If you’re wondering how Len Cariou – 81 and, now, a strong contender for the title of Canada’s greatest living stage actor – is faring during the pandemic, you can cross him off your list of folks to worry about.
The St. Boniface-born Broadway baritone, best known for originating the role of Sweeney Todd in Stephen Sondheim’s musical, is alive and well and living in New Jersey, overlooking the Hudson; he and his wife, Heather Summerhayes Cariou, have been fully vaccinated for a month and, when I reached him over the phone, were about to have dinner with friends (also fully vaccinated) for the first time in a year.
The COVID-19 stage shutdown has been “hell” for many older theatre actors, losing a precious year of performance time, Cariou says, but he can’t complain, having been busy shooting the latest season of Blue Bloods – the long-running CBS series in which he plays the patriarch of a clan of cops that includes Tom Selleck and Donnie Wahlberg.
“When I’m on set, I’m spit-tested three times a week,” says Cariou, who was acting off-Broadway last March, in a play that closed after an understudy tested positive. “I have a few friends in New York who live alone. It’s been tough.”
The impulse to check in with Cariou, I must admit, came with the recent passing of Christopher Plummer, 10 years his senior and the first Canadian to win a Tony Award for best actor in a musical in 1974; Cariou was the second, five years later, for Sweeney Todd. (The third Canadian to win that award was Brent Carver, who also died, just 68, in 2020.)
The impetus to check in on Cariou, however, was that he is returning to Canadian theatre, in a way, next week – performing in Bernard Shaw’s Heartbreak House as part of a series of online readings being organized by Barrie, Ont.’s Talk is Free Theatre.
He’s playing eccentric sea captain Shotover in the Chekhov-inspired comedy set on a ship-shaped house, his co-stars including Ed Asner, Cynthia Dale, Trickster’s Craig Lauzon and Stratford/Shaw Festival straddler Alexis Gordon.
It’s an unexpected role for Cariou, who had five seasons at the Stratford Festival, but nary a one at the Shaw Festival. “Never even got invited!” he exclaims.
Perhaps the successive artistic directors in Niagara-on-the-Lake knew Cariou’s secret feelings about the Shaw: “I must confess he’s not my favourite playwright. I think he’s a little long-winded.”
That won’t be the case in the April 7 pre-recorded online reading of Heartbreak House – part of TIFT’s Dinner à la Art series, which you can only get tickets to by making a $30 purchase at a participating Barrie-area business or restaurant.
Richard Ouzounian, the director-turned-critic-turned-director, has sliced Shaw’s three-hour-plus script down to a relatively concise hour and a half. “He’s eliminated almost half the play,” says Cariou, approvingly. “I still think it makes sense.”
Given his reservations about Shaw, and lack of close ties to Barrie, how did Cariou end up on this zippy Zoom Heartbreak House? “[Ouzounian] called and blew me some smoke, saying how wonderful it would be, wouldn’t do it without me,” he says. “I said, ‘Well, okay.’”
And that’s that. In an interview, this one anyway, Cariou gets straight to the point in his answers and then waits for the next question. “He’s the opposite of Plummer,” agrees Ouzounian, who, during his other career with TVO and the Toronto Star, often interviewed that late legend who was always ready with a showbiz story.
“Len is a Manitoba boy, he’s not a gossip. Even when we go out to talk at dinner, he is kind of taciturn, and he always has been.”
Cariou’s storied stage career began in the late 1950s in Winnipeg at Rainbow Stage and the very first seasons at the Manitoba Theatre Centre. He then made his debut at Stratford in 1962, a season in which Plummer pranced about with panache as Cyrano de Bergerac, a prelude to his Tony-winning turn in the musical Cyrano on Broadway. “He was one of the great actors – and taught me a lot, especially in that first year I was at Stratford,” says Cariou, whose parts that year included Cook, Lackey, Lord and Soldier.
Soon enough, Cariou was a leading player at the Guthrie Theatre, which had been founded by the director Tyrone Guthrie in Minneapolis after the Stratford Festival. He then accompanied Guthrie’s compilation of Greek tragedies The House of Atreus to Broadway – and the rest is history.
Cariou’s musical theatre success in the 1970s is matched by few. He starred opposed Lauren Bacall in Applause, a Tony-winning musical adaptation of All About Eve; then originated the role of Fredrik Egerman in A Little Night Music (in which he nearly got to sing Send in the Clowns, before Sondheim rejigged the scene in question); and then came Sweeney. Each of these Broadway performances garnered him a Tony Award nomination – and the third time was the charm.
Bernard Shaw came into his professional life shortly thereafter at the Stratford Festival in 1982, when he acted in Arms and the Man and also play Brutus in Julius Caesar and Prospero in The Tempest.
Cariou has been talking to Stratford artistic director Antoni Cimolino about making a long-awaited return there, perhaps performing his one-man show Broadway and the Bard alongside a Shakespeare. “I’d love to do Prospero again,” he says. “Lear maybe, if I can get a light enough Cordelia.”
That’s the type of post-pandemic problem to which actors of Cariou’s generation are no doubt anxious to return.
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