Soliloquies to sing about Winnipeg acting legend Len Cariou mixes two of his loves — show tunes and Shakespeare
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 06/06/2019 (1463 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
He is the biggest Broadway star Winnipeg ever produced.
Broadway & the Bard
Starring Len Cariou
● Manitoba Theatre for Young People
● Friday, June 14 to Sunday, June 16
● Tickets $47 at tickets.mtyp.ca
But these days, if Len Cariou is walking through an airport or down a street, he will most likely be recognized thusly:
“Aren’t you that guy from Blue Bloods?”
Being recognized for his work on the CBS show as the elder Irish patriarch of a family of New York cops — and the father of Tom Selleck — is all very well. Beyond that, Cariou can boast an additional wealth of screen roles in films such as Spotlight, Prisoners and About Schmidt.
But Len Cariou, 79, likes to be thought of as a quintessential theatre artist. He made his debut in a production of Damn Yankees at Rainbow Stage in 1959 and considers himself as a founding member of the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre (where he was an artistic director for a year in 1975). It was still early in his career when he went to the Stratford Festival to try his hand at the classics, and he eventually racked up roles from Corialanus to Prospero in The Tempest.
“I made my Broadway debut as Henry V,” Cariou says during an interview at the board room of Royal MTC. “And six months later I made my musical-comedy debut with Applause (opposite Lauren Bacall).”
He would ultimately win a Tony Award for his work in the title role of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street in 1979 opposite Angela Lansbury.
Asked to choose between which he prefers — Shakespeare or musicals — Cariou chooses both.
“That’s really what Broadway & the Bard is about,” Cariou says, discussing the musical-theatre piece he conceived with director Barry Kleinbort and musical director Mark Janas. “The fourth wall is down, as we say, and I’m talking directly to the audience, so it’s kind of like a memoir in a sense.”
The notion of such a blend first struck Cariou 50 years ago when he was playing Iago opposite James Earl Jones in Othello in Chicago.
“There was a bar on Rush Street called Punchinello’s and it had a great piano player who really (hosted) an open mic there every night,” Cariou recalls. “His signature sign-off was Dave Brubeck’s Take Five and he had an incredible arrangement of it and every night that’s the way he would say good night.
“One night, I finally got up the guts and went over to him and said, ‘What do you think of this idea you play Take Five and I will speak Iago, so that your accompanying me?”
“He went, ‘Yeah man, yeah!’ He had no idea what I was talking about,” Cariou chuckles. “But we did it and the place went nuts and I thought, ‘I knew this would work. I knew I was onto something here.’
“It only took me 50 years to finally put a thing together.”
● ● ●
Actually, it was in 2015 when Cariou finally approached musical director Janas with the idea of a theatre piece thematically divided between show tunes and Shakespeare. Initial run-throughs — Cariou would recite a soliloquy and Janas would play a Bach partita — yielded interesting results. They took their idea to Kleinbort and things got more interesting still.
“We got together within a week,” Cariou says. “We thought maybe it would be a cabaret, but once we started to do it, we both looked at each other and said: No it’s a piece of theatre. It’s too dramatic. It needs the lights. It needs those elements.
‘We kind of scooped the world because 2016 was the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, and we were doing this piece. It was really well received and well reviewed’
They chose January 2016 to take the show to an intimate house in New York’s theatre district.
“We kind of scooped the world because 2016 was the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, and we were doing this piece,” Cariou says. “It was really well received and well reviewed.”
Taking the show to his Winnipeg hometown has added resonance for Cariou, reminding him of his friendship with a certain Royal MTC founder.
“When I went to Stratford and I came back, I told John Hirsch, God bless him, that I wanted to do the classics. I really wanted to do that.
“He said to me, ‘Well, you’re taking the high road. But you make me a promise to not give up the musicals. Not many actors can do what you can do.
“So he said, ‘Just promise me you won’t give up the musicals.’ And I didn’t.”
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In a way, Randall King was born into the entertainment beat.