by Melissa Griegel
Veteran Broadway actor-producer Erik Liberman has launched a new platform for upcoming and aspiring actors to learn from the masters. His Bridge to Broadway series offers online master classes and interactive conversations where emerging artists have an opportunity to discuss their craft with seasoned Broadway professionals. Classes can be taken one at time, or a “classpass” can be purchased to offer unlimited classes for that month’s offerings. This class had approximately 30 students with an interview portion of about 40 minutes.
I had the honor of sitting in on Liberman’s discussion with Tony Award Winner Michael Cerveris. Cerveris has a long and varied career. From Off-Broadway to the West End, Broadway to the Public Theater, multiple television series to playing in his own band, Cerveris has done it all.
Liberman started the conversation where it all began: his early home life. Cerveris is the son of dancer mom Marsha and music professor dad Michael, so the arts have always been a part of his life. “The first time I was on stage, I was in second grade,” Cerveris reminisced. “My dad put me in one of the University plays.” He also introduced Cerveris to Sondheim at an early age. He remembers listening to A Little Night Music with his father.
His love of theater grew at Phillips Exeter Academy, where he had the opportunity to be in some very interesting works and was encouraged by his theater teacher to apply to Yale as a drama major. “I wouldn’t have applied otherwise,” he said. “It wouldn’t have even occurred to me. My teacher went to Yale. He had a very ensemble-based approach to theater with a downtown theater aesthetic. I really learned a lot from him.” His early life was spent mostly in West Virginia, where he constantly “felt like a fish out of water.” There wasn’t much of a focus on the arts where he lived. “We weren’t entirely of West Virginia. My home life was very different. I learned to feel comfortable being uncomfortable.”
Cerveris’ Broadway debut was in 1993 playing Tommy/Narrator in The Who’s Tommy. His first time out earned Cerveris a Tony nomination, a Drama League nomination, a Theatre World award, and Grammy as part of the OBC Broadway Cast Recording. Other highlights of his Broadway career include the 2004 Tony Award for Best Featured Actor and the Outer Critics Circle award for playing John Wilkes Booth in Assassins; a 2005 Tony nomination for the lead role in Sweeney Todd, a Tony nomination for LoveMusik in 2007, and the 2015 Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Man in Fun Home playing Bruce Bechdel.
Many of his roles involved portraying very flawed, and sometime evil, characters. Liberman asked him how he divests himself from the darkness of a character when he goes home. Cerveris laughed, “This is a complicated question. I resist the urge to ‘suffer with my character.’ I try to not take the character home with me. Different things help. Learning about the character and finding the good in the person is one way. Doing therapy. Walking my dog. One ritual that I did during Sweeney Todd is that I would wash my hands after the show, just before leaving the theater. I was consciously and willfully letting go of Sweeney for the night.”
Letting go of Bruce Bechdel in Fun Home was a little harder. “He never gets his catharsis in the show,” Cerveris said. “Bruce has no release and, therefore, there is no release for the actor. There is just increasing anguish throughout the show.” What helped him during the show’s run was talking with the fans after the show at the stage door. “Sometimes we would spend an hour talking to people. People were genuinely affected by the story. We felt a responsibility to the audience to help them with that.”
Getting to know his character was also helpful. The cast spent the night with Alison Bechdel in the original family home and visited Bruce’s gravesite. “I have endless sympathy and affinity for Bruce because I got to see the good parts of him also.” He told us that Helen is buried next to Bruce, despite that fact that she re-married after Bruce’s death. “There had to be love there for her to do that. Plus, they did have three children together. They didn’t just stop at one. That shows something. Many people in the town of Beech Creek told us that Bruce was a great teacher. So while he was not without flaws and he made some indefensible choices that we cannot excuse, we can still have some sympathy for him.”
Cerveris is a big fan of ensemble work. “I feel it is the centerpiece of the theater.” His favorite theater ritual is when a production gathers everybody in a big circle before the opening of the show. “I mean everybody,” he emphasizes, “the usher, the ticket taker, the sound guys, everybody.” He feels that making every single person feel responsible for the success of a show is important. “If you have a bad interaction with the usher before sitting down, that affects your mindset before the show has even started.”
The best example of true ensemble work he had was in the John Doyle revival of Sweeney Todd where they all had to play their own instruments. “We did everything. We were responsible for getting our props in place. We played our own instruments. We got so well-trained to listen to each other.” They had to listen for every little cue, such a sniffle to signify the downbeat for the start of the music. “We were one organism. We started thinking like a hive.”
Michael Cerveris is a highly talented actor and musician. Television shows have included Fame, The Good Wife, The Tick, Fringe, and Mindhunter. He has played with Bob Mould, They Might Be Giants, recorded a solo album, and plays with his American Country band The Loose Cattle. I know I am looking forward to seeing what Michael Cerveris does next.
Classes continue with Stephanie Hsu, Larry Owens, Adam Guettel, Chuck & Lilli Cooper, Joshua Henry, Mickey Rowe, to name a few, and so many more. Check the calendar at www.bridgetobroadwayonline.com