I’ve heard a few people disparage Len Cariou’s one actor, one accompanist (Peter Janus) show Broadway & The Bard because he’s not the vocalist he once was. My response to that is a bit fact, a bit conjecture.
Fact, and I was there to see it, when he reached the end of his tenure as Sweeney Todd on Broadway, much of the dark, brooding nuance that informed his performance at the beginning of the run had given way to what the Brits call “shoutyness”; and in the years thereafter his singing voice showed increasing signs of trouble. (I don’t know if it’s true or not, but the story I heard that seemed credible, was that an effect involving visible dust in Sweeney Todd exposed his vocal equipment to abrasive particles night after night, and the damage was cumulative.) In recent years, his brief appearances as a singer (such as a televised tribute to Stephen Sondheim that had him recreating a bit of “A Little Priest” with Angela Lansbury) were actively discomfiting affairs, the equipment really sounding shot and strained to its limit.
Conjecture: I believe he was painfully aware of this. And I think he finally decided to do something about it. And I think he went into serious vocal training and rehab. And what makes me think so?
The mere existence of Broadway and the Bard. I don’t think the show—a mix of Shakespearean monologue and related song from the canon of musical theatre—just happened as a career retrospective. I think it was a personal goal, a target. I think for his own sense of self, it was something he had to do. To prove he was back.
And here’s the good news.
I think he’s done it.
No, he doesn’t have the same smoothly smoky voice he used to (although used to very different and edgier dramatic effect, his younger voice was not dissimilar to that of jazz vocalist Mel Tormé, who had been nicknamed “the velvet fog”); and yes, you can hear where the instrument is still damaged, as well as inevitably affected by age. Rare is the singer who, at 76, can simulate, let alone replicate, what he was in his 30s.
But he’s in control of it now. He can negotiate it now. He can once again navigate a broad tessitura. He makes accommodations, he plays to his technical strengths, he underplays his weaknesses (sometimes managing to reframe them as assets), and the sound isn’t always pretty—but it’s assured and confident and untroubled, his pitch is true, and as for expressiveness, well, he’s never lost his mojo as an actor.
Speaking of the show as a piece of material…Oh, it’s a middling anthology, not as cohesive or themed as it might be, despite the umbrella topic. But with Peter Janus giving stalwart support as accompanist and stage-partner, Cariou leaps into the deep end of the pool with gusto, and for me and the lovely lady in my life, that was quite enough to justify the 80 intermissionless minutes we spent in his company.
Talking of things purely physical, I’m not sure there’s a whole lot to recommend growing older much past middle age—but Len Cariou at least proves this much: You’re never too old to be the comeback kid.
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