October 21, 1999
Rocks in His Hedwig
Most rock musicals are a drag. Actor/singer Michael Cerveris headlines ones that actually rock.
by Rob Kendt
It's been said that those who love musical theatre must be prepared for a lot of heartbreak and disappointment, because it's a difficult form that can go badly wrong all too easily (I believe Frank Rich said something to this effect in his review of Sondheim's Merrily We Roll Along).
But for those who love both rock 'n' roll and musical theatre, the disappointment can be more acute. From Jesus Christ Superstar to Rent, the rock musical has proved a bastard genre at best. Some of these shows have their own kitschy pop-cultural appeal (who can resist "What's the Buzz"?) and their own niche fans, but they tend to offer neither authentic rock 'n' roll abandon nor the propulsive narrative momentum of well-integrated book musicals. I would rank Des McAnuff's extraordinary 1992 re-envisioning of the Who's rock concept album Tommy as an exceptional case--as a cultural event that pulsed with resonance, both musical and thematic, in large part because of its prior purchase on our imagination.
Starring in that groundbreaking production, from its original La Jolla Playhouse production through an acclaimed run on Broadway, and then on to a German sit-down company for two years, was Michael Cerveris, an impossibly versatile actor/singer with lots of regional theatre credits and a reputation for playing rock 'n' rollers (he appeared as the British exchange student Ian on TV's Fame, and was involved in rock bands) but no musical theatre credits at the time. He sauntered into the Tommy auditions with his acoustic guitar and belted out Bowie's "Young Americans"--and thus, strangely enough, was a new kind of musical theatre star born.
The Bowie connection seems especially fortuitous (and so, in its way, does the long stint in Germany) given Cerveris' latest vehicle, Hedwig and the Angry Inch. The show, about an East German transsexual rock chanteuse and her tawdry spiral through trailer-park U.S.A., comes to L.A.'s Henry Fonda Theatre this week while still a hit in New York (with Ally Sheedy in the role), and with no less than David Bowie himself as a producer and a blurb from Rolling Stone touting it as "the first rock musical that truly rocks."
So, does Hedwig really rock? Very much so, and in a glam-grunge-punk vein few stage musicals have ever approached, let alone wallowed in gloriously. Is it a musical? Perhaps the best answer to that is to consider its source: the fertile and playful minds of Stephen Trask, a musician and songwriter, and actor/writer John Cameron Mitchell, who were part of a weekly drag punk show at a downtown Manhattan dive called the Squeeze Box. Like many of the better divas there, Mitchell developed a formidable fiction around his own drag creation, a blonde German "war bride" he based on a neighbor he'd known as a child.
But Mitchell's story got more involved: Hedwig had had a sex change as a scheme to get out of East Germany as the wife of an American GI. But there were hitches: the botched operation left him/her with "an angry inch" down there, and her marriage likewise petered out in a Kansas trailer park. Odd jobs, rock gigging, and a love affair with a 16-year-old boy followed. This back-story, with all the rich sexual, political, and cultural themes it stirred, soon became more than a campy drag act; Mitchell's between-song patter and Trask's songs grew into a 90-minute theatrical experience that found a home in an old welfare hotel ballroom on Jane Street in the West Village.
So, while the Hedwig that comes to Hollywood is now something of a franchise--there's a production in Boston, one slated for London next year, and a film in the works--and this "internationally ignored song stylist" is playing more spacious venues than Jane Street, the show still bears its rock club origins proudly. As Cerveris, who stepped in for Mitchell and ran in the New York production for nine months, conceded in a recent interview, "In the strictest sense, it's a rock cabaret." For those of us who love rock and musical theatre, this may be as close as we get.
Cerveris and his dog, Gibson, sat down with Back Stage West recently at a warehouse rehearsal space to talk about Hedwig (which Cerveris is slated to do at the Fonda for the next six months, after which he'll open it in London), about the state of musical theatre, and about his unique career, which has found him starring in Titanic on Broadway and touring as a guitarist and backup singer for rocker Bob Mould.
Back Stage West: I'm wondering what it's like for you to go back and forth between rock and traditional musical theatre--what the adjustments are, vocally, physically, acting-wise.
Michael Cerveris: It's funny, because I seem to end up doing them simultaneously. When I was doing Tommy in La Jolla, I was still doing Richard II at the Taper; for two weeks I was rehearsing during the day, then driving up to do a show, and back to La Jolla for the night. And when I got Hedwig, I was still in Titanic, so for five weeks I was rehearsing Hedwig during the day and doing Titanic at night, and just hoping that Mr. Andrews [his Titanic character] didn't develop a German accent.
But the way I approach singing in general is consistent, whether it's rock or legit. I think of songs in theatre pieces, whatever the style, as being the character telling the story--a monologue on a certain melody--and the style is just part of the character and what they're trying to get across. So I don't feel a big difference.
BSW: But the level of volume, the connection with the audience, the intelligibility of the lyrics, the way the songs are constructed--aren't these much different in rock vs. legit?
Michael: True. But some of Stephen [Trask]'s songs actually function like good musical theatre songs--they start in one place and end someplace else, and tell a story along the way. And then there are other songs that are more just rants: I have this point of view, and it's all just right at you. I do worry less about total intelligibility with Hedwig; I'm willing to go on feeling and intensity much more. Some audiences have a problem with that; they want to get every word.
There's a funny story about that. John [Cameron Mitchell's] background is much more musical theatre, and Stephen was encouraging him stylistically to throw it away more, give more of a rock performance, not over-articulate things. But then he sat out and listened one night, and couldn't hear some of the words he was most proud of.
BSW: So you learned along the way how not to trash your voice, singing either rock or legit?
Michael: At Yale, I studied with a guy named Blake Stern at the music school, who really taught me the physical mechanics of producing sound in a way that's not going to hurt yourself, and then in New York, I studied for a while with Calvin Remsberg, who was also good at helping me learn how to make sound without hurting myself, without trying to make me any particular style of singer. I learned basic vocal production that you can take and apply to any style. Also in Tommy, I was really lucky to be in a cast with people like Jonathan Dokuchitz and Cheryl Freeman, who I could just listen to and learn from, kind of on-the-job training.
BSW: After years of acting in theatre and film and TV, your first professional musical was Tommy; then you did Titanic; now there's Hedwig. You've gone on tour with Bob Mould. What kind of career is this? Is it confusing to you, or to the industry?
Michael: After Tommy opened in New York and I'd been in the run for a while, I started thinking about what the next thing would be. I had already surpassed most of the dreams I had about what could happen for me. I never thought I would be on Broadway; at that time I was mostly a straight theatre actor, and there are only, like, five straight plays a year done on Broadway, and four of them have English casts, so I thought, What are my chances? And I never expected to be in a musical. It ended up coming about in this perfect way: by doing something you love doing that combines all the elements of things you love with a bunch of people you like being with, and that you're really proud of; somehow all the right things happen, and suddenly you're opening on Broadway.
So I was there, having achieved things that I hadn't dared hope to accomplish, not knowing what to do next. That's one of the reasons I stayed in Tommy so long, and did it in Germany. When I came back to the U.S., I got calls for a lot of pop/rock musicals, obviously, and I ended up choosing not to even go in for most of them, because I felt like, I've done sort of the best of that lot, so I'm not going to...
BSW: You didn't want to end up in Footloose.
Michael: Actually, I was determined not to do another musical, because I wanted to remind people that what I mostly did was non-musical acting. So I auditioned for stuff, and Titanic was the first thing I was offered; it was a chance to work with this amazing director, Richard Jones, and the music was so different from Tommy, and the character was so different from the character of Tommy, that I didn't feel like I was just doing another musical. So I found myself back on Broadway, and feeling even further from rock 'n' roll. And then...
I'd known John [Cameron Mitchell] through the years. When I went to see him in Hedwig, I was completely blown away. It's funny, I saw it a week after I first saw Rent; I had avoided seeing Rent for a few years 'cause I was in Germany, and then I really just didn't have much desire to see it. I went finally because I had friends who were in it. And I sat watching it thinking, There are things I can enjoy about this, but it just doesn't feel like rock music. I thought, Some of these songs are good, but if I were seeing some no-name band play them in a club, I think I'd be more excited by them than I am here. Why is that? I was trying to work out what it was that was not satisfying about Rent--and the next week I go see Hedwig, and it's like, This is it; if I were going to write something, this is what I would want to write.
BSW: What is it about rock musicals? Why do you think most don't work and Hedwig does?
Michael: Well, the thing that John and Stephen figured out is that the fundamentally weird thing about musicals is that people sing in the middle of everyday life, and you have to kind of step out of reality; how you handle that problem is one of the first choices you make when you write something. John and Stephen totally sidestepped the problem by saying, "You're coming to a gig to see a singer and her band," so you don't have to pretend they're not singing to you. And then the narrative comes as onstage patter between songs, as if you're watching a concert and the singer says, "This is a song I wrote about my girlfriend who left me"-only for Hedwig, it's a much more involved story than that.
So that structure sets up the freedom to have it feel like an authentic rock event. And then Stephen's songs are such genuine, stand-on-their-own rock songs. Even the fact that I hold a microphone the whole time, instead of having a Madonna headset--I think that's important. As a rock concertgoer, I watched the guys in Rent struggling around trying to do this rock posturing and stuff, but it looked weird because they didn't have all the props you associate with that.
I still think that if you're coming from the right place, you could do a kitchen-sink rock musical; I hold out the possibility that it can be done.
BSW: Bottom-line, Hedwig is a rock musical of sorts, but it sidesteps the whole challenge of integrating book and songs, really.
Michael: I think of it as a theatre piece with music.
BSW: Or a rock cabaret.
Michael: In the strictest sense, that really is exactly what it is.
BSW: That's great, but it's still not that dreamed-of "rock musical." Should we just give up on that dream?
Michael: I think part of the key is, after my experiences with Tommy--I don't know that Broadway is the place to try to put those worlds together. John [Cameron Mitchell] and I actually met in a workshop for a musical about the band Queen; Craig Lucas was writing the book, and the band was actively involved; Paul Gemignani was musical director, and I'm a huge Sondheim fan, so I thought, This could actually be interesting. But they were determined to make it a Broadway musical, and not make it very rock 'n' roll. And while Gemignani is brilliant, this was just not his music. He didn't know the songs, and he's teaching us "Bohemian Rhapsody."
And people from the rock world who care about the authenticity of that just don't have much interest in working in the musical theatre. I've been asked why the music business hasn't embraced Hedwig more. The record has sold like most cast albums, but it hasn't been a big crossover hit; you don't hear it on the radio.I think that comes to down the music business' resistance of anything performance-oriented, or its distrust of it. So if anything comes from the theatre, it's automatically fake, artificial. But there's a long history of that--David Bowie, the most obvious one-of performance, of style in rock music.
BSW: And it can go the other way: David Bowie can star in The Elephant Man.
Michael: Right, and that's interesting, but the other way around--there's this snobbism. But, you know, the Sex Pistols were totally a performance art project; the Rolling Stones met in art school. So musicians and creative people have always known that it's a show--even if the show is to stand stock still with bright lights behind the amps lining the audience.
I was talking to Pete Townshend about this, and saying, "Do I need to focus more on music to be taken seriously?" He said, "In some ways, it's true; as long as you're connected with the musical theatre world, the music business is going to be resistant to you. If you can find a way to use the exposure without being identified with it, that could be useful--and good luck to you." But he also pointed out that there are a lot of people who work in record stores or answering phones so they can play in bands, and he said, "For you, your day gig is acting, and maybe at some point the balance will change and you'll start making money as a musician." And the great thing is, I can write and play whatever I want; I don't have to make money from it or sell thousands of records. It is a constant juggling act.
BSW: I just don't know many actors who can tell their agent, "I'm going on tour with Bob Mould for three months."
Michael: I have to say, I have really great agents who get that an actor's life is about more than their career alone, and that being satisfied artistically as a person in the long haul is key. I mean, they'll advise me, "You understand that this may not be the best time for you go away for three months, but if this is what you want to do, absolutely. And when you come back, if you missed out on something, you just did." Having done this for long enough now, and seeing that job I had to have go to somebody else, and realizing, that's OK, and something else comes up for me that I wouldn't have gotten to do otherwise--I've just taken a bigger-picture look at things, and I just have to believe that there are forces that kind of put you where you should be if you're willing to shut up and listen to them, and be flexible enough to go where things take you.
If what you wanna do is do interesting things that mean something to you, that's not so impossible. If what you want to do is to be hugely successful or get on Broadway or nominated for an Oscar, that's gonna be hard. It might happen for you, but having those goals will be, like, 99 percent frustrating and upsetting; for me, if I want to do something interesting today, it's not impossible to make that happen, or let it happen. That's taken me great places so far, so my 10-year plan is to keep doing that, and where it takes me is where it takes me. If I don't act for three years because I'm playing music, great; if I just play music at home 'cause I'm working somewhere, then that's what it will be.