Original Sweeney Todd Len Cariou Reminisces About Sweeney, King Lear, Lauren Bacall, and Elizabeth Taylor

Interview   Original Sweeney Todd Len Cariou Reminisces About Sweeney, King Lear, Lauren Bacall, and Elizabeth Taylor
The Tony winner is back onstage in Off-Broadway's Harry Townsend's Last Stand, now playing.
Len Cariou and Craig Bierko in <i>Harry Townsend&#39;s Last Stand</i>
Craig Bierko in Harry Townsend's Last Stand Maria Baranova

Stage and screen star Len Cariou—who originated the title role in and earned a Tony Award for Sweeney Todd—returns to the stage this winter in Harry Townsend’s Last Stand, currently at City Center Stage II. Starring opposite Craig Bierko as father and son, Cariou plays Harry, whose adult son returns home to examine their rocky relationship.

“It’s a muscle that’s got to be used,” Cariou says of his stage return, written by George Eastman and directed by Karen Carpenter. “And doing that on television is not enough exercise, let me put it that way.”

A regular on the hit CBS drama Blue Bloods, Cariou will be pulling double duty with the play and the series. “I happen to have the best job in the business on the television show,” he says. “I work one or two days out of eight.”

Describing Harry Townsend’s Last Stand as “a good father-son play, very funny, poignant,” he points out that it’s “not a walk in the park, but it’s something that challenges us both. I just wanted to keep those muscles going, you know? You develop them and when they’re not being used, you start missing things.”

In celebration of having Cariou back on the boards, we asked him to walk us through his Broadway career, from starring opposite Lauren Bacall in Applause to the first replacement cast of Proof.

“I auditioned for it about four different times, and I thought, ‘What is the matter with these people?’ And Ron Fields, the director, always wanted me to be in it. But the fourth time the entire team was going to be there, the producers and Miss Bacall and the songwriters, and at the end they all came up onstage and we shook hands and I met Miss Bacall for the first time because she had to approve of whoever was going to play the role. And Ron pulled me aside and said, ‘It’s not up to me, it’s up to these guys. And tell me again what it is you’re doing right now?’ And I said, ‘Come with me.’ And he came with me to the stage door, which was the ANTA Theatre, and there were three six-feet posters of me as Henry V. And I said, ‘That’s what I’m doing.’ And he said, ‘Oh fuck, I’m sorry. I’m really embarrassed!’ And I said, ‘Do me a favor, Bring them out the stage door and let them see that.’”

Lauren Bacall and Len Cariou in <i>Applause</i>
Lauren Bacall and Len Cariou in Applause Friedman-Abeles / New York Public Library

A Little Night Music
“I was at the Guthrie when they asked me to come audition for Night Music. And then we finally got to rehearsals, I was commuting from Minneapolis to New York because I was doing Oedipus at the Guthrie. And so I had one of the great commutes for all time. For a month. In December. And never missed a performance or a rehearsal. In the dead of winter There is a god!

“Mr. Prince sent it to me and said, ‘We’d like you to come in and audition for Carl-Magnus.’ And I thought, ‘Well, I played Carl-Magnus in many different forms over the years. But I certainly want to sing for Sondheim.’ And then they offered me Fredrik, much to my surprise.

“When we were in Boston, I got to announce from the stage the end of the Vietnam War. That was pretty special. Just yell out, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, the war in Vietnam is over!’ Which got more applause than we did.”

Glynis Johns and Len Cariou Martha Swope/©NYPL for the Performing Arts

Sweeney Todd
“I’d just done Lear at the Guthrie after Night Music. I was supposed to do Macbeth and Michael Langham switched the play to Lear and said, ‘No Scottish play for you, dear boy. You’ll play Lear. It’s time you started doing those character parts. ... I was 35. I said, ‘What about all the senior members of our company?’ And he said, ‘They’ll be so happy they don’t have to do that monster of a part.’

“It changes everything when you do something like that. I was raring to go. And I came back at New York and started studying with my voice teacher [for Sweeney] because I wanted to give Sondheim two octaves for the role, and I managed to do that. And that was a challenge-and-a-half, and then to work with Angela was a great blessing. And we had a great time doing that show for a year.”

Len Cariou and Victor Garber Martha Swope/©NYPL for the Performing Arts

Dance a Little Closer
“Alan [Jay Lerner, the composer] wanted to direct and he shouldn’t have. That was the problem. But that was a really good score and too bad. But I got to spend time and make a friendship with Alan Jay Lerner and his wife, Liz Robertson, who was playing the leading lady in the piece.”

_Production_Photo__Dance a Little Closer Len-Cariou & Thr Delights, Diane-Pennington, Cheryl-Howard & Alyson-Reed_HR.jpg
Len Cariou with Diane Pennington, Cheryl Howard, and Alyson Reed in Dance a Little Closer

Teddy & Alice
“It really was scuttled by the Shuberts. They made us move out of the Minskoff after we opened, and we got reasonably good reviews. It was a great show, a fun show, and people loved it. But they came to us and said, ‘You gotta move because we gotta bring in Cabaret.’ It became impossible for the producers because it was a quarter million dollars to move to another theatre.”

_Production_Photo__Teddy and Alice Beth-Fowler & Len-Cariou_HR.jpg
Alice Beth Fowler and Len Cariou in Teddy & Alice

The Speed of Darkness
“Shame [that playwright Steve Tesich] died so young. Originally I got the script and I read it and I thought, ‘This is a wonderful role for me.’ And I came to the audition for [producer Robert] Whitehead and Tesich and I walked onto the stage and I said, ‘OK, who do I have to fuck to get this part?’ And Steve said, ‘You got it!’ And that came from the dark, I hadn’t even met him yet.

_Production_Photo__The Speed of Darkness Stephen-Lang (L), & Len-Cariou_HR.jpg
Stephen Lang and Len Cariou in The Speed of Darkness

“We replaced the entire company, so we had a full schedule of rehearsal. It wasn’t put-ins of any kind. It was a real discovery process. Neil Patrick Harris, we had done a film together, he and I, Man in the Attic. And it was [Anne Heche’s] debut. She was very good in it.”

Bonus: A Little Night Music, the film
“It was great fun. I got a call in the middle of the night saying, ‘Len. Can you get on the next plane to London? We want you to take over the role.‘ And you know, Liz Taylor was playing Desiree and needed to approve of her leading man. So I got on the next plane and went directly to the recording studio and was introduced to her there in the sound booth because she was recording ‘Send in the Clowns’ with the orchestra. And she was terribly nervous, of course, and we were in the booth and she wasn’t certain of her timing. I said, ‘Well, when it’s time for you to sing I’ll tap you on the shoulder.’ And we sang on the same microphone, so they couldn’t use it at all...”

Click Here to Shop for Theatre
Merchandise in the Playbill Store
Popular Features This Week