Broadway star Len Cariou talks 50-year making of Shakespeare musical ‘Broadway and the Bard’

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To be a musical or not to be a musical? That is the question. Shakespeare and musical theater merge in “Broadway and the Bard: An Evening of Shakespeare and Song.” The one-man show, starring Tony Award-winning actor Len Cariou, takes well-known soliloquies and sets them to well-known showtunes.

A collaboration among Cariou, director Barry Kleinbort and musical accompanist Mark Janas, “Broadway and the Bard” is coming to Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek for just one weekend, beginning June 21. It originally premiered off-Broadway in 2016, garnering immediate praise for presenting a one-of-a-kind show.

Cariou’s connection to Shakespeare dates back to the early days of his career. It was when he was performing in one of the Bard of Avon’s most iconic plays that he first thought up the idea of a musical set to his soliloquies. During his 1968 run in “Othello” in Chicago, he frequented a local bar every night after final curtain. It was there that he noticed the pianist had a curtain call of his own, signing off every night by playing jazz musician Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five.”

“I went up to him after I heard him play it two or three times and I asked him, ‘What do you think of this idea: You play “Take Five” and I’ll do a soliloquy from “Othello” as Iago?’ He looked at me kind of quizzically and said, ‘Why the hell not? Let’s try it.’ And we did,” said Cariou in an interview with The Daily Californian.

A musical showcase of Shakespeare’s soliloquies is more than fitting for Cariou.

It’s kind of like a look into my career, if you would, over that 50-year span,” Cariou said.

His career started long before “Othello,” though it still finds its origins with the Bard of Avon. Shakespeare’s works made up the vast majority of the productions he performed in for the first decade of his career. He played a multitude of Shakespeare’s leading characters off-Broadway, including King Lear and Henry V, the latter of which led him to his first starring Broadway role — he’d play Henry V again in the eponymous 1969 Broadway revival.

Cariou’s first starring role in a Broadway musical was “Applause” in 1970 and he also appeared in 1973’s “A Little Night Music,” both of which received multiple Tony wins, including Best Musical. Cariou starred in the Broadway premiere of the highly acclaimed “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” in 1979. This portrayal of the demonic barber earned him his Tony for Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Musical, and the musical itself won eight of the nine Tony nominations it received.

In that time, Cariou has established himself as not only a Broadway star, but an actor of film and television as well. For the past eight years, he has starred in CBS’ “Blue Bloods.”

“It’s funny — I think that every week more people see me on ‘Blue Bloods’ than ever saw me on stage,” he said.

While working on all of these other projects, the initial idea for “Broadway and the Bard” was still on Cariou’s mind. After that fateful night post-“Othello,” Cairou took 50 years to bring his vision to life because he needed to find the right collaborators.

“I knew how I wanted to open it, I knew how I wanted to close it, I knew all of the soliloquies I wanted to do. But I didn’t have that great of a knowledge of music,” Cariou said. “But then Barry Kleinbort and Mark Janas provided the music end of it. So it was a true collaboration.”

Cariou says the collaborative nature of the piece doesn’t truly fit the category of being called a solo show.

“It’s not really a one-man show. Mark Janas, who is my accompanist, is up there and he plays several different roles for me, just feeding me lines,” Cariou said. “I mean, it’s a one-man show as far as the audience is concerned, but it doesn’t feel like a one-man show, up there, for me.”

“Broadway and the Bard” also plays with audience expectations. Not only does Cariou break the fourth wall by interacting with audience members, but the playbill is more minimalistic than that of a typical musical. Instead of providing a lineup of the songs to be performed, it only contains information on the people involved in the project.

“I’m going to surprise them along the way,” Cariou said. “They can’t look at the program, thinking, ‘What’s he gonna do next? What’s he gonna do next?’”

Cariou and his collaborators believe this choice contributes to the essence of the show and strengthens the audience connection. There’s no playbill to be distracted by or to ruin the surprise, so audience members can remain on the edges of their seats.

“It became obvious to us that it should be a surprise,” Cariou said. “And most people I talk to say they didn’t need to know, that they’re happy to sit back and see what I’m gonna do. And I think they listen a little better.”

Contact Nikki Munoz at [email protected]. Tweet her at @Nikki_m9.