Before he was Commissioner Henry Reagan on Blue Bloods—even before he was working with Stephen Sondheim on Broadway—Len Cariou was a mainstay of Shakespearean comedies on Stratford and Winnipeg stages.
“I asked John Hirsch, my artistic director in Winnipeg, ‘When am I going to do a drama?’ ” Cariou says over coffee with the Georgia Straight. “He said, ‘When you learn how to play comedy.’ ”
The Winnipeg-born Cariou would make his name with dramas later, but it was this early immersion in Shakespeare, over 50 years ago, that gave him the idea for his touring one-man musical show, Broadway and the Bard.
“Life got in the way,” he admits. “Then, when I got doing the television show Blue Bloods, after about four or five years of that, I thought, ‘I’m missing singing.’ ” So he made his way back to the stage.
Broadway and the Bard combines well-known soliloquies from Shakespeare’s plays with show tune standards that connect to them thematically, or comment on them in some way. He won’t say which ones the audience will see, though. He insists it should stay a surprise.
“It’s kind of like a musical memoir of my career,” he hints.
For Cariou, the rhythm of Shakespeare’s poetry is musical, and goes hand in hand with Broadway. He has deep roots in both worlds. For decades, he switched between his repertoire of roles at Stratford—Prospero, Henry V, and Petruchio, among others—and musicals like Applause and A Little Night Music on the Great White Way.
A real turning point for him, he recalls, was when he took on the role of King Lear at age 35. “You do that, you grow up,” he says. “Once you grow that Lear muscle—once the thing is in your voice and in your body—Sweeney Todd is easy.”
Cariou won a Tony Award in 1979 for originating the title role in Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. The role is considered by many actors to be one of the most difficult in musical theatre.
Now Broadway and the Bard has allowed him revisit the joy of performing. Even after a break from theatre to focus on Blue Bloods (which will enter its 10th season this fall), Cariou still feels right at home on-stage.
“It’s what I do,” he says simply. “And the material is excellent, so it’s very satisfying.”
Cariou says the show was originally a cabaret, but it slowly developed themes and became “a piece of theatre” in its own right. The 79-year-old actor performs solo, with just his musical director Mark Janas accompanying him. Cariou also got to include repertoire by old friends of his like Leonard Bernstein, Cole Porter, and Alan Jay Lerner.
“I wanted to make sure that all of the greats were in it,” he notes.
With this touring show, Cariou gets to curate his own personal world of theatre that he can share with his audience—while proving that, even with his commitment to Blue Bloods, he won’t be leaving the stage anytime soon.
“You’ve gotta advocate for yourself,” Cariou says of the show. “The business is such that people are not coming forth to you—you’ve gotta go to them.” He adds, laughing: “Then everybody goes, ‘Oh shit, he’s still alive!’ ”
Broadway and the Bard: An Evening of Shakespeare and Song plays at the Orpheum Annex from Thursday to Sunday (June 27 to 30).