Talkin' Broadway


Miguel Cervantes
Giant at Public Theater

by Beth Herstein


Miguel Cervantes in Giant
Photo by Karen Almond
On October 26, the musical Giant began previews at the Public Theater. Like the 1956 movie starring Elizabeth Taylor as Leslie, Rock Hudson as Bick, and James Dean as Jett, it is inspired by Edna Ferber's 1952 novel of the same name. The musical has had a long road to New York, including readings at Virginia's Signature Theatre and a production there, and a well received run at the Dallas Center Theater earlier this year. With a high profile ensemble—Kate Baldwin (Leslie), Brian D'Arcy James (Bick), and PJ Griffith (Jett) in the lead roles, with Michele Pawk, John Dossett, and Bobby Steggert rounding out the 22-member cast—and with Michael Greif (Rent, Next to Normal), Sybille Pearson (Baby) and Michael John LaChiusa (Marie Christine, The Wild Party) on the creative team, it is clear the Public and its co-producer Dallas Theater Center have high hopes for the show's premiere New York run and for its future.

In the parts of Angel—both Angel Senior, a vaquero on Bick's ranch, and Angel Junior, his son—is Miguel Cervantes. Cervantes, who grew up in Texas, where Giant is largely set, has been with Giant almost non-stop since its inception. His enthusiasm for the project is palpable; that, coupled with his southern background and his history with the show makes him an ideal spokesperson. I recently spoke with the affable Cervantes by phone about his career, Giant's path to New York, and the current production.

Beth Herstein:  You've been affiliated with Giant for about five years.

Miguel Cervantes:  Yes, I auditioned for the workshop around five years ago. I met with Michael John LaChiusa and Sybille Pearson (book). Being from Texas, maybe I should have, but I didn't really know the movie at the time. So I didn't know the content when I went in for the audition. Initially, I read a monologue from the show, and then I became part of the workshop at Signature Theatre. For me, the coolest thing is that, at the very beginning, when they were still creating it and making it into what it is now, Michael John told me that he knew there was a song in there [for my character] but he didn't know what it sounded like or what the feel of it was until he met me. When he met me, he said, "Now I got it," and that's how the song took its full life. It's one of things that's been said to me that's made me feel most honored.

BH:  From what I've read, that number is a big moment in the show.

MC:  It's funny. A lot of people talk about that song and really remember it and tell me it's a great moment. I say, "Thank you very much." But really, it's a step-out moment in the show. The show is full of these huge emotional beautiful songs that are full of life and huge emotions. Then comes me, jumping around. The name of the song is "Jump" and it's a moment where people get to breathe a little bit and watch a little guy jump around. It's a well appreciated and great moment in a show that's so full of heavy moments. Finally I get to come in with a little bit of a lightness. I embrace that, that I've been given the opportunity to be the lightness, the bouncing around energetic force that the show needs at that time.

BH:  You've talked about the fact that in some ways the show has changed and in other ways it has stayed very much the same. How so?

MC:  As one of the original people, I got to see in its entirety a 4-1/2 to 5 hour version. It was three acts long. I'm pulling this out of the air, but I think there were around 45 to 50 songs. It was this sweeping, sweeping show. I thought, "Are you kidding me? We're going to sit here and listen to this thing for 4-1/2 hours twice in one day?" I thought it was going to be torture. But come the day of the show, y'all, I sat there for 4-1/2 hours twice and couldn't believe that the time flew the way it did. The story lasts forever but just takes you along. I don't know how well 4-1/2 hour shows sell these days, though, so the biggest change is length. They had to make cuts here, there and everywhere to fit it down into its current form, which is just under three hours and only two acts. There have been whole songs—beautiful songs—that have hit the floor. It's so painful to see beautiful music go away, but there's no lack of beautiful music in this show. You're not going to miss it.

There have been character changes, too. The nuts and bolts of this show is the relationships—between married people, children and their parents, people and their country, and people and their heritage. A lot of those relationships have been streamlined and clarified. The love story between Bick and Leslie—I've gotten to see it become more and more beautiful over the last 5 years. Every time we do a reading, it's more evident how much the [creative team] has been working on this relationship and making this love story work. That's been an amazing thing to watch.

(Laughs.) My part, however, has remained pretty much the same.

BH:  Your character, Angel Junior, is pretty integral to the story, in terms of his impact on Bick and the members of his family.

MC:  He doesn't get a lot of credit in the movie. We did the show in Dallas and I got to talk to a lot of people there—I was sort of responsible for the talkbacks after the shows. I would always ask how many people saw the movie and how many read the book ... Sybille and Michael John wrote a musical based on the novel. The movie—as beautiful and iconic as it is—is more of a star vehicle for James Dean and Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor. The book is a little bit dirtier, getting a little more into the history of the racial issues and the history of the land. It really gets into the nitty gritty of that story. In the book, Angel is sort of a symbol of the of the younger generation, veering off toward their own dreams and their own goals and views of the world. The way that he bucks his legacy of being a vaquero on the ranch inspires Jordy and all the rest to follow their aspirations. That's more evident in the book than in the movie.

BH:  You mentioned the fact that racial and social issues permeate the story. There was controversy when "Giant" first came out, because of Edna Ferber's depictions of race and class. She was trying to point out some of the ugliness of deeply ingrained attitudes, and this caused some controversy. Did you all discuss any of that during the evolution of this musical?

MC:  Yes. Maybe this is my own opinion, but I feel like when people talk about race it gets so "black and white." Being from a Hispanic family, you forget there was a huge ugly racial stain on the South from Mexicans and white people as well. It is tread very lightly on in the movie. At the end, Rock Hudson punches out a racist in the restaurant. I could be wrong, but I don't remember that happening in the book. I feel that was added to make it less racially charged, when in fact it was an ugly truth of the time. It's handled in the play very well. It's not just spic-and-span, wipe your hands, and everyone's happy and accepting. You can see that people are changing, but everyone is not changed. That's how life works ...

BH:  There have been big cast changes over the years. Some wonderful actors have come into the show, and some fine actors have left as well. What have the transitions been like?

MC:  It's a very strange animal, to be part of something like this. I've seen four different Jordys, I've seen four different Bicks, three different Leslies. I didn't [participate in the production at] the Signature—I was doing Happiness at Lincoln Center—so I didn't get to go to Virginia ... So, I didn't see the Leslie that was there, who was different from the Leslie in the first workshop. But, you know how I told you that at the beginning, Michael John said to me, "You became the voice of Angel when I heard you sing and saw how you moved"? Well, it's been exactly like that with every person who's come in. For every actor, the melodies change. Michael John adapts the songs around the way people sing. Steven Pasquale was in there for a little while, and his timbre, the way he sang, was different from the guy before him. The songs took on a new light. Then, our Dallas Bick [Aaron Lazar] was different. His stature, and his beautiful tone—everything was adjusted to fit him and his talents. Then you bring in Brian D'Arcy James, and Bobby Steggert, PJ Griffith and Kate Baldwin, and the other new people in this cast, and again the notes and the melody are massaged to fit these people, until the songs sound like they were written for them. Each person has his or her own take and quality. You see [one set of performances] and say, "It doesn't get any better than that." Then you see the next performers, and they seem to be doing it the best way. I think that's a shout out to Michael John and Sybille and the way these characters and songs are written, and also to the actors who bring qualities to the characters that envelop them, so it seems they were the first ones to do it.

BH:  You mentioned that you were in the musical Happiness. As in Giant, that creative team for the show developed the character to fit your personality and voice.

MC:  That's right. What kind of a lucky guy have I been? It's been pretty amazing to be part of shows like that. In American Idiot, too [as an ensemble member], the little parts that we got to do there—they asked, "How can this character move like Miguel?" In Happiness, they asked, "What does this song sound like if it's a little guy like Miguel instead of the way that we envisioned it before?"

BH:  When you talked about Happiness, you said that it was a big opportunity for you to expand your audience. At the time, you were just about to be married. Your wife, Kelly Martin, acted as well, but you also mentioned in an interview that she's done a lot of volunteer work, including a one-month stint at an orphanage in Africa.

MC:  Yes, she's done some really cool things. She used to do a little auditioning here and there, for television and commercials. She started working as an event coordinator. She makes all the donuts for our family most of the time. I thank God every day that she hung up her audition boots. I can't think of a better situation for an actor to have as a wife who's sympathetic to the theater life and also makes enough money to support us. I owe her a lot.

BH:  This show is another big opportunity for you, and the two of you just had your first child. Congratulations.

MC:  Yes. We have a 4-month-old child, born in June. His name is Jackson Miguel Cervantes, and he's awesome.

Happiness is a benchmark of the last several years. I've had so many wonderful experiences since then, both professionally and personally. It's been a really great run. I can't wait to see what happens next, especially with this show. With a family, and with a child, and with aspirations to have more children, it's exciting to see the future of Giant, and what happens with my career as it goes forward.

BH:  You've talked about working with the creators of the show. You're also working with a really heavy duty director (Michael Greif).

MC:  I've said this before, but it's such an amazing business to be in. To say, "I've heard of that person," or "I admire that person," or "I'm in awe of that person, from afar." Then all of a sudden you're in a room working with that person. Michael Greif is in that category. I was in school, at college, when Rent came out, and I thought it was amazing. My [teenage] self would never have believed that, flash forward, one day I'd be working with him. [Now that we're working together,] I see the reason it works. He's known as a fixer, he really works through stories and gets the story telling to where it needs to be. I've watched that happen. It's really cool to see how he does it. Also, he is the nicest, nicest guy. It's great to see that amazingly talented people like him are cool folks as well. I know that there probably are awesomely talented people who are not cool folks, and I'm glad I've been able to meet a few of the cool ones. It's satisfying to see that these role models are also nice, approachable people.

BH:  Anything else?

MC:  One thing I think is very important, and maybe it's because I'm just a big old sentimental baby, but I've been part of this show for such a long time, and you might ask when it gets old or stale. When does it get to the point where I can't sit through this another time? But, I tell you what: There's something about this story and the way things happen in the show ... When it gets to the end of the show, when it gets to the moments I've heard 100 times, when I have heard the songs, I know exactly how they'll sound—every time, even though I know it's coming, it's hard for me not to well up. Even in the little rehearsal room, the ugly, florescent lit rehearsal room. It's hard for me not to feel overwhelmed by what [the characters are] saying and how they're saying it, and the way the emotion comes through the music and the words. It's crazy. For lack of a better dumb word, it's magical. Five years of cheers, we'll call it. And I think there's something to that. I can almost guarantee that if you talk to anyone else who's been with the show as long as I have, they'll say the same thing.




Giant, now in previews at the Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street for a November 13 opening. For performance and ticket information, visit www.publictheater.org.


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