by Alan Gomberg
Len Cariou may be best known for having created the roles of Fredrik Egerman in A Little Night Music and, of course, the title role in Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street. His other Broadway appearances include Applause, Nightwatch, Cold Storage, Teddy and Alice, The Speed of Darkness, The Dinner Party, and Proof.
In addition to his New York credits, the 63-year-old actor has played a seemingly endless list of roles across the United States and in Canada. His roles have included Lear (twice), Macbeth, Prospero, Coriolanus, Brutus, Petruchio (three times), Oedipus, Iago, the Duke in Measure for Measure, Orlando, Oberon, Henry V, Hajj in Kismet, Con Melody in A Touch of the Poet, both Christian and Cyrano, Niels Bohr in Copenhagen, Cap'n Andy in Showboat, ... well, the list goes on and on. He recently starred with Jane Alexander in the premiere of Neil Simon's Rose and Walsh in Los Angeles. Now he is in the National Actors Theatre production of The Persians by Aeschylus, in an adaptation by Ellen McLaughlin.
His films include The Four Seasons, Lady in White, Thirteen Days, and About Schmidt. He has also been in many television films and made countless guest appearances in series.
Meeting up with Mr. Cariou at the Friars Club, I learn that he has just come from a radio interview, during which some large portions of the Sweeney Todd cast recording were played for the listeners. Cariou states that he hadn't listened to the recording in 15 or 20 years. So Sweeney Todd seemed like a good place to start.
With Angela Lansbury in Sweeney Todd
Photo: Martha Swope
Len Cariou: It's pretty extraordinary stuff. It really is quite amazing.
Alan Gomberg: I was fortunate enough to see you play Sweeney nine times in the original production. One of the great theatre experiences.
LC: It was one of those things. And we knew it from the get-go. I remember Stephen coming to me after the first preview backstage, and he said, "They understood it. They fucking understood it!" I said, "Yeah, I think they did!" I mean, we were absolutely stunned, they actually did get it.
AG: Your performance changed a good deal during that year.
LC: They change, I guess - not consciously, I don't think. Funnily enough, one of the things that you have strive to do is repeat. You have to find a way to do it. And then you have to find a way to do it so it's interesting for you. You have to create it every time out. In one sense you don't think about it, though you do know what keys things in you.
In other words, how you work off of something that the other actor gives to you, the things that make you go where you need to go. You don't want to labor those things, but you're terribly aware of them. By the same token, you don't ever want to talk about them. You just have to make it known somewhere along the line that what this person is doing is very important to you. And just somehow get them to understand that (talking now to the imaginary other actor) "What you're doing there really helps me a lot." "Oh, I get you! OK."
AG: You had a wonderful partnership with Lansbury. During the course of the year, your performances really grew.
LC: We kept one another on our collective toes. We kind of made a pact. I think the thing that both Angela and I were most proud of was that we managed to never let this thing get away from us - a very fine line, because you could easily go into farce there. So we prided ourselves on being there and really listening and working, really paying attention.
AG: Let's talk about how you got started as an actor. Growing up in Winnipeg, did you always know theatre was something you wanted to do?
LC: No, but I was always a singer. I had been an actor for over a year before I ever saw a play.
My mother - the Irish side of the family - was very musical. My mother was a singer; there was music around the house all the time. I was a boy soprano. I had a natural kind of voice and then trained it after my voice changed. My mother was pretty instrumental in that. And I took piano. So there was music around me all the time. My mother had taken me to the symphony, had even taken me to some staged operas, not fully staged but concert versions. But nobody in the family seemed to be interested in the theatre, so I was not exposed to it. There was an amateur theatre in Winnipeg, but it was very sporadic, it only did things during the wintertime.
The focus of the community in terms of the arts was on the ballet and the symphony. That's the way it was until John Hirsch arrived and said, "Wait a minute. How can a city this big not have a resident theatre company?" He proceeded to create one, and I happened to be there. He kind of took me by the hand. And then he was really responsible for my going to Stratford, Ontario, which started my classical career. I went from working there for about four or five years to the Guthrie.
AG: But your first work was in musicals, wasn't it?
LC: Yeah. We had an outdoor theatre called Rainbow Stage. If it clouded over, people didn't come. Long after I left, they made it a geodesic dome, and they now can at least guarantee you're not gonna get rained on. But when we went out there, it was really quite wonderful. It was great fun to do.
AG: I gather you never really had formal training as an actor.
LC: I was the first student who was offered a scholarship at the National Theatre School of Canada. But I was married at the time, with a small child. The scholarship would have gotten me to Montreal, where the school was, but I don't think it would have even paid the rent. So I had to say no. And John Hirsch said to me, "Well, I'll give you as much work as I possibly can." So for the first four years I went back and forth between Stratford and the Manitoba Theatre Center. I was never out of work 'cause we'd start at Stratford in February and go till October, then I would come home to Winnipeg and work October till January, and then go back to Stratford. It was great for me.
We did a lot of great stuff in Winnipeg. We did a very famous production of Mother Courage at Manitoba, with Zoe Caldwell. John Hirsch was one of the best directors who ever lived. I was really lucky. I got him, and then I went to Stratford and I had Michael Langham, and when I went to the Guthrie Theatre I had Tyrone Guthrie. So I had three of the best classical directors in the world. And then I got Prince in the musicals. So I've had a rather blessed career.
AG: Do you remember any of the specifics you learned from Guthrie? He's such a legendary figure.
LC: He was just an extraordinary character. He started out as an actor, but he was so tall and ungainly - he was tripping over the furniture - so he said, "I better get off the stage, and go out front and start directing."
He'd give you a note, and you'd say, "Can I do it?" And he'd say, "No. On. Don't go back." He wouldn't let you do it again, you had to think about it. And come back the next day and do it, but you couldn't do it then. That was one of his tricks. "On. Don't go back. On. Don't go back."
And also one of the funny things he used to say was, "I think the only way this will work is if you do this and you do that, because unless you do it that way Mrs. Jones in the second row isn't going to understand. Remember Mrs. Jones."