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Michael Cerveris interview
Here's something I hope you enjoy; besides being an interview with a
person involved with the current Broadway production (and thus with The
Who's history), there are some very interesting notes concerning Pete
and his work both on the Broadway show and in other areas.
The following is the text of an interview with Michael Cerveris, who
plays Tommy in _The Who's Tommy on Broadway_. This interview was
conducted February 26, 1994, at the St. James Theatre, following the
matinee performance. Permission is hereby given to reproduce this
interview, providing it is not altered and that this notice accompanies
it. Enjoy! --Alan McKendree
Were you a Who fan before the show?
I wasn't an avid, avid Who fan. I didn't own everything that they'd
recorded; I was familiar, like anybody, growing up. I'm 33 now, so I
was 9 when _Tommy_ came out, but I was also growing up in West Virginia,
and things kind of got there a little later than they got to the rest of
the country; and I was the oldest in the family, so I didn't have an
older brother to hand me down Who albums or anything so...
Do you have brothers or sisters?
I have a younger brother and a younger sister. My sister's a dancer and
my brother's an actor. So I knew sort of what everybody knows of Who
music -- although I had pictures that I had copied out of illustrated
rock photo books, old pictures of Pete that I had copied and traced and
found in old notebooks in school...
So you're an artist as well.
Well, when I was a student in junior high I doodled a lot in class...so,
I was definitely aware of him and knew the music. Actually I'm glad
that I wasn't a bigger fan before because it was hard enough trying to
take all this on and meeting Pete and meeting Roger and John later; and
knowing everybody's expectations going in, if I'd been a really, really
big fan, it just would have been paralyzing, the fear.
When I started working on the show, I started doing a lot of research
and going back and finding every bootleg I could find and B-sides and
And you're buying all these?
With your own money?
Yeah, with my own money.
That's an investment.
Well, I'm a big rock fan anyway, and music fan in general, so I love
listening to music, and I do constantly, and love finding
off-the-beaten-path stuff and not the easily available things, and this
was like a paid reason to do all that...and I could write it all off,
best of all...so _now_, I'm pretty well versed in Who mania, or whatever
you call it, and I did a lot of reading, I read _Before I Get Old_, and
Pete and Barney [Richard Barnes] gave me some stuff like _The Story of
Tommy_ and _Maximum R & B_, so now I feel I caught up.
But it was also great to be coming at it fresh at this age, not having
it so ingrained in my head from listening to it for years that I could
have new associations with it and especially with the _Tommy_ music
because then as an actor I could find a more immediate response that
wasn't filtered through, you know, listening to it a hundred times the
night my girlfriend broke up with me in ninth grade and then having
those associations with it. So I was glad. And Pete actually had said
a couple of times that one of the things that was exciting for him in
the beginning of working on this was having a bunch of people who were
not contemporaries of his examining the music and interpreting the story
in a fresh way and a new way and adding their experience and their
perspectives to it too.
I've seen the Carnegie concerts and it was a real thrill for me, as
an older Who fan, to see the younger people in the Juilliard getting
And then we get _young_, young kids here -- we get 8-year old kids,
7-year-old kids who I'm sure think it was just written, even teenage
kids who just haven't been listening to anything but what's on MTV. And
that's great too, because it's turning them on to all this stuff.
Where did you have your acting training?
I studied undergraduate at Yale, and that really is where most of my
real serious training came from. I started acting really young, because
my dad was a university music professor, so when the university needed a
kid for the college class production, I was the kid. The first thing I
was ever in was Berthold Brecht's play _Caucasian Chalk Circle_ at the
age of six or seven. I don't think I had any lines. So I was around
acting for a long time and decided, I guess, in college that that was
what I really wanted to do.
After Yale, then grad school?
No, I thought about grad school, and I think I probably would have
wanted to go to Yale's grad school if I went anywhere, but I talked to
people who were in the program there and they all said to go to New York
and if you can learn while you're working, all the better, and if not,
then you'll come back knowing what you want to learn, or where you think
you need work. So I did that, I came straight down here and (sighs) did
the typical actor things, waited tables, and did odd, really odd jobs --
like collating, you're walking around a table full of stacks of papers
just taking one off the top -- I guess they couldn't afford a Xerox
machine that collated, and they hired ten people to just walk around the
table (laughs), it was amazing, for hours.
Kind of relaxing, at least.
Well, yeah, you get into this Zen meditation. And I ate hamburgers in
the background of every soap opera in New York and all that, and then
gradually started getting more and more visible stage work and regional
theatre work out of New York so I'd go other places, but still was based
And then [I] was hired for Fame, the TV series, for what turned out to
be the last year of the series -- at that point I was supposed to be
there for three years and then it was cancelled after that first year.
So I was hired here and then moved to L. A. to do that and played an
English guitar student named Ian Ware, which was the beginning of my
English rock-and-roll professional performing career. And when that
ended I stayed out there and did more episodic TV, _Equalizers_ and
_Quantum Leap_ and some low-budget independent movies, things you find
on USA _Up All Night_. But [I] continued to do regional theatre all the
time, a lot of classical theatre actually, a lot of Shakespeare.
In California still?
In California, in Seattle, in Dallas, in San Diego -- and _Tommy_,
actually, I was in _Richard II_ at the Mark Taper forum in Los Angeles
when I auditioned for it and for the first two weeks (for the production
in La Jolla) it was a two hour drive south (well, with no traffic and
before the earthquake it was a two-hour drive) -- the terms of the
contract, of the Taper letting me out to do _Tommy_, because it was
before my contract there was done, were that I had to rehearse _Tommy_
during the day from 10 to 3 and then drove to Los Angeles, which
actually took about three hours during the day -- and did the show, got
back in the car and went back to San Diego to do more _Tommy_
rehearsals, and I did that for two weeks. But it's funny, because it
was originally a regional theatre gig, and at that point, who _knew_
that _any_thing was going to come up? It could have been a dismal
failure. And I thought -- the first time my agent called and said we
have an audition for you for a new stage version of _Tommy_, I thought
"What a _bad_ idea."
Did you know about the previous versions, or that they existed?
As far as I've heard, its other versions have always been concert
versions with rough staging, or the ballet, but there hasn't that I know
of been an effort to make it into a real theatre piece, and certainly
nothing that Pete was ever involved in. My main contact with the story
was the movie, because I was the right age for that when that came out
in West Virginia. I was just trying to figure out how they were going
to get baked beans on the stage and then clean them up, and where they
were going to put the huge big Doc Martens
And the hang glider
yeah, all that stuff. And then, we never saw a script through the
audition process and even when we were hired, so I didn't know what
songs I was going to be singing. Because in the actual movie, Roger
spends the first half, three-quarters of it, when you hear him singing,
you're just _hearing_ him, and he's just sort of walking around being
deaf, dumb, and blind, and I thought is that it? I'm not going to get
to sing anything? I didn't even, when I _first_ auditioned, I didn't
know I was auditioning for the role of Tommy. I assumed I _wasn't_,
because I figured they'd want somebody with long curly blond hair. So I
was really surprised to find out, when they called me back, that they
gave me _Amazing Journey_ and _Sensation_ to sing and said that it was
toward that role.
Talking about Roger's role in it, how much work was it for you to put
It's _still_ work for me to put it aside, I mean especially when he
comes to town singing the songs. (laughs) That was probably the single
biggest thing to overcome.
The idea that Daltrey is Tommy.
Yeah, and has been as far as anybody else is concerned. It probably
would have been true even without the movie, because of where _Tommy_
came in the band's career, and what it meant to them and what it meant
to their fans. And it really was kind of like when Roger came into his
own as front man for the band in a lot of ways, so he's so identified
with that, and then with the movie too that sort of cemented it.
It's kind of like doing Hamlet in a way -- how many hundreds of people
have played this before, and Olivier's played it, and Gielgud's played
it, Burton, everybody's played it, and so what are _you_ going to do
that's going to be different and you eventually come down to realizing
the only chance you have is to just make it as personal as possible and
the more it's like an expression of you the more it's going to be
different from anybody else's -- better, worse, who knows, but at least
it'll be yours. And that basically was my approach with this. And
luckily that was exactly what Des McAnuff, the director, and Pete
wanted, they didn't want it to be an imitation of anybody else, they
never made me feel like I had to compete with that.
In fact, Des was at the show this afternoon, and he actually gave me
some notes and said there were places where -- because for a long time I
kept wanting to make it sound more and more raw and less and less like
musical theatre -- now he said there were places where I just growl too
much (laughs), I'm starting to turn into Roger, and that's not what we
wanted. So that was good.
And also, I really felt sort of under that shadow throughout La Jolla,
and when the production came to New York actually, we all had to
audition again to win our roles back and they went on a huge search and
saw 1,500 people and had open calls where you didn't have to have had
any experience at all other than wanting to be in it, just to kind of
look far and wide, and they ended up with almost all the same people.
All of the principals and most of the ensemble.
Still, that's really got to put an edge on you.
Oh, yeah. It made it feel like every show in La Jolla was an audition,
first auditioning the show to come to New York, and then secondly
auditioning ourselves to be with it when it goes, and so that whole time
you're feeling very vulnerable to any criticism that you're not like it
should be or not like your predecessors.
And once they decided that I was going to be doing it here, Pete said
[right then]: "You know I can't teach you to act, and I don't really
want to tell you how you should sing it, but he said I _can_ teach you
how to be a rock star." He said, "I know how to do that so I'll help
you with that side of it and you know, give you the experiences you need
to feel legitimate standing up there singing." So the first thing he
did was bring me to England for a week and we did some work in the
studio that was supposed to have been on _PsychoDerelict_. Originally
there were like fifteen characters or something in it and there was a
lot more dialogue and the story was _much_ more complicated than it is.
So I was playing a character, there were two Americans, this junkie and
his stripper girlfriend
Do you remember their names, or did they have names at that time?
I don't, but the original idea was that the girl...what was the girl
that Ruth Streeting makes up to be the singer?
Rosalind. She was actually a girl in San Francisco who Ruth found, and
so _she_ set up this whole scam instead of it being Ruth, so this girl
and her boyfriend, and I played the boyfriend, lived in San Francisco,
and she was in on it somewhat, she kind of knew what was going on. I
think Ruth contacted her or something and sort of put her up to writing
these letters and sending this photo and everything because she was a
singer and she was trying to make it, and then she ultimately ended up
But it seems a lot tighter dramatically to be the way they chose to
Now. Yeah, yeah, that was the problem, because it was fascinating but
it was _so_ convoluted and so hard to follow and so hard to understand
especially to get the first time through.
And it's tough, as we all know from _Tommy_, to tell a story in 80
minutes of music
Yeah, the simpler the better. So the stuff that I did ended up being
left off the album, but just the experience of going into the studio
with him and working in a collaborative way was the first step in the
process of getting a relationship between the two of us.
The first thing -- I remember this so clearly, it was only a year ago --
I got off the plane, I was totally jetlagged and whacked out and went to
Eel Pie where he was mixing stuff and we sat and talked for about a half
an hour and he told me there were three things he wanted to do: he
wanted to do that work for the record; he wanted to walk me around and
show me places that these characters came from and places The Who played
when they were first starting out and just kind of like make me feel
legitimate, show me the house he grew up in, so when I sing _Come to
This House_ I sort of like have a place to think of; and then he wanted
me to meet Delia, who was sort of his introduction to Meher Baba and the
whole Baba community, and she'd always been particularly interested in
_Tommy_ and its various lives because so much of it was filled with
Baba's thinking. And so she wanted to know who was playing Tommy and
wanted to hear how I was doing and wanted to meet me, and I was going to
meet her finally. And it turned out later that probably around the time
we were talking about that she passed away. Which was just one of a lot
of really sort of -- you could say it was coincidence and stuff but
there were a lot of things surrounding this whole experience of putting
this show together that seemed uniquely coincidental or spiritual
depending on your take on it, and that was one of them.
So we sat and chatted and then he took me onto the barge where he does
his demo stuff and his private writing and said, "So here's a tape of
the rough mixes for _PsychoDerelict_ and here's a notepad and pencil and
just listen to it and jot down anything any thoughts that come to you
and I'll come back in a little while," and then he left (laughs) and I'm
still sitting there rocking on this barge, 'cause it's tied up in the
Thames, and not knowing if it's that or the jetlag or what, thinking,
you know, "I'm here in Pete Townshend's studio listening to his new
unreleased album." And it was so surreal -- but I guess it was _so_
weird that I just said you know, OK, fine, alright, and I just started
writing whatever came to me and then we sat for a few hours and talked
about all of it, and Barney came down, and it was another big step on
the amazing journey. It was great.
Is the play manufacturing Who fans within the cast? I don't know if
people have come in and been replaced through the run but do you find
that, I presume they are younger people, in their 20s...are they
becoming Who fans or do they just "turn it off" and go home?
The first rehearsals in La Jolla (and we duplicated it here [New York]
only a little more condensed), but the first three days of rehearsal we
sat around and did Who history. We had the dramaturg, who normally
would be giving you the background of Elizabethan England instead was
giving you background notes on The Who's history and we sat and we just
listened to Who albums for half a day. I thought, "Man...what a great
job! I'm getting paid for this. Cool!"
Lot of bopping in seats and pounding on table tops. _Lot_ of pounding
on table tops, guys especially. But a lot of people really had no
connection with The Who, especially the women and the younger members of
the cast. The guys in general seemed to at least have heard of them but
everybody and the people who hadn't been into them before were really
surprised to find out how much they liked them because the ones who
didn't like The Who sort of thought of them as the music that the guys
in the pickups or the stoners out in the yard listened to and that
wasn't what they wanted to listen to -- but when they actually listened
to it they realized that they actually really liked it. And then as
Pete was around a lot here, we would have parties and get up and play
and he would get up and do things by himself or he'd get up with us and
do stuff, people _really_ started getting into his solo stuff.
When you say "doing stuff," I gotta tease this out a little bit. Was
he playing songs for you or what?
Another step in this attempt to make me have big enough feet to stand
onstage and sing this stuff in an arena like Broadway in New York, with
all that comes with that, was to put a band together for a party the
night before our big media day when all the media people were going to
come to rehearsal.
So we did it at this place called the West Bank, which is like around
the corner here, and the guitar player and bass player and drummer from
the show and Donnie Kehr and I and Pete and Lee Morgan who plays the
Hawker, plays harmonica, we put together a eight-song set with _Pinball
Wizard_, _I'm Free_, I think _Substitute_, _[Behind] Blue Eyes_, _That's
Entertainment_ jam song (that was my choice), and we did a Husker Du
song, which was also my choice, and something else, and Pete was in the
band. We had one rehearsal just to make sure everybody basically knew
the same places, and then we did this party.
It was _so cool_, to be in a band with Pete Townshend and he was doing
it for me and for us, but also as a way to get the whole company,
everybody involved really excited about what we were doing. And also,
to people not involved, show that we weren't just some people that he
tossed the score to and said "have fun," that we're people he was really
working with and involved with -- and then that became something we did
every six weeks or so, for awhile, we'd have parties, usually less
formally than that. I think we did another one or two where we actually
had a rehearsal beforehand, and then the rest of the time would be, you
know we'd be at O'Flaherty's on 46th Street, which is the _Tommy_
company hang, and he would play, or he and I would play, or we'd be
someplace else and we'd do something. I had a birthday party and he
came. _Save It For Later_ was always the signature thing that we did
every time. And then he would do solo acoustic versions of his solo
stuff or Who stuff and that was always the best.
On those two or three subsequent parties you said that you did, was it
the same band lineup always?
It was always that or variations of that, yeah that was the basic setup.
At my birthday party I brought a band up from Philadelphia, they play at
Chine here a lot, they're called The Low Road. They play all acoustic,
standup bass and acoustic guitar, drums and violins, and they played and
he and I played with them, did _Save it For Later_ and stuff. But it's
been mostly that kind of group. A bunch of the women in _Tommy_ got
involved in the first one we did at the China Club [pictures of Pete
playing at the China Club appear in the recently-issued _Tommy_ book]
and they did _Rough Boys_ and a couple of other things.
The women got involved?
The women sang, yeah.
Is the band you've got now (Lame) an outgrowth of those, or is it the
It's an outgrowth because after finally doing that I felt like I could
actually put a band together but the people, the players are different.
Although the drummer plays for the show sometimes and Alice Ripley, who
was the other singer, was Mrs. Walker's understudy and one of the
ensemble and ended up playing Mrs. Walker a lot; so it's the two of us
[Michael and Donnie Kehr] and Shannon, they're engaged, and then this
other guy John, who I know through other people connected with the show
so it's all kind of like through the world of the show.
Now, you've auditioned for another play recently?
For a movie Disney's doing. They work like three or four years ahead
but the next one to come out is _The Lion King_ or something like that
and then _Pocahontas_ with Mel Gibson as John Smith and then after that
will be this one so it's probably a few years away.
What's this one called?
_The Hunchback of Notre Dame_ -- and I don't know whether I'll get it or
not, you know.
When I heard that I wondered if you were tired of _Tommy_.
No, no, see something like that is great because you don't actually have
to go anywhere to do it. I could do that during the day, record the
dialogue and the songs and still be doing the show at night. I audition
for things almost exclusively that I could do while I did this, or
something that would maybe take me away for a week, two weeks. If a
really great movie came up that I got to do then I could take,
theoretically, assuming the producers were cool with it, a couple months
off and then come back.
I'm not the least bit tired of it. I get here every night and even when
I'm exhausted and don't know how I'm going to get the energy to do it
again the music starts and that's all you need. You step on the train
and it takes over. It's not like trying to do _King Lear_ every night,
that would be a little rough.
But I'm loving it and I think most of the rest of the cast feel the same
way too. I don't hear too much grumbling or too many people looking for
other gigs. I think everybody knows how lucky they are. And also, I
mean it's going to be that way as long as the company is basically
intact. When it starts having a lot of turnover, as every show does
eventually, I think it'll start...I'm sure it'll still be good and
they'll have talented people and everything else, but it's not going to
yeah, the fact that we brought this thing along from the beginning with
Pete and it had all these things to do with him so we kind of like
tapped into the real source. They tried to do that for the tour but
they're working _so_ quickly, and Pete didn't have a lot of time by
then, and so they basically were told to do what we do, and then fill it
in for yourselves later. We did have another one of these West Bank
parties and we did get up and play and I brought Steve Isaacs, who's
playing Tommy on the road up so that he could have that experience of
singing with Pete too, but it's just not quite the same thing. So it'll
be sad when that isn't there but it still is now.
Is there just one road company now?
Yeah, right now.
Could you talk a little about trying to work what I thought of as an
edge in rock and roll, and danger, into a scripted performance?
That's kind of what my nightly challenge is, now that the show's set and
we know what's going to happen (most of the time). And especially being
such a rock and roll fan I've always been worried it was going to be too
Actually when I got to go to San Francisco and San Diego on the
_PsychoDerelict_ tour and play with Pete there and then do a whole
mini-_Tommy_ suite in San Diego we just did really abbreviated version
of a bunch of things: _Christmas_ and _See Me, Feel Me_ and _Sensation_
and _Pinball_ and _Listening to You_, and after doing it on stage there,
with his band and at the volume it's supposed to be, and serious fans,
and the freedom to really do it and not have to worry about a character
in a story, it was so liberating -- and then the next night I was back
here in the show and it all felt so small and so quiet and so restricted
and I just have to keep reminding myself that it is a theatre piece and
thus it's not intended to be [rock], but I'm constantly aware and
constantly afraid of contributing to the watering-down of rock and roll
just in the world.
Whatever criticism we got from rock critics most of the time were
blaming us for not being The Who, and you know, it's more like: well,
how stupid were you to think that's what you were gonna get coming in
anyway. I get really defensive about that and feel really vulnerable to
that kind of criticism.
In this documentary that's going to be on soon [_Tommy: The Amazing
Journey_]...when you film a stage performance anyway, unless you're
really careful to do it really thoroughly in a non-conventional way it
always looks flat and it looks boring and out of context, it's not that
interesting. And when you have footage of The Who performing live and
then you go to us doing the same thing it just looks so pale by
comparison. And you have Roger saying "give me the beads of sweat and
the broken notes any time," and I _agree_ with him, but that's not my
job out here. My job is to hit the notes every night, eight times a
week and for months and months at a time, but to do it with enough
authenticity and enough of a ragged edge that it's being faithful to the
spirit of the music but also knowing that I can't destroy my voice every
night and expect to be able to do it the next couple of nights.
So I just try to walk that line all the time, and like I was saying
sometimes I go too far in the rock direction and I'm told that it's just
kind of pulling the audience out of the play almost because it starts to
call too much attention to the performer as opposed to the character.
But I try to keep that rock heart beating there as much as possible.
And I really feel that because of my role in the show and because of
just who I am, and my interests, I feel like I have a lot of
responsibility for maintaining that. I tend to be the only one of the
company who's regularly out at Irving Plaza and CBGB's, because I love
seeing bands. The most frustrating thing about this job is that because
a lot of shows start really early here, the headliner goes on at 10:00
and by the time I get there it's their encore so [I miss it]...
But I was always the one who was trying to get everybody to come over
and watch _Quadrophenia_ again, to sort of feel like you know what it's
supposed to be like. There are people in the company who are rock fans
-- Donnie obviously is and Chris Hoff and Lee Morgan and other people,
but I seem to be the only one who consistently wants to do that kind of
The other interesting thing is, when you listen to the original album,
it's actually pretty sedate relative to what we think of as rock and
roll now. I mean next to a Metallica album it sound pretty calm.
The thing that shocked me is how violently different it is live.
Exactly. And I think that is always true of their music. I think at
the time they were recording _My Generation_, even _My Generation_
relative to speed metal seems quiet because it has a melody and
instruments you can discern from each other and things like that. And
The Beatles, too, you listen to those things and I think a lot of our
memories of those things are seeing it and hearing it live, and getting
that intensity. It's not always represented in the recordings in the
studio, it's hard to capture that thing on record.
And they really used the album as the touchstone for this production.
So when they had orchestration questions or general-feel questions they
usually went back to that recording to find, not to copy necessarily but
to get the essence of that, so I think that explains partly the general
feel of the show here. I love listening to demos -- the _Tommy_ demos
-- because I feel like that's coming from Pete's head onto the machine.
There are lots of places where I get more from that as an inspiration
for how to sing or the feel of a song.
And also, Pete's voice is so much different than Roger's. I think that
my singing style has more in common with Pete than with Roger just
tonewise. I think I look to him for an example of how to sing this
music in a consistent way more than Roger because I couldn't sing like
Roger all the time; nobody can sing like Roger all the time.
Even Roger (laughs).
I'd just like to know what it felt like to be in that studio of Pete's
there on the barge and did you find any good material while you were
(laughs) No, I didn't get to go through the vaults.
I think there's a structure attached to it where the Cocteau Twins live
and I think they do some recording at Eel Pie; and House of Love did an
album there called _Day of Rainbow_ and the album cover is the poster
that's in the studio. It's a really comfortable studio and sitting
there on the river you feel like you can sit there and be really private
and just develop things at your own pace.
I have a friend in England who's recorded there and he said the hardest
thing mixing stuff there is that the monitors are turned up so bright
because it's hard for Pete to hear, so they're all adjusted to
compensate for his hearing situation and sometimes it's a little tough
There's another great story; Morrissey called Pete and asked him to
produce _Your Arsenal_, his previous album. Pete said, "Why do you want
_me_ to do it?" and he said, "I want it to be loud" and he said (laughs)
"I don't know if you've heard but I don't hear all that well anymore, I
might not be the best person," and he ended up suggesting Mick Ronson,
who ended up doing it.