`Tommy' Star Earns Raves As Pop Icon

Michael Cerveris leads The Who's rock opera

`I DIDN'T know what part I was auditioning for, but I assumed it wasn't Tommy, because I don't have long curly blond hair." Michael Cerveris was wrong. The 32-year-old actor showed up at the Los Angeles rehearsal hall last March, and then, one year later, found himself playing the lead in "The Who's Tommy," Broadway's most startling new musical in years.

Mr. Cerveris has worked in many of the most acclaimed regional theaters and done television work, but this is his Broadway debut. "I guess I'm living proof," he says modestly, "that if you stick to it, sometimes a door will eventually open for you."

And when the door opened, he was ready to go through. A framed certificate commemorating his Tony nomination, which shares a small table with a vase of lilacs, attests to his outstanding performance in the show.

Eight times a week, Cerveris brings to life one of contemporary pop culture's most familiar icons, the hero of The Who's rock opera, which is known to millions around the world from the recordings and live concerts. But the work had never before been staged as a full musical, and Cerveris found himself dealing with a legend.

"My solution was to treat it like doing Hamlet - hundreds of people have made indelible stamps on it, but you somehow have to get up and do the lines your own way."

He admits to being less familiar with this work than other music by The Who. "I was eight or nine when the album came out. And as far as the movie goes, I vividly remember Elton John in big boots, Ann-Margret rolling around in baked beans, and, of course, Tina Turner. But I was definitely not in the camp of people who knew every word."

The show "is a hybrid of what we've known as rock-and-roll, and what we've known as musical theater," he explains, sipping peppermint tea from a heavy white porcelain mug in his dressing room at the St. James Theatre.

"Young people who have no connection to theater before this love it and think it's a giant MTV video. Older audiences, who we thought might find it unbearable, are bopping in their seats and saying, `I never liked rock-and-roll, but I really like this.' It even borrows a lot from people like Robert Wilson and Meredith Monk, visually and dramatically and in finding nontraditional ways of telling stories in musical theater."

Cerveris has had a nontraditional career himself. His first exposure to the musical-theater world came when his musician father took him to see "Sweeney Todd," which led to Cerveris finding work in summer stock musicals.

But except for a featured role on the television series "Fame," his resume is far more weighted on the dramatic side, including Shakespearean roles in Los Angeles, Chicago, and Dallas.

"Michael is a trooper," says Joseph Church, who, as musical director for "Tommy," has been responsible for every aspect of the show's music, including involvement in casting and rehearsing its musical numbers.

"He's a good musician, a wonderful musical person who is very sensitive to phrasing. And his strong acting talent produces acting values that are manifested through the music," Church says. He adds that Cerveris was by far the best candidate who auditioned for the job.

And the job is different than most people might imagine. Speculation when the show was first announced centered on whether a rock singer would be cast. "But rock singers don't usually do eight shows a week, which is required here," Cerveris says.

While the up-to-the-minute technical wizardry of the show stuns audiences every night, with video screens, projections, lighting effects and fast-paced staging, it is still a musical-theater show, with all the demands that such a schedule entails.

Cerveris's rigorous dramatic training has proven to be his greatest asset. He is also careful to limit the amount of talking he does during the day. He even passed up an opportunity to play softball in the Broadway Show League to protect his voice from exposure to damp rainy days.

When taking on a role, Cerveris researches the historic period, music, culture, and events of the era.

The research for "Tommy" involved an unusual bonus. "This is Pete Townshend's story, about a boy growing up in England after World War II," Cerveris says. "And to give me an extra edge, Pete brought me to London and took me around the neighborhoods where he grew up. We went to pubs and heard stories."

Because the album was released in the late 1960s, some people expect that era to be the focus. They are sometimes surprised to find that the story is in fact set in the '50s.

Doing a long-running show brings with it the demands of keeping each performance fresh. To recharge between shows, Cerveris goes to afternoon movies, visits museums or reads.

"I might see a painting, or hear some music, and find some image that's riveting, and then I can't wait to go onstage that night...."

But even the most professional of actors can run into problem nights.

He recalls a performance of Shakespeare's "Richard II" at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles when "nobody realized that, as a company, we were on the edge. Something funny happened at the top of the show with a prop, and this murmur of laughter started to spread like wildfire through the entire cast.

"Kelsey Grammar was playing Richard, and everybody thought he'd hold it together. We looked at him and heard this quiver in his voice, and it was terrible! And if you try to fight it, it makes it worse. We all knew it was so unprofessional, but it just happens sometimes."

Finishing up his tea, Cerveris begins to prepare for the evening performance.

"You know, I have auditioned for other Broadway work. I was up for `Les Mis' every time they needed replacements. They kept telling me they wanted an opera-based singer who can act instead of an actor who can sing. I keep being reminded that people who don't know my other work think of me now as this musical-theater guy," he laughs.

When asked about his future plans, Cerveris smiles and refers to the phenomenal advance ticket sales the show has enjoyed, even breaking some box office records. "I guess it will be quite a while before that choice comes up."

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