By Myra Chanin
Len Cariou is Broadway Royalty. He was the successor to Alfred Drake, Broadway’s first Post-WWII Musical Comedy Superstar who between 1943 and 1953 starred in Oklahoma, Kismet and Kiss Me Kate, three upbeat musical megahits with happy endings. Drake took home a Tony only for Kate, but surely would have won another for his 1943 appearance as Curly in Oklahoma if the Tony Awards had only existed before 1947.
Len arrived on the Great White Way in 1970 and, in the edgier decade that followed, also starred in three outstanding albeit more cynical Broadway musicals: Applause, A Little Night Music and Sweeney Todd. Tony nominated for all three, Len won his statuette for Sweeney, but was even more honored for twice being Steven Sondheim’s personal choice for his leading man. Len, unlike Drake, managed to follow his musical star to Hollywood as one of only two original Night Music Broadway cast members – the other was the inimitable Hermione Gingold – who went west to co-star in the film with Hollywood’s most bejeweled leading lady, Elizabeth Taylor Hilton Wilding Todd Fisher Burton Burton Warner Fortensky. Why? Because no Hollywood hunk could deliver Sondheim’s clever lyrics as crisply as Len did.
Len has been and continues to be the most persistently employed performer on the planet. He’s a great, versatile actor whose roles have run the gamut from manipulative cabbages (Iago and Louis Tobin, the Bernie Madoffish no-goodnick Ponzi schemer in TV’s Damages) to foolish kings (Lear, Macbeth, Oedipus and Oberon). What could possibly still interest him? Having a go at a manipulative king like Shakespeare’s Richard III or a foolish cabbage, Eugene O’Neil’s James Tyrone. But in the meantime, he’s kept very busy cooking dinners and handing out wise advice as the grandpater familias of the devoted to law-enforcement Reagan clan on CBS’s hit police procedural BlueBloods. Len/Henry is the Reagan who admits to having wielded a sap rather than being one.
The Canadian born Cariou grew up near Winnipeg, a boy soprano in a musical household, whose voice was trained as soon as it changed. He made his acting debut playing Ralph Rackstraw in HMS Pinafore in high school and soon turned pro in the chorus of Damn Yankees. Using his trained singing voice in a local nightclub act and performing in local theater kept him solvent until he joined the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis as a major player. When Len was offered the lead in A Little Night Music he was on Cloud Nine until he realized that rehearsals for Night Music would clash with his Guthrie performance schedule and leave the Guthrie Company in a lurch. When he told Hal Prince why he couldn’t accept his offer, Prince was so impressed with Len’s integrity that he postponed rehearsals to a date that worked better for Len – sort of. Len rehearsed in New York from Monday to Thursday with Sondheim and Prince and flew back to Minneapolis to spend the week-end as and with Oedipus. Night Music doubled as Len’s audition for Sweeney Todd, which Sondheim created with Len in mind.
In Len’s recent 54 Below One Man Cabaret Show, he reprised his original Canadian nightclub act, using the booking as an excuse to get his singing voice back in shape. “The show was a musical memoir of my career,” he recalls. His upcoming new show is devoted to the Gershwins, note the plural. “When I was 13, I heard Ella Fitzgerald sing a George Gershwin song which so impressed me that I made it my business to find out as much as I could about him and learned that he and Ira had written a million wonderful songs. I’d always wanted to do an evening of Gershwin to show how versatile he was.” ‘S Wonderful! ‘S Marvelous! should give you an idea of what to expect. “It’s going to be an upbeat show. Strike Up the Band! It will include I Got Rhythm, Fascinating Rhythm, but even more interesting is that I’m going to be singing unfamiliar lyrics to well known Gershwin songs that Michael Feinstein discovered when he worked for Ira. These songs were originally written with lyrics for a female singer, but Ira also wrote lyrics for them from a man’s point of view.” Will the show be more about Ira than about George? “No. It will be about both of them equally. But the unknown lyrics will be a bonus.” Len will be talking about himself and the Gershwins, tying them into his career.
Try to get to 54 Below early enough to enjoy their menu and wine list. They have a terrific chef and a really wine savvy manager. The food is reasonably priced and beautifully prepared. All their wines by the glass are wonderful.
Len Cariou – December 11, 13, 14 at 54 Below 254 W. 54 St. – Cellar, NYC