Michael Cerveris on His Broadway Debut as Tommy's Pinball Wizard

News   Michael Cerveris on His Broadway Debut as Tommy's Pinball Wizard Playbill.com digs into its archives to explore past articles. In the next installment, Michael Cerveris, who recently won his second Tony Award for playing Bruce Bechdel in Fun Home, shares his thoughts on playing the title role in The Who's Tommy in 1993.

A THEATREGOER'S NOTEBOOK

TOMMY SPEAKS

Actors pray for good reviews and award nominations, but Michael Cerveris, who plays the title role in Tommy, cared most about winning the approval of one special "critic": the show's composer, Pete Townshend. "For me the biggest thrill was that Pete trusted me and made me feel I had the right to sing his songs," says Cerveris, who came to Tommy as a Yale-trained actor rather than a rock-and-roll singer. "The Tony Awards and everything else were secondary to his being satisfied with what I was doing."

Cerveris expresses polite puzzlement at the handful of writers who have complained that Broadway's Tommy takes The Who's explosive 1969 rock opera and tames its rebellious spirit, removing references to drugs and cults and softening the characters. "Pete often talks about rock-and-roll fundamentalists who refuse to accept that things can develop and grow," the actor says. "Having lived 25 years since he originally wrote it, Pete wanted to say something more substantial than 'Gee, isn't it fun to be out of your skull?' This is a theatre piece, first, and I think it's making a very realistic, contemporary, honest statement."

After shedding his character's thick bowl-cut wig, Cerveris enjoys greeting fans at the stage door. "At times I feel like some sort of urban guerilla actor who can excite all this energy from people and then walk right through them without being recognized," he says, "but I love meeting people and talking to them about the show." In spite of Tommy's vocal demands, he adds, each performance has "exhilarating" moments. "Walking straight downstage and singing 'Listening to You' to the audience and having them applaud and even stand up before the song is over — that's pretty thrilling."

A TOMMY WHO'S "WHO"
Winner of five Tonys, The Who's Tommy transforms the sixties rock classic into a dazzling journey of healing.

Everyone knows Murphy's Law: "Anything that can go wrong, will." There's a variation on it that warns, "If you try to make everyone happy, somebody's not going to like it!" (Tommy director and co-writer Des McAnuff (who, in other incarnations helms the renowned La Jolla Playhouse, where Tommy originated) could have fallen eyebrow deep into that moat when he took on The Who's groundbreaking rock opera. Instead, he did what he's done with other so-called "impossible" projects (like the La Jolla-born Broadway hit Big River). He stared the problem down—and brought home a string of Tonys.

Making a piece of sixties cultural history into a Broadway show is no small task; try to build that edifice on a by-definition sketchy concept album, and you've got double jeopardy.

When The Who's guitarist, Pete Townshend, wrote Tommy in 1969, he had no idea he was creating a legend. He thought he was penning the swan song of a band who'd trashed their finances by doing the same to their equipment onstage every night. Townshend remembers Tommy as their last-ditch attempt to do something "so gross, so pretentious, so dangerous that we'[d] get respect and attention. If it's good, it will last," he said then. "If it doesn't, it doesn't matter."

It lasted. Besides making The Who's fortune as one of the British Invasion's premier bands and earning Townshend a Tony for the score, Tommy has been translated into a ballet, a symphonic recording, an enormously over-the-top (though memorable) Ken Russell film and countless unauthorized stage versions. Now, nearly 25 years after Tommy's birth, Pete Townshend, Des McAnuff and the show's cast and crew have made this enigmatic little tale matter all over again at the St. James.

When McAnuff and Townshend sat down to spackle the incomplete narrative, they found more than just a little boy who experiences the world with excruciating trauma. "This was even a surprise to Pete [Townshend]," McAnuff recalls "but when we excavated, we discovered that Pete was, like most artists, talking about his own life and times; that there was real stuff underneath that had always been implied — he just hadn't finished it." In completion that "stuff" became "a fully-realized, somewhat even deep, story of a dysfunctional family," says McAnuff, and a journey of healing.

Quick plot outline: Tommy, age 4, sees his presumed war-casualty father unexpectedly return and kill his mother's lover. Overwhelmed by his parents' command: "You didn't hear it/you didn't see it/you won't say nothing to no one/ever in your life," he plunges into complete sensory withdrawal, where for years he's subjected to a series of medical tests and emotional and physical abuses. Then, by chance, he happens upon a pinball machine and inexplicably racks up extraordinary scores, using nothing but his sense of touch. Years later, suddenly awakened from trauma, he becomes a pop phenomenon — until he stops playing the icon, and his followers decide they don't want a human being on the pedestal they've erected, so they topple him from it.

Michael Cerveris and the cast of <i>The Who's Tommy</i>
Michael Cerveris and the cast of The Who's Tommy Photo by Joan Marcus

The basic framework hasn't changed, but Townshend and McAnuff's subtext and technical revisions have given the Broadway Tommy a heart it never had before. Instead of setting the story's beginning at World War I, it's now World II — during Townshend's own youth — making the not-incidental parallel between Tony's pinball superstardom and Townshend's musical fame even more striking, not to mention McAnuff's theory that rock and roll's controlled chaos was an outlet for the emotional aftereffects of Hitler. Suddenly, Tommy has an historical perspective that the audience — many of whom are Townshend's contemporaries — can relate to.

And this Tommy is emotionally accessible — with a main character colloquially known as "the deaf, dumb and blind kid"?!! Not so strange, notes McAnuff, when you consider that the boy goes into trauma so young, before his personality has been fully developed, that it's easy for the rest of us to project outselves into his character. Give him three onstage incarnations (ages 4, 10 and 20) who can interact and externalize the boy's inner struggle, and you get the audience even more involved. "The key relationship in this piece," McAnuff points out, "is Tommy to Tommy. The conflict in the character is essentially with himself."

Even in the instances where the conflict is with other people, the humanity of the characters makes them far more compelling than their caricatured predecessors. Anyone who saw Ken Russell's film remembers Uncle Ernie as a black-toothed, sinister, child-abusing alcoholic. The Ernie you see on Broadway has, in his own way, a far sadder story. "Ernie is outside of everything — even as far as where he stands," notes his onstage alter ego, Paul Kandel. "He can't be in the war, like his brother [Tommy's father], because he's got a bad leg. He can't penetrate any circumstance and participate. So his behavior, in most cases, is an attempt to find a way in." Couple this with the possibility that Ernie is carrying a torch for Tommy's mother and with Kandel's conviction that "everybody feels, at some time, an enormous tug to do the wrong thing," and this character takes on fascinating dimensions. Similarly, The Gypsy has been transformed from a virago who entices Tommy into a syringe-spiked iron maiden into a junkie who must make sexual contact with young boys in order to pay for her next fix. "She's the witchy-poo character in the show, the only time it goes to a tremendously dark place," says Cheryl Freeman, the operatically-trained tornado behind the Broadway role. "But she's a victim, too, because she can't believe she has to do this with a child." The conflict is even more devastating, Freeman notes, because of the odd kinship The Gypsy has with her intended prey. "She recognizes that this boy is suffering from autism; that's his form of escape. She's a junkie; that's hers. So they're kind of mirror opposites."

But perhaps the most powerful example of this version's compassion is its resolution, finally made clear at the hands of Townshend and McAnuff. Born whole, essentially, at 20, when he emerges from trauma, Tommy carries both enormous rage for the abuses he's suffered and extraordinary wonder at the miracle of existence. As a superstar, he finds a platform for that rage and begins resolving it when he sees his celebrity cause someone physical harm. But when he refuses to give his followers a blueprint for how to be like him — since it's the exact opposite that's the point—he's the one wounded, as they reject him. At that moment, McAnuff says, "there's a huge danger of Tommy disappearing back into himself. What pushes him back to reality is the child in him — the part of us that gives us hope. So, at that last moment, when he goes back to his family, it's not a sentimental thing. It's a moment of acceptance. Because, let's face it, most of life is not about recognizing the miracle of existence; it's about the quiet desperation we creep toward the grave with. And one of the keys to getting through this journey is coming to grips with where you come from and who's been there with you."

A scene from <i>Tommy</i>
A scene from Tommy Photo by Joan Marcus

Lest all of this sound too heavy for a musical, remember, it's subtext. Having rooted their story in dramatic reality, McAnuff and Co. were free to give it a surreal setting, where chairs hang from the ceiling at weird angles, the colors go from stark black and white to fluorescent, and even the lines on the floor are Dali-esque. There's an Urban Cowboy-pinball machine that gives new meaning to the lyric "I feel the heat," a doctor's chair that looks like a candelabra from another universe, the all-important mirror which, at times, literally holds Tommy captive and a back wall filled with 18 screens of projections.

Wendall K. Harrington, who's done her projection magic for The Heidi Chronicles, Four Baboons . . ., The Magic Flute and Pete Townshend's solo tour, treated those screens as a kaleidoscope to invoke a sense of time, place and the inside of Tommy's head. "You're bombarded with iconographic images," she explains. "Crosses. Bombs. One picture of Winston Churchill and you're there. Black-and-white planes on an airfield. A twisted Union Jack. All that stuff has been inputted already and you're calling it up.

What's especially striking about this process is that Harrington matched her slide colors to costume designer David C. Woolard's color palette "It's the only time in my life," she notes, "that I've ever done that, but it was great! If you root the color on the floor, then you can go really out of your mind with the rest of the stuff."

Also grounding the show — so well, at times, that you're almost unaware of it — is the staging. McAnuff and Townshend "were terrified about choreography," recalls the man to whom the task fell, ex-A Chorus Line original cast member turned Tony-winning choreographer Wayne Cilento. "But because I started out choreographing commercials, I can make a real situation dance without it looking like TA-DA, they're gonna do jetés and pirouettes now." And because the entire piece is orchestrated — even the "traffic" of getting from one side of the stage to the other — Cilento is able to modulate in an out of real "dancing" moments rather subtly.

Cilento also created a sense of naturalness by often basing his choreography on an actors' individual style. Both Kandel and Michael Cerveris — who plays the adult Tommy with a suitably weird combination of other worldly awkwardness and rock-and-roll swagger — were also, it turns out, "terrified of dancing. I had to turn it around and say, 'I want it to dance like you,' " explains Cilento. "I'd show them what I wanted and say, 'Interpret it.' You have to capitalize on how people move naturally." It's a combination of the real and the surreal, a coming full circle that colors the entire show, a visceral sense of completion. "People go absolutely bananas for this show every night," says McAnuff, "whether they had a relationship with the music before they came into the theatre or not. It's not about a dramatic analysis—there's something bigger than that going on between the company and the audience. I just think, emotionally, people really get it."

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