Brilliant Stuff: Interview with Len Cariou, the original Sweeney Todd
Len Cariou’s brilliant career has had at least three acts. His first act was onstage in his native Canada and at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, primarily in classical roles. In his third act, he’s a television star as NYPD family patriarch Henry Reagan on the CBS series Blue Bloods (2010-present). But many of the show’s fans don’t know that, during his prime second act, Cariou starred in several Broadway musicals including Applause (opposite Lauren Bacall) and two masterpieces by Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler: A Little Night Music, in which his leading ladies were Glynis Johns and the late Victoria Mallory; and Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, in which he originated the title role (winning the Tony Award for best actor in a musical) and was unforgettably partnered with Angela Lansbury’s Mrs. Lovett.
In this hitherto unpublished interview from 2013, Cariou talks about his Sweeney Todd experience and shares his feelings about the latest Broadway revival and the film version.
Everything Sondheim: How did Sweeney come to you?
Len Cariou: I was up in Canada, being artistic director of the Manitoba Theater Center in Winnipeg, where I’m from and where I started my career. We were doing Company as part of our season and I called Hal Prince to ask him if I could get the stage manager’s book from the Broadway production. He said sure, and then he said, “Oh, by the way, Steve has written a musical for you.” I said, “By the way?” He said, “Yeah, it’s called Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Hugh Wheeler is writing the book. I’ll send you the outline.” So it came in the mail, but I was in the middle of rehearsal for Cyrano de Bergerac at the time, and I only sort of glanced at it. And I thought, “What the fuck is this?” Then I thought, “I can’t deal with this now; I’ll take it home on the weekend and really read it.” So I did and I thought, “If Stephen writes a really romantic score for this, it could work. The guy’s a genius, so he must know what he’s doing.”
“If Stephen writes a really romantic score for this, it could work. The guy’s a genius, so he must know what he’s doing.”
I had [an arrangement with the Manitoba Theater Center] that I could only break my contract with them if I got a Broadway musical, so they agreed to that. As it turned out, Sweeney Todd was delayed for about a year, and I actually did the film of Night Music first. After Night Music, I got another movie that was filming in Calgary. The filming was going to overlap with the start of rehearsals for Sweeney. I told Hal that I couldn’t be there for the first week, and I asked him if Stephen could give me whatever he had written so far, so I could start learning it and I wouldn’t be behind the eight ball when I got to rehearsals.
They agreed to that, so I went over to Stephen’s home and he played me “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd,” “These Are My Friends,” “A Little Priest” and maybe a couple of other things. It was interesting because he was obviously very nervous to play the songs for me. It had never occurred to me that he would be nervous, but he was. At one point when we were talking, he excused himself, and then came back into the room with a joint. He lit the joint and offered it to me. I wasn’t going to say no, so we both took a couple of tokes. And then he said, “OK, let’s go.”
He said, “Do you know the ‘Dies Irae’ from the Catholic mass for the dead?” I said, “Stephen, of course I know it, I’m a French-Irish Catholic.” He said, “Well, listen to this,” and he started to play “Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd … Swing your razor wide, Sweeney!” Then he handed me the lyrics for “A Little Priest” and it was like a phone book. I opened it up, looked at the first page or two, and I started laughing. He said, “It gets better.” After all that, I went to Calgary for that movie and I brought the music with me — this was in the winter of 1978 — but the movie went belly-up after about 10 days. So I was back in New York. But then they decided that, rather than go into rehearsals for Sweeney over the holiday season, we would wait and start in January.
EvSo: Did you think from the beginning that the show would go over?
Cariou: It seemed to me that it was brilliant stuff. Whether the audience would get it or not was another matter, but I knew it was a fucking masterpiece. I’m getting chills now, just thinking about it. I remember the very first time I did the “Epiphany” at the rehearsal studio, with just a piano and with the lyrics in my hand. Judy Prince was at the rehearsal, and when it was over, she came to me and said, “That is the most exciting thing I’ve ever heard in my life.”
EvSo: Tell me about the audience response in previews, before the critics weighed in.
Cariou: We never finished teching the show before the first preview, because the main set piece — the revolve — kept breaking down. So we did the first performance without having gone through the whole show in tech. But the audience got it. The bits with the barber chair took a lot of rehearsal and some people were injured. There was padding at the bottom, of course, but it took a while for people to learn to fall properly, not to tense up. And there were a couple of times, even after we opened, when the chair mechanism didn’t function — the chute wouldn’t open — and the victim just had to go limp in the chair and play dead.
We didn’t start out of town with the show; we started in New York. The set was too big; [set designer] Eugene Lee had raided a foundry in Rhode Island. The first preview ran way long and the set broke down. But when I headed to my dressing room after the bows, Steve was standing outside my door as I rounded the corner, and he had a big smile on his face. He said, “They understood it. They fucking understood it.” I said, “By god, I think you’re right.”
Then I went to Joe Allen’s afterwards, and Joe came over to me and said, “I hear it’s really in bad shape.” At first, he wouldn’t tell me who’d told him that, but I finally got it out of him — it was an actor who’d been to see the first preview. I thought, “How could he possibly not have seen how great this show is?” And I said, “Joe, I promise you, we’re not going to be on your wall. You’ve heard it from me.” [Note: The restaurant Joe Allen, a beloved theatrical hangout for decades, is famous for displaying window cards of flop shows on its walls.]
EvSo: After the opening, did you find it emotionally draining to play Sweeney eight performances a week?
Cariou: No, I could leave it there. But physically it’s a very demanding role. One of the things Angela and I were most proud of was that we did the show for a year without going over the top. We were very much aware of the danger of that, so we just sort of monitored one another, if you will.
EvSo: You and she famously avoided disaster when the massive metal catwalk that was part of the set collapsed to the stage floor during a performance. I remember that, when I asked you about this in a previous interview, you said, “It wasn’t like a portcullis,” which is how I had pictured it. Can you talk about that event?
Cariou: It came down slowly — otherwise, we would both have been dead. It could never have crashed to the floor, because they had safety mechanisms in place. There were only the two of us onstage at that point, Angela and I, in the scene toward the end where we’re searching for Toby in the bake house. We were on opposite sides of the stage at one point, when I heard something I’d never heard before. I thought, “What the hell was that?” I looked up, and I could see the whole catwalk starting to come down. It must have weighed a couple of tons. I knew there was something wrong because it had never moved up and down before, only back and forth. So I ran over and grabbed Angela; she looked at me strangely, and I pulled her downstage.
As it was falling, I noticed that [conductor] Paul Gemignani was mesmerized by this thing. He just stared at it and kept on conducting. So this huge thing crumpled onto the stage, and I swear to God, Angela’s next line that she sang was “Nothing’s gonna harm you.” When we walked offstage after that scene, the stage manager said, “We’ve got to stop the show.” So they stopped the show, and the crew came out and dragged the catwalk to the rear of the stage. I don’t know how they physically did it. When they were ready, the stage manager said, “Let’s do that last scene again.” So Angela and I came out onstage, and I turned to the audience and said, “Take two.”
EvSo: Very early in the run, you experienced some vocal problems.
Cariou: Yes, I was diagnosed with acute laryngitis. My voice sounded fine except that I couldn’t sing a head tone. The reason was because we were all inhaling all that dust in the scene at the beginning where they’re digging the grave, and I was really close to it, because I came out of that grave on the elevator. I went to the doctor; he did an examination and said, “You shouldn’t be able to sing.” I said, “Well, I can sing. I sang the role last night.” He said, “I don’t know how you’re doing it.” I went on antibiotics and it eventually cleared up.
It was an amazing thing: There I was, diagnosed with acute laryngitis, and I was singing through it. We did 10 shows in a row during the last week of previews, without a day off. Then we had the recording sessions, starting on a Monday. We recorded all day Monday and all day Tuesday. I went to the theater that night, sang the show and then sang it again through Sunday for another eight performances — and I swear, the voice was stronger on that Sunday than it had ever been during that whole stretch.
For the recording sessions, I was fine except for a rasp in my voice and the fact that, as I said, I couldn’t sing a head tone.
EvSo: You’ve played Sweeney again in latter days, most recently in a concert at the Royal Festival Hall in London in 2000. That must have been a wonderful experience.
Cariou: Yes, but it just about killed me. The only thing I regret about Sweeney is not being in the video version. If I had known that was going to happen, I would have done the tour. When the tour got to San Francisco, the critics hated the show so much that they had to close down. They dismissed the entire company and said, “We hope you’ll come to L.A., but we just can’t continue the run in San Francisco.” So they all came back to New York. I remember walking into a restaurant and seeing a couple of the people from the cast. I said, “What are you doing here?” I think the video was used as a carrot to get people back to continue the tour.
EvSo: I’d love to know your opinions of other productions of Sweeney that you’ve seen, including the movie.
Cariou: I call the John Doyle production the “Silly Sweeney.” I wasn’t a fan of the concept that the whole thing was happening in an insane asylum — in Toby’s mind. And as for the movie, although it brought the piece to a whole new audience, it’s done without any humor. And all that blood and gore is a little too much for me. I think they didn’t try to make a movie musical, they made a movie in which people sang. That was a good thing. But I don’t like that there’s no humor in it — not even in “A Little Priest.”
I’ve been in two of the best musicals ever written. Both have Hugh Wheeler in common as book writer, and he doesn’t get enough credit. I remember reading the book of Night Music before I’d heard any of the music or lyrics. It was like an Anouilh play. I thought, “Holy shit, this is a great book! What’s it gonna be like when the genius [Sondheim] gets hold of it?” And Sweeney Todd is also a work of genius. It really is.
MICHAEL PORTANTIERE has been a theater journalist and photographer in New York City for more than 30 years. He was a frequent contributor to The Sondheim Review between 2009 and 2015.
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