Although Broadway star Michael Cerveris may be familiar to many for his fierce portrayals of Sondheim killers — John Wilkes Booth in Assassins and Sweeney Todd in the 2005 role of that musical — he has a long history with rock & roll, starting with David Bowie. “I loved Robert Plant, but I couldn’t sing like him,” Cerveris explains. “When Bowie came around, it was the first time I heard a baritone singing rock music that I could keep up with.” He later sang “Young Americans” for his audition that landed him in his breakout role in The Who’s Tommy in 1993, which was how he learned a few secrets about how to be a rock star from Pete Townshend.
“He invited me over to London and said, ‘I want to take you around to places where we played our first gigs and the guys I grew up around,'” Cerveris says. “Then he told me, ‘I can’t teach you how to act, but I can show you how to be a rock star.’ The secret was largely that you have the right to stand on stage and sing. I think he smartly recognized that it would be paralyzing to try to stand up there and fill Roger’s shoes. But that was the gift he gave me: that I had the right to be there as much as anybody did.”
Cerveris, who released his second solo album earlier this year, has used that knowledge to inhabit a variety of roles since. He later took over as Hedwig for John Cameron Mitchell during its original Off-Broadway run and then played guitar with Bob Mould when he went on tour in the Nineties. “I met Bob because I was doing Tommy and I took Pete Townshend to see Bob play,” Cerveris explains. “Later Bob came in and listened to my band and we did a Mission of Burma cover. He invited me to listen to mixes of the new record, which was The Last Dog and Pony Show record, and I later innocently asked if he was going to tour it. I just wanted to know if I could get tickets, but he said, ‘You know, rhythm guitar and backing vocals is open if you want to do it.’ I was like, ‘OK!’ It was a while before I realized he wasn’t kidding, it was an actual invitation.”
Along with his current Tony Award-winning role as as Bruce Bechdel in Fun Home, Broadway’s reigning Best Musical, Cerveris continues to make music with his country band, Loose Cattle. So it seemed like a natural fit to have those two worlds overlap with the song “Pony Girl.” Fans of the musical based on Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel may recall that Bruce sings a short lullaby to young Alison when the family is on a trip to New York City. “I assumed it was some old folk lullaby and I said something like that one day, and Lisa [Kron] said, ‘Oh no, we wrote it.’ I asked to hear the whole thing and it sort of sounded like a country waltz to me, so I gave it my band. I think I forgot to tell them where the origin of it was, and it’s a sweet song, so they thought it was an old country classic.” The band decided to record it and release it as a vinyl 45, and the video features the young actors from the musical.
“The song is lyrically so simple, but the way it functions in the show is, literally, a lullaby to put Alison asleep but the lyric, in the context of their relationship, is also sort of heartbreaking,” Cerveris explains. “It can be seen as a father singing to his child who he knows is going to grow up and leave and move on and have a life — that’s just the nature of parents and children — there’s always heartbreak in that. But from the daughter’s perspective, especially in the show, it’s being sung by a father who is going to abandon her not just for that night but for the rest of her life pretty soon.”
The front and back of the album sleeve features artwork by Alison Bechdel from the Fun Home graphic novel with new text bubbles. The artwork for the B-side track, “St. James Infirmary,” is “from a memory of her father and grandfather and the funeral home when they were kids,” Cerveris explains.
The video, directed by Andrew Keenan-Bolger, features the young actors playing dress up, trying to understand the complicated world of adults. “I liked that kind of looking at the adult world through childrens’ eyes,” Cerveris says. “It kind of echoes the moment in the show but in a different way: The father putting the little girl to bed and telling her that he has to go do ‘grown-up stuff’ and her imagining what that means.”