Michael Cerveris is an American singer, guitarist and actor. He has performed in many stage musicals and plays, including several Stephen Sondheim musicals: Assassins, Sweeney Todd, Road Show, and Passion. He won the Tony Award as Best Featured Actor in a Musical for Assassins. He was called, by Playbill.com, "arguably the most versatile leading man on Broadway", playing roles from "Shakespeare's Romeo to The Who's Tommy, from the German transsexual rock diva Hedwig in Hedwig and the Angry Inch to the homicidal title character of Sondheim's Sweeney Todd." Cerveris' most visible television role to date has been as the Observer code-named September in the FOX science fiction television series Fringe. His character, a mysterious man seen attending many unusual events, has appeared regularly during the series and became one of the main characters to bring the story to its end.
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Well, I've been doing theater almost my whole life. I started really young in university productions at the college where my dad was teaching, starting with Brecht in second grade, and it was a long, strange trip from there to TOMMY, to HEDWIG, to John Wilkes Booth, to Sweeney Todd, with detours for Ian on FAME, and September on FRINGE, and Castro on THE GOOD WIFE... and now Bruce Bechdel in FUN HOME.
FUN HOME is playing now (http://funhomebroadway.com/) and is nominated for 12 Tony Awards, and I have a parallel life where I played guitar for Bob Mould of Hüsker Dü... Frank Black of the Pixies, Pete Townshend of The Who, and my own solo records and bands.
What don't I do? Sleep.
I'm here with Victoria from reddit in NYC. Let's take some questions.
Update: I'd just like to say thank you to everybody who wrote in, and apologize to those questions that we didn't get to. You can tweet @cerveris and Facebook me questions so that in my vast amounts of spare time, I will write you back. Meanwhile, I hope you will come see FUN HOME at Circle in the Square, maybe catch my band Loose Cattle roaming around town, and pick up our records at iTunes.
And hopefully - soon - I'll have news about my second solo record, called "Piety" that I recorded in New Orleans and I'm looking for a new home for, soon.
Huge fan of Fringe. Final season plot twist rocked my world! https://twitter.com/tatasmagik/status/590898609018826753
Did the writers know from the beginning how Fringe would end or did they pull that off miraculously? How stoked were you about the Donald/Michael plot twist (if at all)?
That's a great question.
And a question I always had, when I was watching X-Files. I was a big X-Files fan, and I always kind of wondered with that, and TWIN PEAKS, and shows like that, if the writers knew from the beginning where they were going to end.
I can say now, on the basis of our FRINGE experience, that they don't seem to. They start out with certain ideas - some of which they shared with me, some of which they didn't share with anybody, I don't think.
And as the show develops, it starts to write itself, I think, in some ways.
And what I thought was most astounding by the final season was the way they were able to look back, over the previous 4 seasons, and give meaning to plot threads and characters and events and sometimes even lines that never had the meaning that they ended up having when they were initially set .
I can remember one in particular - standing on a roof, in Vancouver, saying to Josh Jackson "It must be very difficult, being a father."
And nobody explained to me what that was supposed to mean. Nobody seemed to know exactly what that meant.
And that was like a lot of my dialogue - it was cryptic, and clearly portentous, but not something that anybody seemed to have decided the exact significance of.
So several seasons later, it has real depth in hindsight, because now we know that September / Donald is a father, and his connection to Peter and Walter is - at some level - as a father and a son. So that was something that was really exciting, and amazing to witness, something being written forwards and backwards at the same time.
I don't know HOW they pull it off. And TV is littered with examples of when they don't pull it off. And I"m really proud to have been part of FRINGE, who (I think) did it masterfully. I loved the Donald / Michael reveal plot twist. And I wasn't really party to it too far in advance. I knew that i was going to be in the final season - they had told me from the beginning that September would be an integral part of the core story of the series until the very end - but they weren't very forthcoming with HOW, exactly.
They sort of implied from the beginning that I was going to save the world somehow.
But they didn't really tell me how that was going to happen.
And it wasn't until partway through the season that they even told me that I would be a different version of September, almost a different character, and when Joel Wyman called me to explain what they had in mind, I just thought it was the coolest thing I'd ever heard.
And probably the hardest part of that whole last season was keeping silent about whether I was even returning. It got to the point where I had begun filming the final episodes, but none of those episodes had started to air yet, so fans were waiting for September to come back, and wondering if he DID come back, and I was under strict orders to not reveal that I was coming back at ALL, much less coming back with hair.
And I was getting on the Cathay Pacific Flight to Vancouver, and the ticket agent said "Oh, I'm so excited to see you going back to Vancouver, that must mean September's coming back on FRINGE!"
and I said "You have to immediately forget that you saw me, or some JJ Abrams ninja will find you in the night."
Do you and the rest of the cast and crew on Fringe still keep in touch? Show was fantastic and you did an awesome job. Thanks and have a nice day!
We don't see each other as much as we'd like, or as much as we used to (obviously). But I've seen Anna Torv several times when she's been passing through New York - she came to see FUN HOME when we were at the Public - and Josh Jackson and I tweet each other around hockey season and football season. I've probably seen John Noble the most, as he's been doing plays here in New York, and I've been lucky enough to get to see him in those, and have him come be a guest at mine, and we always look for times to have brunch and drinks when both of us have a minute free.
Hi Michael, huge fan of all your work, but particularly wanted to know two things - first, regarding Fringe, did you spend any time in preparation for the final arc with Donald considering what he might have done with himself for the twenty years that Walter and the rest were in amber?
And second, more selfishly, would you ever consider putting out tabs or chord notes for "Evangeline" off your album with Loose Cattle? I'm a bit of a new guitar student (six months and counting...) and would love to play with that gorgeous song.
Best wishes, and thanks for taking the time to chat with your fans here!
That's the coolest compliment ever.
And yes, I will do that. It would be a great song for fledgling guitarists to do, and I'd be thrilled to think that people were playing it. I'll have to - maybe I'll put it up on my Loose Cattle Facebook page.
It was always difficult to do preparation with FRINGE, partly because we seldom got the scripts more than a few days before shooting again, as they were in a constant state of revision.
And especially with Donald's character, because they were trying to keep such a lid on it, there was not much information. So it wasn't until I got the script that i even knew the information of the particulars of what had happened to Donald.
So it was a kind of quick immersion in imagining what his life had been like. And to be honest, a lot of it happened on the set that day, when I saw Donald's apartment for the first time, and I saw the elements that the prop & art departments had put into Donald's apartment.
The design contributions to FRINGE really can't be overstated, I think. Those departments were so meticulous, and so thoughtful about the things they put in the frame for the fans to look at, because JJ and all the BAD ROBOT people really understand their fans, because they are fans themselves - they know how much those details matter to people.
So I could walk around that apartment, filled with the objects they chose to put there, and I could read back from that who the person was who collected these things. And that, as much as anything, was a window into what Donald's life had been like during the years when Walter was in amber.
I also loved that - if you look around, in a lot of scenes, the art department has set clocks quite often to 4:20. Which I think explains a LOT of the plot of FRINGE, to those in the know.
Long time fan of your work (still need to see Fun Home)
What's it like working with Sondheim? Booth and Sweeney are such massive characters and I'd imagine given the nonconventional staging of Sweeney, he'd have had notes.
He was very involved in the process. I had first met him Washington DC, when we did "Passion" at the Kennedy Center for the Sondheim Celebration, and I was essentially in awe of him that whole time, and at some level that's never really gone away. But as I've gotten to be around him more, and know him more, I"m more able to relax and feel like he's a collaborator and friend.
With "Assassins" Sondheim and John Weideman were fine-tuning and reworking the piece, so they were around throughout that process. With SWEENEY TODD, because we were playing the instruments, Steve didn't come in until we were just about finished in the rehearsal room and just about ready to move into the theater, probably for his own safety, because listening to a bunch of actors play his music as musicians would've been excruciating for the first part of the process.
But he fell so in love with the production, and the staging, and the scale of John Doyle's production, that he started coming to every preview, and coming to rehearsals just to enjoy it - and occasionally give us notes. One of my favorite days was a day with just John Doyle, Patti Lupone, me, and Steve, working on the "Little Priest" number. And Steve telling us stories of when he wrote it, and how the ideas came to him, and the crucial insight that the number should be like that moment around 3 AM at the party, when everybody's had enough to drink, that everything is hilarious now - but it's got to be a party full of people as smart as Sondheim characters!
Hi Michael! I've been hearing incredible things about Fun Home, huge congratulations on the Tony nominations. I know many people - myself included - who loved you as Hedwig so I have to ask, do you have any plans to return to the role in some way? And who have you seen/would you like to see take the role on Broadway?
Hope you get some sleep soon!
First of all, thank you for the kind sleep wishes.
I don't think I'm going to get them for a while.
I got to see Neil do HEDWIG on the broadway incarnation, and was sad to miss John's triumphant return, but we were in performances for FUN HOME already. And I did see him do it countless times down at the Jame Street, and remember every minute of those performances. I didn't get to see Michael's, wish I had. I haven't been asked to do Hedwig, and I just feel it would be a little rude to wander in and insist on doing it on any given night - although that would probably be a very Hedwig thing to do, actually.
I've said a few times that the way I would REALLY want to do it - and I would love to return to visit her again, someday - but I think the only way I would really want to do it here would be for them to give me a stage manager and a room for a week, just to remember the words, and essentially what happens, and then just show up at the theater, with no rehearsal, and they would have to deal with where I went and what I did, and I'd have to deal with where their lights were and where THEY were, because that's the kind of unpredictability and barely-contained mayhem that the show felt like to do at the James Street where it started.
And in LA, and London, when I did it in those places.
I'm thrilled that audiences are getting a chance to see John & Steven's creation, and that new generations who know it only from a recording or a movie are getting to experience it live.
It does feel like a slightly different creature than the one I knew. But thankfully, there's enough room in that wig for everybody.
Thank you so much for taking the time to answer our questions! You are so brilliant - from Giorgio to your fantastic Sweeney to the amazing, layered performance you’re giving right now in Fun Home (I can’t stop thinking about what an amazing job you’re doing with such a difficult part).
The 2006 Sweeney Todd Revival completely changed my perception of musical theatre and the ways that it can be produced. What was it like working with John Doyle? Could you tell us about his process?
The original SWEENEY TODD which I saw a preview of in 1979 was the first Broadway show I ever saw. And just like you, changed my idea of what musical theater could be.
Before that, I really didn't see myself having a career in musical theater, because I didn't feel like the kinds of things I was interested in, or the kinds of skills I had, really had a place there.
When I saw Len Cariou giving this masterful, powerful acting performance, some of which happened to be sung, I thought Well, maybe there really IS a place for somebody that wants to do the kinds of things I want to do - and there are writers clearly who are writing that kind of material.
So when I got to play Sweeney, years later, it was a thrill, and a little bit overwhelming, because I had such vivid memories of that original production.
So i was very grateful that John's production was SO different. Because we were able to really develop our own version of the story, much more intimate, much creepier, much more internal (I think).
And John's process is extraordinary. I wish that we had filmed it from the first day, because anytime I try to explain it, it doesn't really convey everything that it was. But essentially, we started the first day at the top of the show, and bit by bit, worked our way through, repeating and repeating and repeating, sometimes a 5 second piece of the show, exploring different movements, different timings, we worked incredibly hard, and we were learning music at the same time that we were learning staging, and we worked extra-long days so that we could have 2 days a week off (which is a more British schedule, and which was really necessary with the kind of work that we were doing, to have a day off to process and a day off to do laundry).
But the thing that I think I remember most was quickly letting go of any sense of a particular destination that we were heading towards, and instead, focusing on the present moment, and figuring things out right now, without an assumption or a plan of where it was going.
He had a plan, although not as much as you would ordinarily think. He's a director who likes to get people that he's interested in working with into a room, and see where it ends up. I don't think he really does have a definitive end point in mind, he just has incredibly good taste, and know's when he's gotten there.
What is your favorite Song from Sweeney Todd and which one do you enjoy most to perform?
I guess my favorite song - there's a little trio that starts the second act, and I'm singing the Johanna theme, and that I always loved singing, because it was the one kind of sweet, gentle lullaby-ish kind of moment in the show. I also really loved "Epiphany," which is just massive venting of anything that's ever pissed you off in your whole life - there's room for you to vent it in that song!
does playing a real person in Fun Home make it easier or harder ?
I think it makes it both easier and harder.
I have gotten to play a lot of real people, most of them famous or notorious historical figures. And that's fascinating, trying to make them into human beings that we can relate to onstage, instead of just unreachable icons.
In the case of Bruce, I'm playing not just a real person, but a person who was not a public figure, and even more importantly, a person who was the actual father of a woman who I now know - Alison Bechdel. So there's a REAL sense of responsibility, and privilege, to get sort of bring that person to life again. But it's really daunting, and most of all, you just want to have the feeling that you're doing the character and the man justice.
Hello, Michael. We traveled from Tennessee to NYC with the sole purpose of seeing Fun Home and we were not disappointed. You, the cast, the music, the writing are fantastic. I did not know what to expect and felt like I had been on an emotional rollercoaster... What is it like for you to do that every night? How do you keep mentally 'happy' when dealing with such serious issues? Thank you.
It's just as much of an emotional roller coaster to perform as I imagine it is to watch.
Keeping your spirits up, and your energy up, are totally the hardest parts of a job like this.
Especially because Bruce never really has that moment that most characters have, of release or epiphany or reconciliation in the show.
Our Bruce in the play, just like Alison's actual father in real life, died tragically before he ever found that kind of comfort in the world. So I leave the stage similarly burdened.
So I've... I've developed a sort of ritual of just giving myself some time after my final exit from the stage before I have to speak to anybody, and I have a little hand washing sort of ritual that somebody suggested as a way to kind of mindfully put the character away for the night, to be picked up tomorrow.
And I try to vary my days, and vary my time away from the theater, in ways that make it easier to carry the burden of Bruce's story with me.
It really is a challenge to do a role like this. Even though the physical and vocal demands have been greater in other shows that I've done - Hedwig was a 100 minute aerobics class - I still think there should be a Hedwig Workout Tape - and shows like SWEENEY were incredibly challenging vocally. But I've never had an experience that was as emotionally devastating and demanding. And it's really just something I'm still trying to figure out how to do in the long run.
And happily, it looks like we're going to have a long run.
First of all, I can't believe I caught this, you're amazing.
Secondly, what advice would you give to someone in their early twenties who would like to pursue musical theater/vocal performance as a career? Do you think going to a conservatory is necessary? Can I sing with you sometime? Please?
Let's start singing Captain & Tenille's "Muskrat Love" right now.
You start first.
I actually thought a lot about that, when I was looking at colleges, and I applied to both conservatories & liberal arts places.
In the end, I decided for me, maybe because I wasn't planning a career in musical theater - I had planned to be a straight dramatic actor, and sort of sing in bands in my own time - I decided that I wanted to go to a place where I was not going to be immersed in theater all the time, but I was going to have roommates that were studying non-arts things. I guess I figured "If I'm going to spend my life playing all kinds of people, I should spend my education knowing all kinds of people."
And so I went to Yale Undergraduate, which had a strong theater training program, but almost no technical training at that time - so no voice and speech, no movement, and no singing.
I studied privately with an opera teacher at the musical school named Lake Stern who taught some undergraduates, and he said "I know you're not going to be an opera singer, but I'm going to train you the way I would any opera singer, so at least you'll have a good technical foundation."
I really thought i was only ever going to use it to do Shakespeare. But as it turns out - surprising ME more than anybody - I've had a substantial part of my career onstage as a singer.
So I'm really glad I took those lessons back in college!
So i suppose it depends on what kind of career you want to have. But I do kind of agree with the philosophy of the people who put the program together at Yale, which was that - unlike classical ballet dancing, or classical music, a lot of the skills you need as an actor are not skills that you need to be honing from age 5. And life experience, and a breadth of knowledge, and curiosity, I think is as important as the technical skills.
And there are ways to get the technical skills in and around your academic pursuits.
That worked for me.
But that's not going to be right for everybody.
Hi Michael! Very excited that you're doing this! I'm a playwright who is looking to move into directing. What do you look for a in a director? Who were some of the best you've worked with and what memories really stick out, both as emotional moments, and effective creative ones?
Also, would you mind sharing any anecdotes you have from your time with Bob Mould or Pete Townshend? How do they differ as band/studio leaders?
Thank you so much for doing this. Really appreciate your time!
I value most of all directors who seem to understand and respect the process that actors go through in finding their way to a role, and to a performance.
It's surprising how many times I've worked with directors who don't seem to have that fundamental understanding or appreciation of what the people they're working with are going through.
Some of the finest directors I've worked with - or at least, the ones I've had the best relationships with and best experiences with - have been people like John Doyle and Sam Gold. Both of those men are able to really create a rehearsal room where actors can be fearless, and unselfconscious, and take chances without the fear of being humiliated or made to feel embarrassed because a choice doesn't work.
90% of your choices aren't going to work. And if a director makes you feel shy about trying things because you're afraid of failing - then you'll start editing yourself as a self-protective thing. And that's the death of a rehearsal, I think.
I have a memory of a situation that's not a typical situation. And not one ordinarily that you would point to as a way that you'd like to work all the time. But in this case, it was incredibly valuable. I was working with Joe Mantello, on ASSASSINS, and there was a scene that we just couldn't seem to get right. And we rehearsed it daily, it seemed, all through previews. And I Just was not finding, or delivering, whatever it was that Joe was trying to get me to do - despite his trying to explain it to me, and me trying desperately to understand what he wanted.
Finally, one day, because I initially had known Joe as an actor when I saw him in ANGELS IN AMERICA, and I knew what a brilliant actor he was, I said to him "Look, I'm only going to say this one time, but just do it for me. Just get up and show me what it is you're talking about, because clearly i"m not understanding what you mean."
And after some hesitation, he did, and I suddenly saw immediately what he meant, that was somehow lost in the translation of describing it, but when I saw him simply do it, I knew what he meant, and then I said "Thanks!" halfway through - "That's plenty, I get what you mean."
And was able, finally, to do what he wanted me to do all along.
I guess the lesson there is that there aren't hard & fast rules about how actors and directors work together.
The best relationships are ones where you come to understand how to talk to each other, and how to listen to each other.
I'm bound by legal arrangement never to reveal anything that happened on ANY of the tours with Bob or Pete.
But I will say... that it satisfied my teenage Anglophile rock n' roll self forever to be able to stand onstage with Pete Townshend as my guitar playing, doing WHO songs in front of enormous audiences, and having people like Eddie Vedder come backstage and say "Man, how do you sing like that 8 times a week?!"
To which I replied - "Well, I don't sing it like YOU would, 8 times a week!"
And touring with Bob was one of the thrills my life - just to play those songs I had grown up with, and to be a small part of delivering these songs to his fans around the country, and Europe.
Michael! Fellow Louisianan and theatre lover here, what is your favorite restaurant in Louisiana?
God, my favorite restaurant?
Well, as a Lousianian, you understand the impossibility of answering that question.
There's just too damn many good places to eat there.
I do love Elizabeth's for Brunch in New Orleans. I love the Blue Moon Saloon in Lafayette, for music and food. And I love Marti's on Rampart Street for special occasions. And also to sit in the same room where Tennessee Williams used to hold court.
What is your favorite song to sing at a karaoke bar?
Funny you should ask.
I just, last week, went to my friend Joe McGinty's new piano bar, Sid Gold's Request Lounge, on 26th street in Manhattan. Joe is a friend of many years who runs the Loser's Lounge where I've performed often over the years. And he does a piano karaoke night in Brooklyn that has now given birth to probably the coolest club in New York.
When I was there for the opening last week, I was hanging out with friends from Broadway shows, and then my friends George and Ira from Yo La Tengo - all at the same karaoke bar.
That night, my choice of song was "Life on Mars" by David Bowie. Which probably is not the best song to sing the night before a matinee the next morning, because it's really high. But it was a special night.
But probably the coolest karaoke night i ever had was a night out with my friends Corin Tucker and Janet Weiss, from Sleater-Kinney. I guess people in Portland do a LOT of karaoke, because every time I'm around, especially musician friends from Portland, we end up going to Karaoke. And this night, we were down in some Chinatown basement. And Elliott Smith dropped by, because he knew them also. And I was onstage singing "Vincent" the Don McClean song. And Elliott said that the loved that song, and said "If I ever did karaoke, that's the song I would do."
And that was the last time I ever got to talk to Elliott Smith. So I remember that night for that. And also, bringing this conversation full circle, that night, Corin and I did sing "Muskrat Love."
what is your interaction with scott forstall -- does he do things differently from most producers? also, what sorts of food do they provide?
Given that our cast has a lot of children in it, we have a lot of pizza backstage. And a surprising amount of candy, given that in the wrong doses, it can be disastrous.
You are such an incredible actor and singer - thank you so much for so many wonderful nights at the theatre.
You once said “A night out with [Patti LuPone] is not for the faint-hearted.” What’s your craziest Patti LuPone story?
Before we started rehearsals for SWEENEY TODD, Patti and I, along with Audra McDonald, were performing at Ravinia, we were doing "Anyone Can Whistle" (the concert version). And Patti knew that she was going to be playing the tuba in SWEENEY TODD, and she had played the tuba in high school - apparently because she heard that the band had the best parties, so she wanted to be in the band.
So she played tuba. And she had to re-access her tuba skills, her mad tuba skills, and she chose - one night - to share with the rest of the cast, just how far she had gotten in her studies.
This happened to be in the hotel we were all staying in, after the show, at about 1 AM.
So it went on for a surprisingly long time, before hotel security came knocking on the door - justifiably asking what the hell we were doing.
And... that was the end of the recital for the evening.