A Playbill once called Michael Cerveris “arguably the most versatile leading man on Broadway.”
That was in 2009, as he was appearing as the very good Dr. Givings in the Tony Award-nominated Sarah Ruhl comedy, “In the Next Room (or the Vibrator Play)”; and before he was nominated for a 2012 Tony Award for playing Argentina dictator Juan Peron in the most recent revival of the Webber-Rice classic “Evita”; and before he won the Tony Award this year for playing closeted gay father Bruce Bechdel in the Lisa Kron-Jeanine Tesori musical “Fun Home.”
This is the same Michael Cerveris who burst onto the Broadway scene with a Tony-nominated performance in the title role of 1993’s “The Who’s Tommy,” followed by other nominated turns in Stephen Sondheim’s “Assassins” and “Sweeney Todd” and Alfred Uhry’s “LoveMusik.”
And this doesn’t even cover the versatility Cerveris displays when he’s off the theater stage and performing varying versions of folk and rock in his band, Loose Cattle, or in his solo work.
New Orleans audiences probably won’t get to hear much of that when Cerveris returns home for a Broadway at NOCCA performance and interview with pianist/interviewer Seth Rudetsky on Dec. 14, which means the audience will be waiting with anticipation to see what songs they pull from Cerveris’ vast body of Broadway work.
Speaking by phone from New York City, where he’s still performing in “Fun Home,” Cerveris wasn’t even sure yet of the playlist. He said he might perform “Pony Girl,” a recent Loose Cattle song that initially was meant for the “Fun Home” score but didn’t make the cut.
“There will be a healthy amount of Sondheim, I’m sure,” he said with a chuckle, but then he thought about it a little more. “It’s difficult. Many of the songs I’ve done in those Sondheim shows don’t lend themselves to be taken out of context (and performed in a separate show). That’s partly why I don’t entirely know what I’m doing.”
But one thing is certain: Cerveris will be versatile. He can’t help not be, having grown up in a musical household in which his father played classical music and harbored a fascination with turn-of-the-century Paris café society and its boundary-pushing artists like Erik Satie — when he wasn’t listening to country music or Top 40 in his hometown of Huntington, W.V.
“I kind of grew up without a lot of restrictions in terms of do this one thing and that’s all I could do,” recalled Cerveris, who splits his time between New York City and his home in the Treme neighborhood. “I was interested in a lot of different things. I guess the reason my career has taken the circuitous path, that seems to have a logic to it in hindsight, is that when I had opportunities that other people might also have had, I was interested in pursuing them as well.”
For Cerveris, being comparatively unfocused gave him a freedom to chart his own course. Call it a Zen-like path to success.
“I never really thought of myself as ambitious, so I didn’t have a particular goal I was driving toward — the irony being, by doing that I’ve actually achieved a lot of the goals I didn’t have the wits to want.”
And so the same Michael Cerveris who took classical voice lessons to make him more adept at Shakespeare while studying in Yale’s prestigious drama school is the same Michael Cerveris who practically dropped what he was doing in the early stages of his acting career in New York City only to wind up playing a British wannabe rocker, Ian Ware, in the last season of the TV show “Fame.” That led him into a brief period as an aspiring musician in Los Angeles’ now-infamous rock scene — a scene that featured metal-rockers Motley Crue, Guns N’ Roses and Metallica. That path somehow led him to the La Jolla Playhouse and the lead role as Tommy in The Who’s musical, and suddenly Cerveris was on Broadway, about to become a star.
“Luckily, my interests and skills set support each other — and my inherently schizophrenic inability to stick to anything,” said Cerveris, who also has gained notice for his TV appearances, including HBO’s “Treme,” CBS’ “The Good Wife” and Fox’s “Fringe.”
This completely unplanned career path brought him to “Fun Home,” a musical based on the graphic memoir of Alison Bechnel about her life growing up as a closeted lesbian, with a father she later learned was struggling with his own sexual identity. Aside from the hilarious “Who Dat?!” shout-out when he accepted the Tony Award, Cerveris’ acceptance speech may well be remembered for noting how the play is an argument for humanity, a call for people to become bigger-hearted.
For someone who eschews awards and is wary of pitting performers against one another for accolades, Cerveris nevertheless appreciates the praise that “Fun Home” has won — for everyone and not just himself.
It’s all part of his nonplan.
“When I allowed myself to have any kind of career in school, ‘Fun Home’ is exactly the kind of play I’d want to be in if I can imagine that kind of thing,” he said.