NEW YORK — After starring in "The Who's Tommy," and "Titanic" on Broadway, and in off-Broadway's "Hedwig and the Angry Inch," Michael Cerveris told his agents he did not want to do another musical.
"The only thing I would do is a Sondheim musical," he says, thinking that it would never happen. Then, along came the revival of "Passion," which he starred in at the Kennedy Center's Stephen Sondheim Celebration this summer in Washington.
Both the actor and the musical benefited from the pairing each garnering some of their best reviews ever. This Monday evening, he will reprise that role as part of a special concert presentation at New York's Lincoln Center.
"Sondheim is a populist, just as Shakespeare was in his time," says Mr. Cerveris. "He's not only a writer who can appeal to the intelligentsia. I can't think of another writer who, in three notes, can bring me to tears."
Set at a remote Italian military outpost in 1863, "Passion" chronicles the journey of a young soldier who is involved with a married woman. When transferred out of Milan, he becomes the obsession of Fosca, a sickly recluse, the sister of his commanding officer.
The original 1994 Tony-winning musical by Sondheim and James Lapine emphasized the responsibilities that society places on attractive people.
"It may have been highlighted because they made Donna Murphy, who is a strikingly beautiful woman, into an unattractive person," says the Tony-nominated actor. In the version Cerveris starred in, which has been far better received, "it's a thread throughout the play, but not the most important one. Now, it's clearer that Fosca is someone more scarred by her spiritual unattractiveness than her physical unattractiveness."
Cerveris believes the musical, directed by Eric Schaeffer, will be viewed as "incredibly romantic and warm and beautiful, rather than dark, negative, and ugly. Sondheim is such an emotional writer, even though he's accused of being cold or unemotional, which I never understood."
Growing up in Huntington, W. Va., Cerveris was introduced to music by his father, a classical pianist. Cerveris settled on theater after a few positive experiences with drama groups at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire. This led to a drama degree at Yale.
After moving to New York, and working at the requisite restaurant and retail sales jobs, he landed a soap-opera part, which led to auditions, an agent, and Philadelphia's Wilma Theatre, for its production of "The Picture of Dorian Gray." That began a 10-year run of regional theater roles around the country. He acted in Shakespearean plays at Chicago's Goodman, San Diego's Old Globe, and the Mark Taper in Los Angeles.
"I had been playing guitar since high school, but I never considered doing musicals during that period." It changed with "Fame," a television series in the 1980s, in which Cerveris was cast as an English transfer student who plays guitar and sings rock.
The role in "Fame" led to "The Who's Tommy" in 1993. Director Des McAnuff, musical director Joseph Church, and The Who's Pete Townshend were impressed with Cerveris. He had proven he could sustain the rigors of performing eight shows a week. Cerveris maintains a second career singing with a rock band, and affirms that "I'd rather keep my rock and roll and my theater separate. I've done the only two rock musicals I wanted to, which turned me into the poster boy for the rock musical."
He looks forward to doing dramatic parts such as Ibsen and Checkhov, adding that "statistically, in regional theaters and off-Broadway, I've done more straight roles."
He's had roles in films such as "The Mexican," and on TV's popular crime show "CSI." "It would be nice to be thought of as a leading-man type like John Malkovich or Ed Harris," Cerveris says. But he jokes, "I'll probably still be doing the weirdo psycho killer guys, because apparently, they are always bald!"