Michael Cerveris’ grand struggle between theater and music.
Last year, when Michael Cerveris won for Best Actor in a Musical at the Tony Awards, he got up in front of the New York theatrical establishment and began his acceptance speech by saying, “For all my friends in New Orleans: WHO DAT!”
It was a signature moment for the 55-year-old actor and musician, who has become a fixture on Broadway but keeps a large portion of his creative life in New Orleans, commuting from his Chelsea apartment to his house in Treme.
“I’m glad I had the presence of mind to remember my friends in New Orleans,” laughs Cerveris, who won the award for his role as Bruce Bechdel in Fun Home, the genre-busting musical based on Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel about her family. During his first break from Fun Home, Cerveris was back in New Orleans doing a victory lap with friends.
One stop was Kajun’s Pub on St. Claude, the bar owned by New Orleans’ celebrity transsexual, JoAnn Guidos, whose story is central to the Paul Sanchez/Colman deKay musical adaption of the book Nine Lives. Cerveris played the Guidos part in the original New Orleans performance of the story and the recorded version made at the legendary Piety Street studio under the direction of producer Mark Bingham.
Cerveris is currently hot property on Broadway, where his second Tony caps an impressive run of critically acclaimed performances, dating back to the starring role in the Broadway production of Tommy in 1993, and running through featured roles in Titanic (1997); as Giorgio in the 2002 Kennedy Center revival of Stephen Sondheim’s Passion; a Tony-winning role as John Wilkes Booth in Assassins (2004); the title role in the 2005 revival of Sweeney Todd; the role of Kurt Weill in LoveMusik (2007); and Juan Perón in the 2012 revival of Evita.
Though Cerveris is well known for his accomplishments as an actor, many of his fans would be surprised to find out that he’s a gifted singer/songwriter/guitarist as well. That’s about to change with his new album, Piety.
Cerveris was drawn to New Orleans in part because the city allows him to concentrate as much on his music as his theater instincts. He’s always been torn between the two identities, and New Orleans gives him the best opportunity to indulge them both to the fullest creative ends.
Cerveris grew up in Huntington, West Virginia. His mother, Marsha, was a dancer. His father, Michael, was a music professor at the University and also worked as a community theater director. “When they needed a little kid in a show, I was the little kid,” Cerveris recalls. “At the same time I was starting a rock band, Ukiah, and playing baseball and doing what everybody else was doing. This was ’72, ’73, we were playing Kiss, BTO, Deep Purple, blues metal stuff. I was playing guitar.”
Cerveris went on to study theater at the Phillips Exeter Academy and Yale University and managed to combine his interests in acting and music for the first time when he was cast in the TV series Fame. During that time he hung out on the Los Angeles music scene while acting in various productions.
“I auditioned for a role at the La Jolla in a musical based on The Who’s Tommy. I went out there with my guitar and played ‘Young Americans,’ not even knowing what role I was auditioning for. I got called back a couple of times and got the role as Tommy. There was no script and it wasn’t until I got down there and I did the read-through and started singing some parts that I realized it was going to be historic. The irony was having spent my teenage years and my 20s having parallel lives as an actor and a rock kid, all of a sudden there was an opening for someone who was passionate about both things.
“After we did Tommy at La Jolla I had to re-audition for the Broadway part. I had just been really sick and I lost my voice during the audition. By the time it came to ‘Sensation’ it was my worst nightmare, I was just blowing it. Later we were talking and Pete Townshend started saying ‘I want you to come over to London and see my studio, and the places where we played our first shows, introduce you to some of the kids that I grew up with, I just want you to have a real sense of my childhood and my early days with The Who.’ Then finally he says, ‘I just think it’s great that we saw a couple of thousand people for this show and we’re going to give the role of Tommy to the guy who did the absolute worst audition.’ That’s when I realized I had the job. So I went to London and Pete told me, ‘I can’t teach you how to act but I can teach you how to be a rock ‘n’ roll star.’ I had to feel some sense of ownership and some right to stand up there and sing these songs. We went to the studio and he had just completed the rough mixes for the Psychoderelict album. He sat me down at the console and told me to listen to the songs and write down my thoughts on a pad and paper. Here I was I was sitting in Pete Townshend’s writing studio listening to Pete Townshend’s rough mixes and taking notes.”
After finishing his run with Tommy on Broadway, Cerveris took the role to Germany before returning to New York, where he got the role in Titanic. Meanwhile he’d become friends with Bob Mould, and decided to take an offer to tour with Mould’s band. Cerveris is on the live recording BobMouldBand:LiveDog98.
“I gave notice to Titanic that I was gonna quit to do this rock tour,” he explained, “which really confused my agents.”
Before going out with Mould, Cerveris did something even stranger, taking over the lead role in the original Hedwig and the Angry Inch from creator John Cameron Mitchell.
“I’d gone to see John doing Hedwig when he first started doing it,” said Cerveris. “At that time it seemed like he would be the only Hedwig. I was a huge fan and I saw it a bunch of times. Here it all is, a great rock band playing stand-alone rock songs but with a great story.
“John was exhausted and he wanted to take a month off and he asked me to do it. I simultaneously said yes and felt sick to my stomach. So I left Titanic to go to this hole in the wall theater, did Hedwig for a month, went on tour with Bob for a month, then came back and John was ready to be done with it so I did it for another nine months here, then in London.
“For me it was another opportunity to marry these two roles of mine and now for the second time I found my way to a real crossroads of rock and theater. I started hanging out with and going to see drag acts. I started to understand what a weirdly empowering thing it is, cross-dressing, it’s like wearing a suit of armor. On New Year’s Eve 2000 going into 2001 Hedwig was the opening act for Boy George at Radio City Music Hall. People didn’t really know who we were. We were just some weird tranny glam band. You can really hear hecklers in Radio City and there were all these people shouting stuff at the beginning. If it had been me in my band I would have just shriveled and crawled off the stage, but I was Hedwig so I had all these witty comebacks for everything. I was running up and down the aisles. We owned the place and got a big ovation at the end.”
Cerveris eventually returned to Broadway, but found another way to integrate his two lives in New Orleans. During a film shoot in 2007, Cerveris saw Paul Sanchez perform at the House of Blues and became a fan. He went down to d.b.a. and sat in with Paul. They became friends, and when Paul was working on the song cycle for Nine Lives he asked Cerveris if he’d like to play a role.
“Before you say yes,” Cerveris recalls Sanchez saying, “you need to know that the character began life as John Guidos and had an operation and now is JoAnn.” I said, “You may not be aware of my history performing in dresses but trust me when I tell you this is not going to be a problem for me.
“Paul played me some demos and even in his demos I could hear the theatricality of his writing. When I had seen him what struck me was the storytelling, character-driven aspect of his songs, so I could see a theatrical heart there.”
Piety came directly out of the Nine Lives sessions.
“Mark Bingham asked me if I wanted to make a record. I sent him some of the things I’d recorded, some of my demos. He picked a bunch of songs and said ‘Let’s forget all the other versions and start fresh.’ So he and Paul and I sat down and did three guitar demos of the things. We listened to those for a while and Mark brought Jimbo Walsh in to do some string arrangements. He wanted it be largely acoustic and he wanted to fill it with strings, and that sounded kind of interesting. It was the first time I’ve allowed a producer to make a lot of those decisions and that was really fun for me.”
Cerveris brought in Kimberly Kaye, his creative partner and co-lead singer in the alt-country band Loose Cattle, to sing background vocals.
“The songs cover a long period. The oldest song, ‘Tenth Grade,’ I wrote in Los Angeles in the ‘80s. Some of them were written during the sessions so it covers a wide period of my songwriting development. We did a lot of dramaturgy during preparations for Tommy and read from your book about the Who (Headliners: The Who by John Swenson, Ace,1979) and I learned a lot of stuff I didn’t know before about the origins of rock ’n’ roll. Nobody thought about having a career in rock ’n’ roll because there was no such thing. You did singles and then you did an album, which was separate from the singles. I think I inherited that idea of an album being a like a document, the experience of the people who are involved in it and the time you spend doing it together. And so the record took its own shape, reflecting Mark’s interests at the time, and my own rediscovery of my youth. Part of the experience of going down to New Orleans was realizing that growing up in West Virginia, the country music of Appalachia found its way inside of me and it became a reminder of how much time as a teenager I spent listening to what’s now called Americana. That’s what I was thinking going into it and that was translated through Mark’s thing and I started doing that instinctively because I’d grown up listening to Leonard Cohen and Dan Fogelberg. So it became like my ’70s album.”
The result of this effort is a remarkable record that offers a grace note to the end of an era of New Orleans music (see review in this issue) and the debut of a local artist who seems destined to become a major player in the city’s cultural reawakening. The grand struggle between theater and music in Cerveris’ creative life now seems completely resolved.
“When I look backwards,” he concludes, “I can trace the pathway from one thing to another, but at the time looking forward I could never see any of it. Looking backward it all makes sense.”