Actors pray for good reviews and award nominations, but Michael Cerveris, who plays the title role in Tommy, cared more 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 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 the character's bowl-cut wig, Cerveris enjoys greeting fans at the stage door. “At times I feel like some sort of urban guerrilla 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.