'I’ve been the most reluctant musical-theater star ever,” says Michael Cerveris—and with his shiny head, bicycle-chain bracelet, and sardonic smile, it’s true that he looks more like a menacing bike messenger than a Broadway baby. No matter: Cerveris headlines this fall’s only Broadway musical revival, John Doyle’s reinvention of Sweeney Todd. And he’s not the least bit ambivalent.
Stephen Sondheim’s stark modern opera about the “Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” whose victims were minced into meat pies, was the first Broadway show Cerveris ever saw, dragged by his music-professor dad as a college student back in 1979. “It was miles to the stage. But it was just overwhelming. I was thrilled and terrified.” He saw it six more times.
Still, Cerveris wasn’t converted from his primary musical interest: rock and roll. And though the aspiring actor auditioned for road shows, he came up short each time. “I didn’t have that Les Miz vocal thing—thank God.” Instead, he became “the rock-musical poster boy,” playing the lead in the Who’s Tommy for four years. Though he passed on several pop musicals (including, most recently, Lennon), Cerveris did take a call from an old friend, John Cameron Mitchell, and ended up replacing the seemingly irreplaceable Mitchell in the glam-rock celebration Hedwig and the Angry Inch.
After Hedwig, Cerveris left Broadway to tour as a guitarist with post-punk stalwart Bob Mould. (He’s since cut a record with members of Sleater-Kinney, Sonic Youth, and Guided by Voices.) “I told my agents, ‘This time I’m serious, I don’t want to do another musical for a long time—though I would do Sondheim,’ ” Cerveris says. “I never expected I would get to.”
But he did, in Passion and Sunday in the Park With George, and then a Tony-winning turn in last year’s Assassins. By the time Britain’s John Doyle sought an American star for his Broadway transfer of Sweeney, Cerveris was an obvious choice.
The production perfectly suits Cerveris’s versatile gifts: The cast of ten play their own instruments in lieu of an orchestra, making for a more personal (not to mention cost-effective) revival. Cerveris has two guitar solos. Then there’s the play’s “unsettling” subject matter, which he relishes. “They are actually taking human lives and grinding up people to serve to other people. We can watch stories about it on Court TV until we’re nauseous, but you don’t usually go to the musical theater to confront those things.” (Nor, for that matter, do you usually go to see Patti LuPone, co-starring as Mrs. Lovett, play the tuba.)
Playing such a classic role is a lot more visibility than he’s used to. “I do feel pressure,” he concedes. “I’ve always been able to surprise people because they didn’t know to expect anything from me. And now people are starting to have expectations. They’re not necessarily expectations that I plan to satisfy.”