Tag Archives: Michael Cerveris

Hey, Old Friend…Whaddaya Say, Old Friend?

9 Nov

Dear Readers,

Are there any of you left out there? Have I been absent for so long that you’ve given up on me? On a day in which it seems there is little hope to hang onto, I choose to hope that at least one of you has stuck with me. I might even go so far as to say I hope that at least one of you has been looking forward to the day that I write something new. That might be pushing it a bit, but who said hopes had limits?

It’s been a trying few hours, friends. If I’m being completely honest with you – and what would be the purpose of this blog if I weren’t completely honest? – it’s been a trying few months.

It’s been so long since I wrote anything that I truly don’t even remember where I left off. But here’s where we are today: I am struggling to keep my hopes up right now, as many others are, as well. This election has taken its toll on all of us and the results have left me and so many others feeling unsure of our future – scared for it, even. I’ll not go into a political discussion here tonight because, quite frankly, I’m sick to death of politics and debriefings and analyses and pundits, but suffice it to say that my heart is heavy and I am scared. Perhaps a grown man shouldn’t declare that in a public forum, but it’s the truth.

On top of our nation’s current state of affairs, we in Florida, and particularly Orlando, have suffered through a lot this year. Between the shooting at Pulse earlier this year, which directly affected many of my friends and coworkers, and Hurricane Matthew, which thankfully turned out to be little more than a thunderstorm for many of us in Central Florida because of a fortuitous shift in wind, we’ve been through a great deal of stress these last few months.

And on a more personal note, I’ve recently been struggling with something that I never imagined would be an issue for me – my age. Next week I turn 40, and while I don’t think of myself as a 40-year old, my body has slowly started betraying me and has been not-so-gently reminding me through a series of ever-changing aches and pains that, while I may look 28, I am, in fact, not 28 anymore.

Then there’s the weight gain. After the Pulse shooting, I started comfort eating because…well, it’s what I do when I get stressed. Instead of turning to alcohol or drugs, I turn to cakes and cookies and pizza, and since mid-July, I have managed to gain back all 27 pounds that I worked so hard to lose earlier this year. Right now I feel so defeated that I have kind of given up on even trying to lose it again. And that makes me mad at myself and makes me want to tear into a box of Twinkies. I mean, I just want to destroy those snack cakes. It’s a vicious cycle and I wish I could just snap my fingers and have the metabolism I had 10 years ago and the willpower that I’ve always wished I had. And then I get frustrated at myself for complaining about having too much food when there are others who are less fortunate than me.

I’ve also been thinking about where I am professionally at 40 and I’m unhappy with it. I came here with a purpose and, just as in New York, I’ve become so focused on simply surviving that I’ve taken my eye off the prize and I’ve gotten stuck.

Things aren’t all as bad as all that, though. During the time of the Pulse shooting, I had the wonderful opportunity of performing in a production of Ragtime the Musical at the Dr. Phillips Center in Orlando. Through that show, I met some of the most wonderful people in Orlando, I laughed more than I think I have in a very long time, we cried – no, wept – together and we made some incredible music together. I couldn’t be more grateful for that experience and those people. I’m also performing on a semi-regular basis in the dinner theatre show at the Titanic Artifact Exhibition on International Drive in Orlando. I get to play J. Bruce Ismay and I absolutely love it. Once again, I’ve found a theatre family that I love and it helps bring in a bit more money every month, which is a great help these days. And my parents recently got to see me in the show, which was fun and pushed me out of my comfort zone, because there’s nothing much more terrifying to me than having to interact and improvise with my parents in a British accent and fake moustache. But I did it!

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A very sunburnt J. Bruce Ismay.

Even with those steps toward what I want here for myself, I often find myself wallowing down in the dumps lately, criticizing myself for living what I think is a pretty lackluster life. I sometimes find myself thinking that I haven’t done much with my life…that I’m pretty boring, even. And then every once in a while, people in the break room at work will be talking about Hamilton or New York or Japan and I’ll jump in and add something that, to me, seems insignificant – interesting, but insignificant – and it always surprises me to see the looks of disbelief on my coworkers’ faces. And then I’m reminded that I have, if nothing else, had an interesting life.

I’ve recently become slightly obsessed with storytelling podcasts (The Moth and Snap Judgment are my favorites), and I hear some of the stories people tell and I think, “I could do that!” I mean, isn’t that what I’ve been doing here for years now?

So here’s a story.

Just a few months after I moved to New York, it was announced that the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, would be producing a summer-long celebration of Stephen Sondheim. There would be six shows produced that summer, all featuring big-named theatre stars, running in repertory, meaning the first three shows would be presented on alternating nights for the first half of the summer, and then the second set of shows would follow suit for the last half of the summer. The lineup was incredible – Brian Stokes Mitchell and Christine Baranski in Sweeney Todd, Melissa Errico, Raúl Esparza and Florence Lacey in Sunday in the Park With George, Lynn Redgrave, Emily Skinner, Alice Ripley and John Barrowman (yes, that John Barrowman) in Company, Judy “Pocahontas” Kuhn, Michael Cerveris and Rebecca Luker in Passion, Raúl Esparza, Miriam Shor and Emily Skinner in Merrily We Roll Along and Randy Graff, Blair Brown and Kristen “Princess Anna” Bell in A Little Night Music. For a musical theatre nerd like me, this was heaven on Earth. The problem was – it was all the way down in Washington, DC.

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Luckily, I had a friend named David, who I’d met in the old Theater chat room on AOL, and he and I had become friends in real life. David was in the original Broadway company of Merrily We Roll Along and, naturally, was forever a Sondheim fan. David was going to see each and every one of those shows and had a spare set of tickets – I just had to get myself down to DC! So I did, of course – twice.

The first show we saw was Sweeney Todd, and honestly, the whole thing was a blur. I remember the sound being a huge issue – during the Joanna trio in the second act, Stokes’ mic went out and suddenly we heard Hugh Panaro backstage vocalizing, and as soon as Hugh stepped onstage, his mic went out and we could hear Celia Keenan Bolger singing scales backstage. And I remember going to dinner at the restaurant on the ground floor of the Watergate Hotel (yes, that Watergate Hotel) and sitting across from Brian Stokes Mitchell, which was a huge thrill for me. I had no idea what was coming next.

David’s friend, Annie, joined us for the second set of shows, which included Merrily. Annie was also an original cast member of the show – in fact, she was the leading lady, and she was sharing a hotel room with us. Ann Morrison is also one of the kindest, gentlest souls I’ve ever met in my life. On the train ride over to the theatre, I asked Annie if she would sing something from the show for me and, as we ascended the giant escalator out of the train station, she sang, “Charley…why can’t it be like it was? I liked it the way that it was, Charley – you and me…we were nicer then,” and my head nearly exploded. (Hear her sing it on the Original Broadway Cast Recording here at around 1:42).

But wait…there’s more.

As we entered the huge lobby of the Kennedy Center complex, we were making our way to the theatre doors when someone yelled out, “David!” We all turned to see who it was and, standing there in the flesh was Anthony Rapp. Yes, that Anthony Rapp. I couldn’t believe it. I had never been a Renthead per se, but I loved the show just as much as everyone else, and I had spent countless hours listening to him on the cast recording. And then, after the show, once again at the Watergate, he was sitting across from me and David and Annie, talking about how he’d just returned from opening Rent in Japan. And then he started singing “Seasons of Love” in Japanese! Right there at the table. Annie and I both couldn’t believe what we were experiencing as we shared a caesar salad with sirloin beef (she and I bonded very quickly), and as I went to bed that night, I simply could not wrap my head around everything that had happened that night. It was all so wonderful. I mean, the only way it could possibly get better would be if I actually got to meet Stephen Sondheim himself.

And then I met Stephen Sondheim.

That Sunday night, after the closing performance of A Little Night Music, which was also the closing night of the Celebration, David got us into the closing night party. Sadly, Annie had had to fly back home early that morning – she left us all lovely notes under our pillows before she left, because that’s the kind of woman she is – but because of his involvement with Merrily, David was able to get me and some friends into the party that night. A few minutes into the soiree, we turned a corner and there he was – basking in a halo of heavenly light (well…maybe not) – Stephen Sondheim! David walked up to him and said, “Hi, Steve!” They had kept in touch through the years and they greeted each other as old friends and then David turned and introduced all of us to Sondheim. I shook his hand and we all stood around nervously for a few minutes while he and David chatted a bit more and then someone else walked up to “Steve.” I’m not sure who he was, but “Steve” introduced him to David and then proceeded to introduce each and every one of us to this person. By name.

“And this is Jason…”

Whenever I feel like I’m a nobody…that I’ve led an uninteresting life…that my voice isn’t being heard…I need to remind myself of this:

For one brief, shining moment, Stephen Sondheim knew my name.

FAQ

16 Jan

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So part of the point of this blog is to give you just a little insight into the inner workings of tour life – or at least from my perspective behind the merchandise booth. In a post from June 27 called “On The Road Again,” I tried to explain the logistics of traveling and loading the show in and out of the theatres. June was a long time ago and tonight I had the idea to answer a few of the more frequently asked questions I hear from night to night and city to city. Merch people, I have found, are like cab drivers – people will tell us anything and ask us anything – and we’re expected to know the answers. So, like any good website…I give you a few of my FAQs.

Is this [CD] the performance from tonight?

Let me start by saying that I know that most people actually mean to ask if the CD we sell features the cast that they are seeing onstage, but some do literally mean to ask if we sell recordings of the performance they just saw and heard, so this one is a two-parter.

  1. No, we do not sell a recording of the cast that is performing onstage because [a legal] one does not exist. We sell the New Broadway Cast Recording which features the original company of Evita that was on Broadway in 2012, including Ricky Martin, Elena Roger and Michael Cerveris. The packaging on the CD clearly states that it is the New Broadway Cast and features photos of the three leads as well as their printed names.Making a cast recording is an extremely expensive endeavor. In addition to the rental of studio space, the performers, including the orchestra, the conductor and the cast, must be paid according to the agreements set by their respective unions. I may be mistaken, but I believe Actors’ Equity alone requires 2 weeks’ full pay for each singer featured on a cast recording. On Broadway, that works out to a minimum of around $3600 per chorus member on the album. I guarantee Ricky Martin was paid a lot more than that. Unfortunately, the economics of touring would make recording an album cost prohibitive. In all my years in this business, I cannot think of more than one or two tours that have produced their own albums that were produced in time to actually sell it on the road.Time is also an important reason why tour albums are rarely done. As I’ve said in previous posts, we often travel on our one day off every week, which leaves absolutely no time to get the company into a recording studio to make an album. Touring is hard enough on the performer’s voices and bodies – to make them go into a studio on their one day off to sing for 10 hours would just be cruel and would most likely not produce the highest quality recording.To record the album before the tour hits the road would also be fruitless as the actors require time to settle into the roles, which usually happens during the last week or so of rehearsals and even into the first few weeks of performance. Broadway cast albums are typically recorded on the Monday following opening night, which usually happens after a month or more of rehearsals, a week or two of tech rehearsals and a preview period of anywhere from 1-4 weeks.Also to be taken into consideration is that cast members eventually leave the show, including the stars and are replaced by other actors. Even if our cast of Evita cut an album, by the time it was mixed, pressed and packaged, chances are very good that some of the singers on the album would no longer be in the show. A new album couldn’t possibly be made every time a principal actor left (or joined, for that matter) the show. You can’t please all of the people all of the time.evita1
  2. No, we do not sell live recordings of the performance you have just seen. There are a whole host of union rules that would prevent that beyond the logistical nightmare it would create. I have heard of some concerts being recorded through the soundboard and then being sold on zip drives after the show, but that takes time. I typically get 20 minutes of sales time after a show – people would not stick around to wait for the recording to be uploaded to a zip drive by…who? Who would be responsible for doing that and how would we travel with the equipment needed to do it?Also, common sense would dictate that if I have a stack of CDs available for sale before the show begins, it’s probably not a recording of the performance you’re about to see and hear because…well…that performance hasn’t happened yet.The recording we sell is the most current recording of the show with the same songs and orchestrations that are being performed in this touring production as well as the song “You Must Love Me,” which was written for the film and was, for better or worse, added into the second act of the show. The album features a Grammy winner (Ricky Martin), an Olivier winner (Elena Roger) and a Tony winner (Michael Cerveris), so you can be pretty sure you’re getting a good recording.

Is there a DVD of the show?

No. At least not a legal one. The technical answer is, as with audio recordings, that there are lots of legal and financial hoops to jump through when videotaping a production for commercial release. There are union rules regarding pay (see above) as well as licensing issues that come into play pertaining to royalties and potential broadcasting rights.

Many stage musicals have been recorded and sold as DVDs. Shrek the Musical is the most recent example. That video, however, was not released on DVD or as a streaming video until well after the Broadway production and subsequent national tours had closed.

My standard response to this question, which is a more practical answer, is that releasing a DVD of the show, which would probably be available for $25-$30 in the stores, might cut into the ticket sales. After all, if you could watch the show as many times as you’d like from the comfort of your own living room for a one-time investment of $30, why would you ever pay $65 to come see it once in the theatre?

And, honestly, live theatre always better…well…live!

Do the actors ever come out?

No. They live backstage in cages and are only let out to prance about onstage for you. 

What I think people mean to ask is, “Where can I go to meet the actors after the performance?” The answer is the Stage Door. Every large theatre has a separate entrance for the cast and the audience. The Stage Door leads backstage and is traditionally where the cast and crew enter and exit the building. Depending on their mood or their plans after a show, they may choose on occasion to slip out a side door or through the front lobby. While it may be disappointing if you miss your favorite performer on his or her way out, try to understand that they are human beings, too, and may have dashed out for a whole myriad of reasons. They could have family or friends in the audience, they may have plans to meet someone, they may not be feeling well or they may have had a bad day and just want to go home.

S/he’s cute! Is s/he single?

This one is more of a generic example of personal questions I get about the cast. My general rule of thumb is to play dumb, even if I know the person is only asking as a joke. Most people are just kinda kidding around, but we do have a few fans who don’t have proper boundaries and I don’t want to encourage them. The cast and crew’s private lives are exactly that – private – and it’s not for me to divulge their personal information. If you would like to discuss their professional history, I’ll be happy to chat with you, time permitting. Otherwise…I don’t know if he’s gay or if she’s got a boyfriend or where the cast is going after the show because really…it’s none of your business.

We’re seeing the understudy tonight? Is s/he any good?

Understudies, covers, alternates and swings. Who are these people? They are the least appreciated folks up on the stage because no one understands how hard they work or the prejudice they face every time it is announced that they will be going on in someone’s place. But what do they do, and what’s the difference between them?

Let’s start with understudies. An understudy is usually a member of the chorus (we call it the ensemble) who goes on in a principal (leading) or featured (supporting) role if someone calls out. That means they’re in the show every night in the ensemble, but must be mentally, vocally and physically prepared to go on in any of the roles that they understudy at literally a moment’s notice. For instance, in the bubble of Evita, if Sean, the actor who plays Juan Perón, suddenly loses his voice or jams his toe backstage and can’t continue to perform, one of his understudies would change into their Perón costume and wig and go on in his place. In most cases, this transition is made to appear seamless – an audience member may not even realize there’s been a change at first – but I assure you it’s quite hectic backstage. I remember the first time I saw Avenue Q on Broadway, John Tartaglia finished singing “Purpose,” walked offstage and Barrett Foa walked out in the next scene and performed the rest of the show. When I was working at A Chorus Line on Broadway, Charlotte d’Amboise, who played Cassie, would sometimes step off the line just before Val’s monologue and song (“Dance Ten, Looks Three”). Sometimes she’d walk back on at the end of the song and sometimes her understudy would. In any case, the show went on.

So if an understudy is pulled from the ensemble to go on in a principal track, who takes the understudy’s spot in the ensemble? That massive responsibility goes to the Swing. Swings do not perform every night, but stay backstage or out in the house, ready to go on at any moment should an ensemble member go out of the show. The swings are responsible for knowing every ensemble member’s “track,” so they have to know the choreography, stage blocking, music, lyrics and/or lines and where the costume and wig changes are made backstage for every track they cover. Evita travels with four swings – two male and two female. Flashdance only had one male and one female to cover about 5 tracks each. Just a few weeks ago, we had our first “All Skate” where we had all four swings, an understudy and an alternate on at the same time. It keeps everyone on their toes.

So, what is an alternate and how is that different from a cover? An alternate is a rare occurrence that really only happens with two shows that I’m aware of – Evita and The Phantom of the Opera. An alternate is, in these two cases, an actress who is hired specifically to play Eva or Christine (in Phantom) twice a week to give the “regular” Eva or Christine some vocal rest because of the demands of the role. That means that the casting director/composer/director/choreographer/whoever makes these kinds of decisions thought that the actress in question was qualified to play the role. In fact, if/when the “regular” Eva takes a vacation, the alternate bumps up to 6 shows a week and the understudy takes over as alternate.

A cover is someone who is also hired to play one specific role but only gets to go on should the “regular” actress call out. For instance, the women who play Glinda and Elphaba in Wicked both have covers who sit backstage, warmed up and ready to go should they need to go on. Again, the transition is typically seamless if they do have to do a mid-show switch, but like swings, they only get to on if someone is out of the show. In the case of our Evita alternate, she typically stays on site just in case she’s needed to go on. My friend Julie was the Christine alternate in Phantom for several years on tour and on Broadway. In New York, she merely had to call in before the show to make sure everything was OK and then try to be within a few blocks’ radius in case she was called in to go on. So she got an apartment near the theatre and could stay home. Brilliant!

I remember Karen Mason telling me that when she was covering Glen Close in Sunset Blvd., she would have to turn off the dressing room monitors because she could hear audience members booing when they announced that she would be going on in Ms. Close’s place. Imagine having to do the show knowing that 1,500 people have already made up their minds that they’re going to hate you because you’re not Glen Close. These are all very tough jobs, folks.

There are some performers who become known for their talents as an understudy or swing. Because it’s such a difficult job that requires a great deal of talent, smarts and organization, very few people are really, really good at it. When someone gets a reputation as a really, really good swing or understudy, they often get pigeonholed in that position, which makes it difficult for them to book jobs in the leading roles that they often understudy. Basically, they’re too talented to play the lead. Crazy, right? My friend Jessica has made a career on Broadway as an understudy. She’s understudied Cassie in A Chorus Line, Judy in 9 to 5, Wednesday and Morticia in The Addams Family: The Musical and Eva in Evita. She’s immensely talented.

That’s a very long explanation to come to this answer to the question: Yes, s/he is very good. They wouldn’t have been hired if they weren’t good, and they wouldn’t be allowed to go on if they hadn’t been approved to do so. I can understand being disappointed if you had your heart set on seeing Ricky Martin or Glen Close or Hugh Jackman, but they’re human, too, believe or not, and they do get sick from time to time and need a break. Give the people who keep the show going in their stead a chance – you will most likely be very pleasantly surprised.

Why can’t I take pictures of the show or of the merchandise?

This is a tough one to explain without getting snarky about it. The simple truth of the matter is, I don’t want to be in your pictures. I don’t want to be in your Twitter or Facebook feed or on Youtube. I don’t take pictures of you at work, so please give me the same courtesy.

Secondly, this is a place of business. I don’t have patience for people who monopolize the front of my booth – my selling space – by taking and retaking pictures until they get one that they like. Our booth is beautiful and colorful, but it’s not a photo opportunity. I’m actually working here, or at least trying to.

Thirdly, photo taking begets photo taking. It’s inevitable that when people see other people taking pictures with something or someone, they want a picture, too. Think about  how long the lines are to get your picture made with any of the Disney costumed characters. As I am trying to conduct business at this booth, I don’t have patience for crowds of people taking pictures with the merchandise.

Which leads me to point number four: The point of me being here with all of this fabulous merchandise with which people are so eager to take pictures is to sell the merchandise, not to let you take pictures of it for free. If you like the black shirt enough to take a photo of it, then maybe you should buy it. And people who take pictures of the poster…? Well, that’s just ridiculous. My point is – BUY it!

And finally – and this pertains to the show as well as the merch – everything is copyrighted and, in the interest of protecting that copyrighted material, photography is prohibited. Believe it or not, there are people who will take pictures of a shirt only to go home and make it themselves. Likewise, there are unscrupulous (and unimaginative) theatre “professionals” who would use photos taken of the sets, costumes and lights to reproduce that in their own stagings in their high school, college, community theatre or regional theatres. The designers of the merchandise, sets, costumes, lights, projections, hair and makeup, etc. worked long and hard on those designs and if anyone wants to reproduce them, those designers should rightfully be paid for the use of their designs. Intellectual property, it’s called, and it’s a big business.

Obviously not everyone wants to go home and copycat our merchandise or this show, but there are those who would – and do. As they say, one bad apple spoils the bunch, so it’s not permitted for anyone.

In addition to copyright protection, photography is also not allowed to protect the safety of the artists onstage. You will always have some fool taking flash photos, which is not only distracting to the people up there trying to put on a show for you, but it’s also potentially dangerous. Have you ever walked into a very dark room from outside in the sunshine only to find that you can’t see anything until your eyes adjust to the darkness? That’s what happens when a flash goes off in your face unexpectedly – you can’t see, which is very dangerous when you’re three feet from the edge of the orchestra pit or when there’s a piece of scenery sliding in that could roll over your foot.

So that’s why we don’t let you take pictures. Also, it’s just rude to the people sitting next to you.

And there you have it – some of my most Frequently Asked Questions from behind the merch booth. I hope you enjoyed reading and maybe even learned something you didn’t know before!