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Chatting with the 'Beast' :: Stephen Cerf Sinks His Teeth Into the Role at North Shore Music Theatre

by Kilian Melloy
Friday Jun 30, 2017
Chatting with the 'Beast' :: Stephen Cerf Sinks His Teeth Into the Role at North Shore Music Theatre

Let me quote David Bowie here and exhort you to "Smile at least." Because, after all, "You can't say no to 'The Beauty and the Beast.'" At least, the viewing public can't -- what with so many incarnations of the classic story, "Beauty and the Beast" has achieved a status that goes beyond the merely iconic.

According to Wikipedia, the tale dates back at least to 1740, with a fairy tale written by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve. The story has been around in various forms -- theatrical, musical, literary, and cinematic -- ever since, with the Disney incarnation occupying some major share in three categories all by itself: The 1991 animated film, the musical stage play that took Broadway by storm in 1994 with music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Howard Ashman and Tim Rice, and a book by Linda Woolverton (who also wrote the screenplay for the animated movie). This year saw a new live action Disney film that updated the material using CGI magic and modern effects work. But even outside the Disney realm the story reverberates -- a 2014 French production directed by Christophe Gans cast Vincent Cassel as the Beast and Léa Seydoux as Belle, the beauty.

Just in case you're from Mars (and that's a different Bowie song), the basic plot is as follows: The Beast is a prince whose selfishness has caused him and his servants to be cursed. Now he lives shut away in his castle, having been tranformed into a terrifying, animal-like creature. His servants, too, labor under the curse; they have been changed into household items such as a teapot and a candlestick holder.

All is dark and gloom in the castle until a trespasser comes along; Maurice is a harmless older man looking for shelter from a storm, but the ferocious Beast demands punishment as restitution for his intrusion. When Maurice's daughter, Belle, comes looking for him, the Beast -- catching sight of her loveliness -- makes a deal: He'll spare the old man if Belle stays on. There's a reason for this besides Beast's attraction to Belle; one condition of the curse is that it can be reversed if someone falls in love with the Beast in spite of his appearance. But time is limited: A magical rose is slowly losing its petals over the years, and if the last petal falls before love breaks the curse, the Beast will be eternally doomed.

Belle is a smart, self-possessed woman who's not afraid to enjoy books in spite of the doubts of the townspeople, and not in a hurry to hook up with the village go-getter, Gaston. She agrees to the Beast's terms out of love for her father; but will her love come to encompass the now-refined, and suffering, Beast? Or will time run out -- either because the last petal is barely clinging to the enchanted rose, or because the jealous Gaston is ready to whip the villagers into a fearful, murderously anti-Beast frenzy?

The musical has come through the area before (most recently earlier this year), and it remains a perennial favorite. North Shore Music Theatre is offering audiences the chance to enjoy the music and the magic again with a new production this summer. Directed by Michael Heitzman, "Disney's Beauty and the Beast" will run July 11 - 30.

Boston Conservatory almnus and Broadway veteran ("Jersey Boys") Stephen Cerf stars as the Beast opposite Rose Hemingway's Belle. Cerf's musical theater credits are long and impressive: Aside from "Jersey Boys" he's toured internationally in "Motown the Musical," "Spamalot," and "Rock of Ages."

Cerf's travels have brought him to regional stages, too, with roles in Ogunquit Playhouse's production of "Witches of Eastwick" and Reagle Music Theater's "Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat."

Cerf makes his NSMT debut with "Beauty and the Beast," and EDGE recently had the pleasure of chatting with him for the first time.


EDGE: You have an extensive musical theater background. What took you into that performance realm?

Stephen Cerf: I come from a big famly. I have four brothers. Growing up, my parents -- especially my mother -- wanted their sons to be well-rounded, so she introduced us to musicals at a young age. And, of course, growing up you watch all of the Disney musicals.

I think, for me, [musical theater has] always been a magical escape from whatever's going on in life. We deal with a lot of crazy things on in our world, especially as of late, and for someone to be able to go into a theater for two or two and a half hours, and be taken to a different place -- you know, it's different than a movie, [where] as an audience member you're not really a participant like you are in theater.

[From the performers' point of view], we receive energy from the audience when we're on stage; and, you know, with straight plays a lot of times it's maybe a little more realistic or more politically driven, maybe not quite as fun or exciting. Especially with musical theater, [there's that element of the fantastical] because in life we don't break out into song. I think that aspect of it takes it to a heightened level where somebody can escape from whatever's going on in their life for two hours and have a good time.

EDGE: So this is something of a gift you're able to offer, as a performer, to your audience.

Stephen Cerf: Yeah, I think so. I did 'Jersey Boys' for a long time, and that audience is a much older crowd; but I always loved doing things that kids can come see, because I was that 10-year-old. My parents would take me to see a show and I would just sit there with wide eyes the whole time, just mesmerized by what was happening on stage. I always like to do shows that kids can come see, and hopefully inspire some kid in the audience to do this for a living -- or, not even get into theater, but just be creative.

EDGE: We've seen so much of this particular tale over the years. What gives this story such endurance? Why does it resonate with us even now?

Stephen Cerf: I think out of all the Disney princesses, Belle is the most modern woman; she falls in love with someone because of who he is inside, and not for what he looks like. [The story] also happens to deal with the establishment [in the form of] Gaston and the townspeople; she wants to be different, and she is different, and it's not a bad thing. It's okay to be different. No matter who you are, I think that theme definitely strikes a chord.

EDGE: I noted in your bio you say, 'To God be the glory!' I thought that was great! I am curious how your faith comes into your performance, or how you might view your roles through that lens.

Stephen Cerf: I think first of all, being a professional actor, it's a difficult profession to be in. A lot of times people think, 'It must be so much fun!' Well, you know, it's a lot of uncertainy, it's a lot of constant unemployment. I've been so blessed to have been mostly gainfully employed ever since I started doing this, but that's not always the case. I have friends who might go a couple of years between shows.

I got into this because I felt this was a call in my life -- it's what I was meant to do, why I was put on the Earth, to be an entertainer and, specifically, to be in musical theater. I have that in my bio because I can't take credit for being in a position to perform in front of people. There has been a lot of stuff in my life where crazy things have happened you can't explain without a higher power, or miracles. Things just sort of line up for me a lot of the time.

My faith plays into that. I know there are people who don't believe in any higher deity or anything like that, but I think a lot of people in this world believe in something, or want to, and that does inform the choices we make as humans -- or as characters in plays. We're looking to find the causes for some crazy things, and great things, too.

It's funny you mention that; I have a big song in the first act, and at one point, working with the director today, he said, 'You just did this one point in the song like you're praying.' I think there's always a desire in characters in plays and in movies that there is some kind of underlying faith, or something maybe pushes people to do certain things.

As an actor there are times you do things on stage and you may be the only person on stage. So who are you talking to? There's this idea of a 'private audience.' Sometimes even in life we do things by ourselves where there's no one else there; it's a private audience. Sometimes that private audience might be God.

EDGE: In the role of Beast, do you have a chance to confront any personal characteristics or demons that are more 'beastly' in nature, and work them out or channel them -- aggression, selfishness, rage, hatred, those sorts of things?

Stephen Cerf: I think a lot of his anger... they went into it a little bit in the most recent live version of the movie, but yes, why is he the way he is? He didn't just wake up one day and was this terrible brat. Even in the show the enchanted objects talk about, and share blame in, why he is the way he is -- because for whatever reason his parents are out of the picture and they had the task of raising him, and they allowed him to become [the selfish person he was, which] ultimately led to them all being cursed.

As an actor, I try not to get too deep into my own psychology and what's going on with me. I try to sort of leave it -- you know, I played sports in high school, and I tried to leave everything on the field.

[Laughter]

I see people who, like Heath Ledger, go really far into dark characters, like The Joker in 'The Dark Knight,' and sometimes they can't get out of that. But even in a simplified [view of the story], I [as the Beast] am ashamed of how I look now. I've been treating people a certain way for so long, and at one point I was a beautiful prince but now I'm hideous, and I know that. Even just seeing, like, when Belle and her father invade my castle and for the first time in years I have people in my space, and I'm revolting to them -- that brings out [difficult feelings]. You know, like when you were a kid and you didn't feel attractive, or someone called you a name. Even on a very simple level I can tap into rejection and the anger that brings up.

EDGE: In addition to being an actor, you're also an author. You've written a book on finance for people in the theatrical arts, 'The Not So Starving Artist,' which has got to be a valuable tool since -- as you point out -- there can long dry spells between jobs.

Stephen Cerf: I was raised to be very smart with my money. My parents -- especially my dad -- did a really good job of teaching me what to do with my money. Not just saving, but also how to invest. Once I was acting professionally I realized very quickly from the people I was working with that a lot of actors didn't have that knowledge.

I think sometimes the world outside of the acting profession tells us, 'What you do for a living isn't a real job! It's playtime.' People sometimes don't understand that if you're working on Broadway you're making a lot of money. So, I saw a lot of young kids coming out of college with massive student loan debt, and immediately making as much money as you can make in musical theater without being a star, and they had no idea what to do with their money. That was really the catalyst to finish the book and publish it.

And it wasn't just kids. I've worked with adults who... one 45-year-old woman told me, 'I'm never going to own my own home.' And that made me sad. I was like, 'There needs to be a resource that's geared towards performers.' Not just actors; dancers, musicians, anybody who is in the arts, and maybe their jobs aren't as steady as they would like.

It was a chance for me to impart the knowledge I have to everybody I work with. For whatever reason, that area of our business has sort of been neglected. I think at some point, maybe when I have a little more free time, I'd like to do some master classes at theater schools and theater programs to provide some of those tools to kids before they even graduate.

Because I've been smart with my money, I don't have to work a day job. I can live in New York and focus all of my time and energy on my acting career.

EDGE: Somebody needs to write a book just like that for writers.

[Laughter]

Stephen Cerf: Yeah.


"Disney's Beauty and the Beast" will run July 11 - 30 at North Shore Music Theater. For tickets and more information, please go to http://www.nsmt.org/beautyandthebeast.html.

For more about Stephen Cerf, including infomration on his book "The Not So Starving Artist," please go to https://www.stephencerf.com

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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