How does an accomplished actor-singer play a composer who wasn't a singer? Wait, there's more: The character in question is German, and he's singing English lyrics he didn't write, in a stitched-together anthology show that tells the intertwined story of him and his famous muse.
With Kurt Weill, one half of the complicated couple at the center of the Hal Prince-directed musical LoveMusik
, the key to the character is in the music the words are set to.
"I do sometimes have to remind myself that where he really exists is in the music, not necessarily just in the lyric," says Michael Cerveris, who plays the balding, bespectacled Weill opposite Donna Murphy's recreation of the composer's on-again-off-again wife Lotte Lenya, who memorably went on to champion his music after his untimely death in 1950. For this remarkable pair of recreation/interpretations, Cerveris and Murphy are justly nominated for Tony Awards.
Cerveris reports possibly an even greater accolade: Soprano Teresa Stratas, well known for her Weill recordings and for her close association with Lenya, gave a personal thumbs up. "She came to the show and says I got Weill exactly right. I figure if she says so, it must be true," Cerveris says.
Cerveris, a versatile performer who's made a sort of three-pronged career as a Sondheim specialist (Assassins
, Sweeney Todd
), a rock musical hero (Tommy
, Hedwig and the Angry Inch
), and a straight-play actor (King Lear
at the Public Theatre, Wintertime
at the McCarter Theatre and Second Stage), says he thinks of himself as an actor first, a singer second. But where his work on most parts starts with the text of the play and/or the song lyrics, Cerveris says the most valuable research he did on Weill laid elsewhere.
"I listened to his symphonies," Cerveris recounts. "There is a kind of soul that's revealed in his instrumental works. There's a lot of contradiction in the music. You get very simplistic, almost brutal rhythms; on the other hand a sweet, sensitive, gorgeous melody. He puts those against each other. That to me is a telling character trait."
As an example, Cerveris cites the famous "Alabama Song," which has been performed by opera and cabaret singers, as well as by the Doors, David Bowie, and the Psychedelic Furs, and which figures prominently in LoveMusik
's first act.
"It's like a punk rock tune--the rhythm of the verse couldn't be more simple and repetitious and boneheaded," he points out. "But then there's this gorgeous 'O moon of Alabama' section."
In addition to listening, Cerveris did read about Weill, including the letters between him and Lenya, collected in the book Speak Low (When You Speak Love)
, which formed the inspiration for director Hal Prince and playwright Alfred Uhry.
"Weill was very calm and retiring and self-effacing, in most situations, and yet he was an ambitious and driven man. I mean, he died at 50 of a heart attack, and that doesn't happen unless you're bottling up a lot of passion and anger. There really was a real fire burning in him that was disguised by this placid surface. When you listen to the music, it's very clear."
Cerveris' favorite part of any musical, he says, is what's called a sitzprobe
: the first time the cast and the full orchestra read and play through the show together. In the case of LoveMusik
, it was another chance for a music-driven character epiphany.
"After the sitzprobe
, I told Jonathan Tunick, the orchestrator, 'I think I've begun to understand Weill better in the last three hours than in all the reading I've done,' " Cerveris says.
closes on June 24, Cerveris looks forward to a break--and to a return to his rock music career, which includes a number of albums and tours. He's got an eclectic resume, to be sure--or as he puts it, "My career tends to be pretty 'left of the dial,' even when it's in mainstream theatres or on Broadway."
It hasn't been the result of a grand plan, he confesses: "There's been as much luck as will involved. I don't know if it's because I'm picky or arrogant, but I turned things down long before I had any leg to stand on. I guess it's because I find acting such a challenge, and I don't know how to clock in and clock out, and I throw myself into whatever I'm doing, that I have to feel really invested in it if I'm going to do a good job and enjoy the experience."
After creating the definitive lead role in the rock musical Tommy
, he says, he was offered run-of-the-mill jukebox musicals. He's glad he didn't take them.
"Sometimes actors just go anywhere people want them to go, and they wake up one day and find themselves in careers they didn't want, because they just went with the flow for too long."
Still, there are some unlikely side effects of carving your own path: Weill is the first Broadway role Cerveris has had in a while that doesn't rack up a body count.
"At least I don't kill anybody this time--I mean, I die in the show, but there's no blood on my hands," he says with a morbid chuckle. "There aren't a lot of musical theatre actors who have that problem!"
Find tickets to LoveMusik here.