Len Cariou blends Shakespeare with Broadway musical gems in one-man show
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“Words and music by” is a phrase not generally associated with the works of William Shakespeare, but for Tony Award-winning Broadway veteran Len Cariou, it’s a match made in heaven.
The 78-year old actor, currently starring on the small screen in the hit CBS series “Blue Bloods” opposite Tom Selleck and Donnie Wahlberg, has crafted a one-man show combining selections from Broadway musicals with soliloquies and sonnets by Shakespeare in the aptly titled “Broadway and the Bard: An Evening of Shakespeare & Song.” The production arrives June 6 at Stage 773 for a five-night run.
“It’s taken me 40-some years to get this show together,” Cariou says with a chuckle. “It goes all the way back to my playing ‘Henry V’ in 1969 [his Broadway debut]. Then six months later I did [the Tony Award-winning] ‘Applause.’ That’s really when I began to realize what a great connection there was between the works of Shakespeare and these great musical numbers.”
‘Broadway and the Bard: An Evening of Shakespeare & Song’
Starring: Len Cariou
When: June 6-10
Where: Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont
The 80-minute show, which debuted Off Broadway in 2016, takes audiences on a journey through Cariou’s love affair with the Bard — everything from “Richard II” and “Julius Caesar” to “Twelfth Night” and “Taming of the Shrew” — and musical comedy. (Cariou prefers to keep the roster of work to himself — to the extent that programs are not handed out until patrons exit the theater).
“I don’t want them to sit in their seats reading about it and saying, ‘Oh, now he’s going to do this, or then there’s this,'” he explains. “I want them to just listen to the words, really listen to them. Then I hope they discover the works on their own, after the show is long over. It’s that beautiful sense of discovery.”
Same for the musical selections, though he does reveal the show’s opening combo of Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” paired with “Love, I Hear” from Sondheim’s “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” and “Falling in Love with Love” from Rodgers and Hart’s “The Boys from Syracuse.” He also admits the inclusion of “If I Ruled the World,” from the rarely staged “Pickwick” (by Wolf Mankowitz, Cyril Ornadel and Leslie Bricusse) and the title song from Sondheim’s “Applause” (the perfect complement for “Henry V,” Cariou explains). What you will not hear is anything from his most critically acclaimed performance, the title role in Sondheim’s 1979 “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” for which Cariou received a best actor Tony Award.
“That’s too easy, too expected,” Cariou says with a chuckle. “I have Bernstein, Cole Porter, and Sondheim. Just not ‘Sweeney.’ ” He does include a selection from another 1970s Broadway Sondheim triumph, “A Little Night Music” (Cariou also starred in the subsequent film version).
Cariou, accompanied by pianist/music director Mark Janas, stresses that it his show (directed by Barry Kleinbort) is an evening of true theater on every level. “The Shakespeare is acted; this is not just a reading,” he says. “Combined with the music it’s like 17 little one-act plays.”
Born and raised in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Cariou reveals he came from a musical family (he has four sisters). “My mother was a singer,” he says. “They were all pretty musical, really. I was the Irish kid on the block, so naturally I had to sing [laughs]. I started singing in nightclubs in Winnipeg, but I knew I’d have to get out of Winnipeg to really do something with music. I just naturally segued into musical theater in [high school]. … I was a professional actor for over a year before I’d even seen a play.”
He eventually met Canadian John Hirsch, the director of the Manitoba Theatre Centre, who would become Cariou’s mentor “and theater father,” the actor says quietly. “He gave me the best theatrical advice,” Cariou says of the late impresario. “He told me, ‘You have to promise me that you will take the high road if you’re truly interested in doing the classics. But never give up on the musicals.’ And that’s what I did.” He credits Hirsch with engineering his entree to the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis and the prestigious Stratford Festival in Ontario, Canada.
His theatrical work also extended to Chicago, where he arrived with the national tour of “Copenhagen” in 2002, opposite Mariette Hartley and Hank Stratton. Years earlier, he starred as Iago opposite James Earl Jones’ Othello at the Goodman School of Drama.
“We became good friends during that run,” Cariou says of Jones. “In fact, I took him to his first hockey game; Montreal was playing Chicago at the old Stadium. I was the only guy cheering for Montreal, you see, and three or four guys did not take too kindly to that,” he continues with a chuckle. Amid glares and some not-too-kind words after the game, Cariou said he and Jones did what anyone would have done: “We ran like heck outta there,” he says laughing.