing. You know, with Ibsen, I've always wanted to do BRAND.

PC: Really?

MC: Yeah, people just kind of roll their eyes when I say that. (Laughs.)

PC: What draws you to that particular play?

MC: I've seen two amazing productions of it - one with Michael Bryant and one with Ralph Fiennes. That's something I think I'd love to do.

PC: Any other roles from the classic canon that jump out at you?

MC: PEER GYNT is another thing I've done and I would really enjoy doing again.

PC: So, life is an open book?

MC: Yeah, I'm kind of up for anything. Anything that, when I hear it, it sounds scary to me - that's what I want to do.

PC: An actor like you should have his pick of new plays.

MC: Yeah, you know, it's a tough world out there - you know, if you're not a movie star or twenty or English, it's a little bit of a challenge to get access to something. (Laughs.)

PC: That's too funny - and too true.

MC: It's also, though, that it does matter to me what I am working on. I am kind of picky and I want to believe in the project that I am doing - somewhat, at least. So, there haven't been as many things as I would like that I could have even wanted to do, much less had access to doing, you know?

PC: But, you have a higher profile than ever thanks to FRINGE, no?

MC: Well, yeah, that's true. I mean, I have to say that, as a stage actor - I mean, I enjoy working on FRINGE and I enjoy doing the film stuff I have been doing and I hope to do more of both. I had a terrific time working on TREME, too - there is an episode in Season Two with an episode I did on that. But, even if I didn't [enjoy it], I would feel like I need to pursue work in television and film just to keep vaguely in the same league as people with major film and television credentials who, you know, understandably, are happy to take the opportunity to come to the stage for the first time. I can't fault them for wanting to, but it does mean that everyone else is sort of scrambling for a smaller crust at the table.

PC: Laura Benanti seems to be transitioning into more film work as well - you two just did a film together last year; MESKADA.

MC: We did. In fact, I just saw her today and I was asking her about her pilot and she said it went well and now they are in the wait-and-see phase.

PC: Did you enjoy doing IN THE NEXT ROOM with her onstage?

MC: That was a career highlight, too. I adore Sarah Ruhl and I adored working on that play. That company was another one of those rare, wonderful, rich companies - beautiful people; wonderful actors. And, I really, really enjoyed working with Les Waters, as well. Everything about that experience was really, really just perfect.

PC: Speaking of imperfect: what was the worst thing that happened onstage in TITANIC during the run?

MC: Well, I think, for me, it was when the ship would get stuck and not go down.

PC: There's not really a show if the ship doesn't sink in TITANIC!

MC: Yeah, but, the very worst was the night that we couldn't even finish the show - we had to send the audience home with I don't know how many minutes left in the show. We just didn't quite finish the show. That was the strangest feeling I think I've ever had - to go home without finishing the story. And, it was not until we had come back the next night and played the show through all the way to the end that I felt kind of any sense of closure. It was really one of the strangest things I had happen.

PC: Was that when there was that bizarre epilogue set in the 1980s?

MC: Yeah, it might've been - I think we still had that. I mean, we had that until relatively late in the process.

PC: What was your experience on that show like, looking back?

MC: It was a fascinating experience. I mean, to watch something go through what would in the past have been its out of town tryouts - you know, growing pains - and really see, like, whole characters changed completely and enormous fifteen minute sequences of dialogue and songs just cut and replaced.

PC: That sounds torturous for a performer.

MC: It was, in a way, but I thought what we ended up with was something kind of beautiful and wonderful.

PC: And, it won Best Musical.

MC: Michael Grandage was telling me the other day that one of the most significant moments in the theatre, for him, was watching that play - and, it was one of the things that made him want to be a director.

PC: It was dangerous, from previewing in town to the nature of the physical show itself.

MC: (Laughs.) It wasn't without it's danger! I mean, those things weren't tied down and they were really flying - I had bruises for a long time.

PC: Then, as an injured TITANIC actor, what do you think of the whole SPIDER-MAN situation?

MC: Well, I didn't see SPIDER-MAN. I know that the intentions behind the stagecraft in TITANIC were very much story-driven - you know, it wasn't spectacle for spectacle's sake. I don't know if that's what the case was with SPIDER-MAN, but I know that with TITANIC it was all designed to tell the story. And, we had compelling story. And, we had characters that you cared deeply about. That was what all the machinery was about - it wasn't spectacle for spectacle's sake. And, while it was dangerous, nobody broke anything and there were no traumatic injuries.

PC: Speaking of shows being rewritten in rehearsals: what was it like to have Sondheim present you with a new song, "Brotherly Love", for ROAD SHOW a year or two ago?

MC: Oh, that was like the most thrilling thing that ever happened!

PC: Tell me everything.

MC: They told us, "Don't say anything to anybody, but we think Steve is writing a new song for this spot," because we knew that we needed another moment of the brothers being connected and bonded before we start to tear their relationship apart. And, then, you come in the next day and there is a little piece of handwritten music in Steve's hand. You play it through with the music director and then you sing it for him - and you know that this is the first time you've heard somebody ever sing it. Then, you sit down with the orchestra and you read through and it's the first time that you've heard the orchestrations. (Pause.) And, you know that Steve has written these melodies with your voice in his head - and I don't think that could be second to anything except maybe Shakespeare coming up and saying, "Here Michael, I wanted to add a little monologue for you because I thought you could use a little something." That's kind of the only other thing that could even come close to comparing to that.

PC: Had you seen WI$E GUY$ and BOUNCE before you agreed to do ROAD SHOW?

MC: I had only seen BOUNCE - I saw BOUNCE at the Kennedy Center.

PC: What did you think of it?

MC: I really enjoyed it, but I felt like there were two or three wonderful stories, wonderful musicals there, and I wasn't sure which one I was supposed to follow. But, I really enjoyed it.

PC: It's fascinating to compare the three pieces - WI$E GUY$ could not be more different in tone from ROAD SHOW, really.

MC: I think John Doyle got John Weidman and Steve to just really sort of sit down and remind themselves and each other what they meant to do when they set out to write it. You know, it really is kind of the third piece in a trilogy - with PACIFIC OVERTURES and ASSASSINS - looking at the American psyche.

PC: Sondheim has been talking about that quite a lot, recently. It casts a new hue on all three shows, I think.

MC: I think John just really got them to remind themselves of certain things and what exactly the story was they wanted to tell. I think, as a result, it has a focus and a power that had been a little obscured before this.

PC: What insight did Sondheim give you that gave you a new perspective on the show or your character?

MC: I don't know if he gave me a particular insight on ROAD SHOW, but it's always sort of more details and guidance and fine tuning. I feel like Steve gives me his insight through what he has written - I feel like if I pay close enough attention to what he was written, then he tells me pretty much everything I need to know.

PC: The SONDHEIM! Concert was the best concert I have ever seen - what was it like doing the show live? Just incredible?

MC: Yes. Yes. Yes. I don't think there will ever be anything like that in my lifetime again. You know, that collection of people?

PC: All the best.

MC: I feel so glad that it was filmed so beautifully and preserved for the ages because I feel like that is the document - when people want to know what Sondheim was about and what his idea of musical theatre was, they can look to that and see the idea of the thinking, singing actor and the writer who writes for the heart and the head. I think that's the master class. It just felt like the most ridiculously overqualified high school for the performing arts ever!

PC: The ultimate GLEE.

MC: (Laughs.) Yes, exactly.

PC: Just to mention your new concept album NINE LIVES, which is way too cool: I love "Full Time JoAnn".

MC: Oh, terrific! Thank you. I'm so glad you enjoyed it.

PC: Define collaboration.

MC: (Pause. Sighs.) I think collaboration... I guess my first impulse is to sort of say that it is trying to find a common ground or a common language to use to communicate with each other, or however many people are trying to collaborate. But, I think it is best when that common ground is not flat ground - it still preserves the individual strengths and weaknesses of the collaborating parties. So, it's not just the lowest common denominator - it's not just what everybody can agree on - but, it's when you are simultaneously challenging and being inspired by the people that you are collaborating with.

PC: Fantastic answer and a truly fantastic interview. Thank you so much, Michael.

MC: This was really great, Pat. I loved your questions. We'll talk soon.


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Pat Cerasaro contributes exclusive scholarly columns including InDepth InterViews, Sound Off, Theatrical Throwback Thursdays, Flash Friday and Flash Special as well as additional special features, (read more...)