by Alice Levitt
You may know him as the bloodthirsty Sweeney Todd in Stephen Sondheim's musical of the same name. Or that guy Jack Nicholson pounded in About Schmidt. Or, perhaps as Tom Selleck's dad on CBS' popular police procedural "Blue Bloods."
But on August 17, at 7:30 p.m., Len Cariou will play the real-life role of cabaret chanteur at a benefit for the Greensboro Arts Alliance at that town's Mountain View Country Club. A dinner precedes the show at 5:30 p.m.
The veteran singer and actor introduced his show "Musical Memoirs" last November at New York nightclub 54 Below, which specializes in cabaret shows starring well-known Broadway performers.
He'll perform it for the first time since then in the Green Mountains, which he says he last visited to film skiing scenes in Stowe for Alan Alda's 1981 directorial debut, The Four Seasons.
Although the act is a new one, the 73-year-old says that he got his start in show business singing in clubs in his native Winnipeg as a teenager.
When he was putting together a repertoire for "Musical Memoirs," Cariou went through set lists he used back in his teens. "I’m singing quite a few of the songs I sang then," Cariou remembers. "Most of them are in the Great American Songbook, but were brand new at the time. We didn’t realize they were from Broadway shows."
But Cariou's connection to his material doesn't end there. "When we were doing Applause in 1969, I realized that I had actually met all of the men who had written the music for my teenage nightclub act. They had all come to see Applause," he recalls of the All About Eve adaptation starring Lauren Bacall, for which Cariou received his first Tony nomination.
The result of that realization comes almost 45 years later, in the form of songs from composers including Duke Ellington, Cy Coleman, Applause songwriter Charles Strouse, Jule Styne and Noel Coward. They're accompanied by stories of Cariou's interactions with each of the legendary writers.
Of course, none played the role in Cariou's career that Stephen Sondheim did, and that composer's work will be well represented in the show.
Cariou first met Sondheim when director Harold Prince asked him to audition for the role of Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm in the 1973 musical A Little Night Music. During a few days off from Minneapolis' Guthrie Theater, where Cariou was part of the repertory company, he auditioned for Prince and Sondheim.
But Cariou didn't want the role of Carl-Magnus. "I had played Carl-Magnus in all different forms," he says of the stuffy soldier. Still, he wanted the chance to sing for Sondheim. "I wasn’t going to pass that up," he reasons.
In the end, Prince admitted that, though Cariou was only in his thirties, he had hoped Sondheim would approve of him for the fortysomething lead role of Fredrik Egerman. "Hal surprised the hell out of me when he told me, 'We want you to be Fredrik,'" the actor recalls. Cariou went on to garner a Tony nomination for the role he created, and to play it again opposite Elizabeth Taylor in the 1977 movie.
But Cariou gained immortality with his next role for Sondheim. The composer wrote 1979's Sweeney Todd with the actor in mind. "It was one of those marriages that are kind of made in heaven, if you will. It was a work of genius, and to be a part if it was extraordinary," says Cariou.
And his work on the show was not without its own genius, with the affable actor reaching into the depths of hell to play the murderous barber. But Cariou downplays his own efforts, saying, "People ask me, 'Wasn’t that a killer to do eight times a week?' But it’s only two hours a night, four hours on Wednesday. God knows, you have to put out the energy every time, but it’s such an incredible piece of theater and writing, it’s the simplest thing in the world to get up for. When you see the reaction of the audience, you go, 'My God, what a luck-out I am!"
Cariou says he doesn't see much theater these days. "You know what? It’s awfully expensive. It's ridiculous what they're charging people," he says, adding that he's not a very good audience member, anyway, as "[Broadway has] become a tourist, corporate entity."
As for revivals of A Little Night Music and Sweeney Todd and films of Todd and the upcoming Into the Woods, Cariou is glad for the attention they've brought back to Sondheim, even if he's not a fan of the new efforts himself.
These days, Cariou says he would rather revive music of the past in his own way. And what Broadway fan could turn down the opportunity to "attend the tale" of the man who played Sweeney Todd?