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His Sondheim Year: Michael Cerveris
by Gregg Shapiro

This article shared 6013 times since Wed Jan 7, 2004
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Pictured Michael Cerveris as Carl-Magnus.Michael Cerveris is a rarity in the world of

musical theater and rock music. A well-respected musician, he toured with Bob Mould and can be heard on the

Live Dog 98 disc. As an actor, he earned acclaim and awards as the title character in the Broadway musical

The Who's Tommy and later took the lead in the off-Broadway production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch

following John Cameron Mitchell's departure. Currently appearing as Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm in Chicago

Shakespeare Theater's production of A Little Night Music, Cerveris is also releasing his solo debut album Dog

Eared ( Low Heat ) in February. A star-studded affair, Dog Eared features guest musicians Corin Tucker and

Janet of Sleater-Kinney, Ken Stringfellow of the Posies, Norman Blake of Teenage Fanclub, Steve Shelley of

Sonic Youth, and Laura Cantrell, to mention a few, and is one of the most promising releases of the new year.

Gregg Shapiro: You are making your Chicago Shakespeare debut as Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm in

Night Music, but you have other credits here. What do you like best about doing theater in Chicago?

Michael Cerveris: I think probably the thing that seems the most different from being in New York is the sense

of freedom and the focus on being inventive and creative. The commercial aspect of things doesn't seem to be

as important. I'm sure that is important for every theater to do well and fill the seats, but it seems like the stress

of doing that is a lot less. That there is already an audience excited to see things and not to see the same

things that they see all the time. Whereas in New York, if anyone is trying to do something interesting or

groundbreaking or adventurous, they're worried that no one will come. GS: So you think that Chicago

audiences are more willing to take chances? MC: It seems like that. Or more used to taking chances,

more used to seeing things done in an unconventional way. That's a really supportive, nurturing environment to

be in, so when you are here as an actor, it effects everything. From casting choices—so the kinds of other

actors that you work with are not necessarily the same kind of person you would always see in a role. Also, the

acting community here, I've always found since I first came here, to be really inviting and supportive and not

competitive feeling in the same way that New York is. I don't know if the ratio of jobs to actors is better. GS:

It's probably a little easier to live here, too. MC: That's definitely true. When I first came, I met people who

were stage actors almost exclusively, maybe did commercials a little bit or the odd TV thing here or there, but

mostly they made a living as an actor on stage. And they had families and they lived in houses and they had

cars. And I was like, 'How is this possible?' ( laughs ) Because in New York, even when you're working on

Broadway, you're still kind of scrambling to make a living and survive. And the city itself is so much harsher and

harder to live in. Chicago is so much more welcoming. GS: You looked dashing in uniform as

Carl-Magnus. Was it fun to strut around in soldier drag? MC: It totally is. As soon as you put boots on

you're five inches taller. And not just from the heels. That's another thing that I love about rehearsing. You do

your work and try to find the character, and then you put on the clothes, and if they are the right clothes, all of a

sudden all these things you've been struggling with are right there. Especially with a character like this. And

having a fake mustache and all those kinds of things are great tools. GS: You also appear to be on a kind

of Sondheim streak—in addition to doing Night Music and having Passion on your CV, you are scheduled to

appear in a Broadway revival of Assassins. MC: I could not be more thrilled. If I was going to be sort of

known as the actor who does something … I guess I used to be known as the actor who does rock musicals,

which was thrilling and exciting. But I've always been a huge fan of Sondheim, so to have this opportunity to do

so many roles in such a short period of time is really exciting. It's one of the reasons why I wanted to come

here and do this. Assassins was already set and Passion I'd done, this came up at the last minute and it

happened to fit into this window of time I had. I thought, 'What cooler thing could there be than to have a

Sondheim year of doing all these different parts.' GS: Aside from Sondheim, you've also played the lead

roles in Tommy and Hedwig and the Angry Inch, so your musical theater work has an edge to it. Is it important

for you to balance your stage work with both the edgy and the traditional? MC: It is to me. It's funny, after

having done Tommy and Hedwig, I found that a lot of the things that I was being asked to consider or audition

for were kind of bland versions of those things. The rock or pop rock musicals that came in the wake of shows

like that didn't have that authentic edge to them. I discovered that in musical theater, Sondheim is edgy and

groundbreaking. In a weird way I kind of feel like he is as rock and roll as ( Pete ) Townshend ( of the Who ) is or

as John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask ( of Hedwig ) . The actual style of music, obviously, is different, but

… GS: … what he does with language is revolutionary. MC: Absolutely. That, to me, is really exciting.

And doing Sondheim in this space ( Chicago Shakespeare Theater ) , the other obvious person for me is

Shakespeare, who is again, for me, the essence of what I think of rock and roll being. That kind of fuck you,

smart, edgy, challenging spirit or whatever name you want to put to it, I think is what attracts me to all those

different things. GS: How do you think having a background in both theater and rock music has affected

your approach to each? MC: Ironically, when I perform my own music, I find it really hard to be theatrical

about it. I grew up feeling that the concerts I saw that were the most exciting were the ones that had a dramatic

element to them. They weren't telling a story necessarily. Even if the band was just standing stock still on

stage. You go see Jesus And Mary Chain, and they're not dancing around, but there was something so

dramatic about the music and their image and the look and everything else. And then people like David Bowie,

who I'm a big fan of, obviously has a dramatic side. And then, the theater I saw that excited me the most was

Shakespeare or anything that was challenging or demanded a visceral response. I always felt that I wished

there was a way to meld these two things. And why is it that people will sometimes pay the same amount of

money to see a rock concert, but never go to see a theater piece? I never got to see Tommy, but when I went to

see Hedwig, that was exactly the reaction that I had. Finally, somebody's got it right. GS: All those years of

rock musicals, it was wonderful to finally see the concept of a rock musical as a concert. MC: Exactly. It

was so thrilling for me to get to do it. I felt like I was finally getting the opportunity to use all the things that I do

and all the things that I love and I was able to do them all in one place. GS: There is sadness, but there is

also a survival aspect on your solo debut disc Dog Eared, especially 'Can't Feel My Soul,' 'Disconnect,' the

title track, and your cover of 'Two Seconds.' Heartbreak is a universal language, for both the singer and the

listener. Dog Eared sounds like it was a cathartic experience for you—was it? MC: Yeah. I started writing

the songs on the record coming out of the aftermath of this three-year relationship that ended completely out of

the blue as far as I was aware. I was really devastated. As I started to crawl back out of the hole that I went into,

I started to write stuff and try to purge some of these feelings. Because I was paying for it all myself, as I could

scrape money together to do stuff, we would do a little. It was really wild, because without being aware of it, it

started to turn slowly from what it started out as—poor, poor me kind of stuff, to this other strain of, as you say,

survival and overcoming it. At a certain point you bore yourself with being miserable and you long ago bored all

your friends with it ( laughs ) and you don't want to bore the listener. It was funny because midway through the

process, Adam Lasus, the engineer and co-producer, and I went to Portland to record with Corin and Janet

from Sleater-Kinney. Corin and I had been talking for a while about writing something together. There was one

song that I had music for, but I couldn't get lyrics and a melody that really worked. She asked me to send it to

her to see what she could do. I hadn't heard what she'd done until we got out there the night before to record it.

GS: You're talking about 'S.P.C.A.' MC: Yes. The lyric that she'd written … she knew the story of the

relationship and I had talked to her, so she was familiar with it. But she wrote the song that I would have written

but couldn't get to it. Except, where I would have continued with more self-pity, she turned it into this kind of

'you're going to regret having lost this.' Somewhere around there the record started to get this hopeful thing.

I've always been a fan of Smiths and Joy Division and these dark, dreary, English bands, and that's what I

always think that I'm doing. It's not until something's finished and I listen to it that I realize that there is this

strain of hope and optimism that I don't even recognize in myself. The people I bring in to contribute respond to

it somehow in a way that I'm not even aware of. The day we finished mixing the last song was a year to the day

that the break-up happened. I felt this huge weight lifted. I felt like this is what I did to get over that. Hopefully it

can reach people wherever they are in their lives.

Michael Cerveris as Carl-Magnus.

This article shared 6013 times since Wed Jan 7, 2004
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