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Len Cariou: Broadway and the Bard
Theatre Wit
Review by John Olson | Season Schedule

Also see John's report on the 2017 Jeff Awards and his interview with Len Cariou

Jimmy Buffett says he can't do a concert without singing 10 of his fans' favorite songs. Paul Simon, performing his farewell tour on the same night Len Cariou opened his six-performance run of Broadway and the Bard, sang "The Sounds of Silence" in his concert. One might expect Mr. Cariou to throw us a "Pretty Women" or "Send in the Clowns," but he has never been much for repeating himself. After creating inarguably one of the greatest male roles in musical theater, that of Sweeney Todd, he mostly left that role behind after completing the standard year's commitment on Broadway. Same with his Fredrik Egerman from A Little Night Music, though he did reprise that role in the film version of the musical. It would have been the easiest thing in the world to promise fans a recital of Cariou's songs from those musicals, but completely out of character for him. He sings no songs from either of those two shows (though accompanist/co-star Mark Janas teases us with piano snippets from their scores).

Instead, Cariou has created something new—a mash-up of some of Shakespeare's most famous speeches juxtaposed against show tunes that explore similar themes. Cariou explains early in his show it's an idea that came to him while performing in 1970's Applause, his first lead in a Broadway musical. The classically trained actor had just completed a run as Shakespeare's Henry V on Broadway and was stuck by the similarities between Shakespeare and musical theater—the way they both break the fourth wall to allow the characters to deeply express their thoughts and feelings.

Cariou makes the case for his premise right off the bat, with Orsino's act one, scene one speech from Twelfth Night ("If music be the food of love, play on."). The all-consuming, irrational, ecstasy and pain-inducing nature of love Shakespeare describes is soon echoed in Sondheim's "Love, I Hear," from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, in which we're told love makes you "pine away—with an idiotic grin." But not only is the premise established at this point in the show, we also see is this to be no cabaret of familiar show tunes, as Cariou utterly convinces us the character singing the song is utterly, uncontrollably in love—and making this seemingly simple comedy song from that farcical musical a truly dramatic scene.

Sondheim has been quoted as saying he prefers his shows to be performed by actors who can sing over singers who can act. Cariou shows us in this piece what it means to be a singing actor—to treat a song in a musical as part of a scene, not a "number." He makes Broadway and the Bard a sort of master class in musical theater acting. He doesn't tell the audience how to do what he does, but he shows us the depth of emotion that can be communicated through song. At age 78, Cariou still has the power we remember from Sweeney Todd, the control and precision—together with a flexibility that allows him to act the lyrics without sacrificing the songs' musicality.

Next, we hear two selections that may well have been Cariou's inspiration for the program. He reprises his Broadway role of Henry V with the iconic "Once more unto the breach" speech in which the King exhorts his soldiers into battle and glory for England. The search for another type of glory is wryly acknowledged in Charles Strouse and Lee Adams' title song from Applause—an anthem to actors that asks "What is it that we're living for? Applause, applause."

Much of Broadway and the Bard, conceived by Cariou with Janas and Barry Kleinbort, who directs, deals with love. Orsino's exasperation with love is reinforced in Rodgers and Hart's "Falling in Love with Love," from their adaptation of The Comedy of Errors, The Boys from Syracuse. A little later in the 80-minute show, Cariou goes deeper into the idea of regret over the all-consuming nature of love. Berowne from Love's Labour's Lost laments that love "kills me," and swears, "I will not love; if I do hang me." E.Y. "Yip" Harburg expanded on that idea in "Down with Love":

Down with eyes romantic and stupid,
Down with sighs, down with cupid.
Brother let's stuff that dove,
Down with love!
Down with love!

The inescapability of love, though, is acknowledged in Bob Merrill's "Her Face," from Carnival ("Everywhere I look I can see her face.")

After a listen to Benedick's declarations of his distaste for Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, Cariou sings of the desirability of love, but difficulty in finding it, in Ira Gershwin's lyric admitting love is "Nice work if you can get, and if you get it, won't you tell me how." He also addresses the opposite side of the coin—recognizing love has been present without one's even knowing—a la Much Ado's Beatrice and Benedick—in the Gershwins' "How Long Has This Been Going On." He moves into the uncompromising declarations of love in Sondheim and Bernstein's "I Have a Love" from West Side Story and Shakespeare's Sonnet 29 ("When in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes..."), with Janas underscoring the sonnet with Bernstein's haunting "Middle C." Cariou concludes his investigation of love with more Bernstein, singing the celebratory lyrics by Comden and Green for On the Town's "Lucky to Be Me" and Wonderful Town's "It's Love."

In the midst of this exploration of love is a meditation of the battle of the sexes—Othello's Iago announcing his intention to manipulate Desdemona into her doom, and The Taming of the Shrew's Petruchio outlining his abusive plan to "tame" Kate. Cariou answers this plot with Alan Jay Lerner's advice from Camelot's "How to Handle a Woman." Simply love her.

Though a good half of the program concerns love, Broadway and the Bard gets into other themes as well and one of the most striking and unexpected is a meditation on the enduring impact certain people have on our lives. Cariou leads this section with Marc Antony's tribute to Julius Caesar, then sings a bit of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Something Wonderful" from The King and I, leading into a medley of two choices from less-than-classic musicals. The singer of "Sometimes a Day Goes By" from Kander and Ebb's Woman of the Year says:

It's hardly everyday
It's most unu-usual
In fact I can't remember when
But sometimes a day goes by
When I don't think of her
'Til morning comes and then
There she is again

This is paired with "There's Always One You Can't Forget," by Lerner and Strouse from their one-night flop Dance a Little Closer—ironically, the only song Cariou performed on Broadway that is included here. Then again, as he jokes, he only got to sing it on Broadway once.

This program that begins with a reflection of the performer's career event of nearly 50 years ago, acknowledges the passage of time as the program winds toward its end. A speech from King Lear paired with Fagin's "Reviewing the Situation" from Lionel Bart's Oliver! and Dietz and Schwartz's "By Myself" is followed by the famous "Seven stages of man" speech from As You Like It, which leads into Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson's wistful reflection on aging, "September Song." This would have made a powerful ending, but Cariou concludes on an upbeat note with Cole Porter's vaudevillian "Brush Up Your Shakespeare," from Kiss Me, Kate>.

So if Broadway and the Bard is not an assemblage of Len Cariou's greatest hits—or even of Broadway's best-known standards (the songs included are lesser known than that, though not of lesser art than that)—he and collaborators Janas and Kleinbort have created something bigger than that. In an industry that sometimes segments musicals from straight plays and many artists choose one camp or the other, Cariou and company have shown how the musical theatre genre can dig into great humanistic themes in the way Shakespeare did in his soliloquies and sonnets. We have only one Shakespeare, but a lot of wonderful lyricists. Giving Ira Gershwin, Hammerstein, Hart, Harburg, Porter, Lerner, Comden & Green, Sondheim, Ebb and the others their due both by performing them alongside the Bard and with the skill and care required for the classics, Broadway and the Bard elevates the importance of show tune lyrics as an art form.

Broadway and the Bard was performed June 6-10, 2018, at Theatre Wit, 1225 W. Belmont, Chicago IL.


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