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By LINDA BUCHWALD
Welcome to Building Character, TDF's ongoing series about actors and how they create their roles
Michael Cerveris has recently starred in dark, brooding shows like Sondheim's Sweeney Todd and the Kurt Weill bio-musical LoveMusik, but at the moment, he's embracing grandeur and passion for the Broadway revival of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's Evita.
According to Cerveris, playing Perón, the Argentine leader and husband to Evita, is not as much of a stretch as it may seem. "I think what people tend to think of with Andrew Lloyd Webber is big, romantic melodies and pop sensibilities, but Perón is the one character in this who sings not quite atonal, but very angular, quasi-opera sort of [music]," he says. "Of all the characters in the show, I think my vocal parts are probably closer to Sondheim than anything else. I feel like my experience with singing and learning how to sing Steve's work has prepared me really well for some of the stranger writing that Andrew's given to Perón."
In between musicals, Cerveris has also tackled canonical playwrights like Shakespeare and Ibsen. "I do really like the fact that I'm able to move from musical theatre to classical theatre to modern plays to television to film and back without ever having to decide that I'm one kind of actor or one kind of performer," he says.
Cerveris doesn't have a strategy for selecting projects, though he often tries to choose roles that feel daunting. "I tend to just let a mixture of fate and fear guide my decision making," he says. In the case of Evita, which is currently in previews at the Marquis Theatre, he was also eager to work with director Michale Grandage and to play a historical figure.
When he's playing a real person---whether it be Perón, John Wilkes Booth in Assassins, Kurt Weill in LoveMusik, or Thomas Andrews in Titanic---Cerveris does heavy research. For this role, he immersed himself in biographies and documentaries, and he also had the opportunity to visit Buenos Aires, where Elena Roger, who plays Evita, lives. Ricky Martin, who plays Che, was on tour in South America at the time, and the three did a photo shoot for Vanity Fair in the Casa Rosada (Argentina's version of the White House). Roger also introduced Cerveris to the city and its culture by take him to a fútbol match and late-night tango milongas.
Cerveris particularly enjoyed spending time at the Perón Institute, where he learned about the history of Argentina and Perón himself. He discovered that Perón stood by his wife in her last appearances and physically held her up so that she could stand. That directly impacted his performance. "I thought that was a significant and meaningful gesture, and so I talked to Michael Grandage," he says. Now, during the song "Eva's Final Broadcast," Cerveris helps Roger stand to deliver Evita's final address.
However, most of what Cerveris learned will never be recreated on stage. He explains, "There's always the danger that you'll run across information that's actually contradictory to what the author of the piece that you're working on has written, and at the end of the day, we're not in the business of doing history lessons. We're doing art and entertainment. A lot of what I learn is not necessarily specifically useful to the actual show itself, but it just informs my understanding of the character and their motivations. It helps me fill in a full life outside of what we actually see on the stage and hopefully leads to a more complex and intricate portrayal of a human being."
Linda Buchwald tweets as @PataphysicalSci