How Len Cariou Inspired Stephen Sondheim to Write ‘Send in the Clowns’
Hello from NYC!
I’m back after two trips to the West Coast (Arizona with Norm Lewis and California with my own show). I don’t have another big trip again until I go to Louisiana in January with Jessie Mueller for my very first show in Lafayette. Usually, when I go to Louisiana, I perform in New Orleans. They say that NYC is the city that never sleeps. Well, New Orleans has one upped that: It’s city that never sleeps or stops partying.
I remember one visit when I was taking a cab to the airport and needing cash to pay the driver. This was years ago when cabs down there didn’t take credit cards. I asked if I could stop and get money at an ATM and the driver said yes. But then I learned the only ATM was at a nearby bar. Oh no! It was seven in the morning! I asked if I could go to the bar after it opened and get him the money later that day. Well, turns out, waiting for the bar to open wasn’t going to be an issue. The bar was completely open, and people were indeed there, drinking up a storm. Again, it was 7 AM. Were those folks still there from the night before? Had they just woken up and stopped by for a few pick-me-ups before work?
As my therapist often says, “Can’t it be both?”
Hanukkah just ended, but even though it’s after the fact, I want everyone to see my favorite Hanukkah song, “Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel.” Well, the song isn’t my favorite, so much as this arrangement is, which is so brilliant. It’s by Marc Shaiman (with South Park creator Trey Parker) and it’s sung by the original cast of Hairspray. In one song, you’ve got Shoshana Bean’s crazy high belting, Harvey Fierstein and Dick Latessa being adorable, Jackie Hoffman’s hilariousness (“KEEP SPINNING”) and the joy of Marc’s thrilling harmony.
This version is from one of the many Carols for a Cure CDs available at BroadwayCares.org. They have so many holiday gifts at their site (including an autographed Musical Theatre For Dummies, my new book). You can get a fantastic gift and have your money go to charity. It’s a win/win, which is an expression I’m mortified to use since it is on is a par with “no brainer,” “happy camper,” and “sick puppy.” BroadwayCares.org also has the latest holiday ornament: Chita Rivera as Aurora, the Spider Woman. Here I am, touting it during the Red Bucket Follies while telling a Chita Rivera and Laura Benanti Broadway story.
Speaking of Chita as Aurora, she told me a great story about the creation of Kiss Of The Spider Woman. There’s a big number she performs at the end of Act One called “Gimme Love,” featuring tons of singing and tons of dancing. It’s a bright, cheery, and sexy number, but it stops abruptly because Molina is thrust from his fantasy world and back to the reality of being in jail. Hal Prince loved the abrupt change, but Chita felt the audience was slighted. When an audience is really into a number, they want to applaud. By cutting the number off, the audience had all this applause pent up inside and nowhere to go with it. Regardless, Hal thought it was very important that the number did not formally end. He wanted that abrupt interruption. What to do? Well, near the end of the song, Chita would get into a birdcage and, as the dancers spun it, she would climb on the bars inside, so she continued to face front, over and over. She knew it was a physical tour-de-force, so she told the dancers to spin that birdcage as fast as they could.
The dancers spun the eff out of it, she frantically kept climbing inside, the audience flipped out, and before the abrupt cut-off, the audience would applaud! Then the number would suddenly cut off. So, Hal got his interruption and Chita gave the audience what they wanted: the chance to applaud. Here is Chita doing that number. It ends before the applause, but you can see her spinning in that birdcage!
And, as I mentioned, last week was the thrilling return of the Red Bucket Follies. I have been hosting it since 2009, and I love it so much. Amazingly, this is the first one since the Covid lockdown…meaning there hasn’t been one since 2019. It was so wonderful to be back and there were so many highlights!
After the incredible opening number, I came out and did some deconstructing. After that, Sierra Boggess, from Harmony on Broadway, came onstage and did a salute to Phantom of the Opera, which closed between the last Red Bucket Follies and this recent one. She performed a multifaceted performance of “Think of Me,” ending it as she did on Broadway, but also including some lyrics in Japanese (because she found out there are so many fans in Japan) and in French (because she was supposed to star in the all-French version in Paris before the theatre burned down—”en flambé,” as she says). And, in tribute to her starring in the Las Vegas premiere, Sierra also showed us how it would have sounded if she was replaced by another Vegas performer, Britney Spears. Here are highlights of our appearance:
After Sierra, I segued directly into the next segment, which was a salute to the late, great Sheldon Harnick. I somberly started talking about the fact that he passed away at 99 and was working right up until the very end. While I was talking, I heard the “voice of God” (aka David Masonheimer) telling me I skipped an entire segment. Yes, I forgot that Marc Shaiman was next! I immediately switched gears, and cheerily introduced Marc, who was hilarious and told the audience that when I was talking about a dead musical theatre writer, he thought I meant him, and he had to check his pulse. He then started telling a story about going on an around-the-world trip with Jenifer Lewis. In the middle of talking, he was cut off by the Jenifer Lewis who entered saying, “I’ll tell the story!”
Jenifer shared about a trip she took with Marc and his husband Lou. At one point in some remote place, she got on a two-humped camel and rode around for a while. When she got off, her body hurt so much that she told Marc she was scared that the camel “broke her p*ssy bone.” Naturally, that inspired Marc to write a song called, “My P*ssy Bone Broke On The Back of a Two-Humped Camel.” Then, in front of a filled Broadway theatre, Jenifer proceeded to sing it! Here they are doing the song in the privacy of their own home:
Jenifer segued into the next Shaiman-penned song, which was inspired by how amazing she looks: “Black Don’t Crack.” I filmed it from the wings. Talk about #StillGotIt. I love that she ends every song with a crazy high battement (kick). Watch!
It was so hilarious and outrageous and, as you can hear, it brought the house down. Then I had to come out and change the mood for that tribute to Sheldon Harnick, which featured Danny Burstein and Andrea Martin. Andrea and Danny stood center stage, and mind you, this was just minutes after the p*ssy song. I laughed so hard when Andrea smiled and said, “Wonderful running order.”
Regardless, she and Danny did such an incredibly lovely version of one of the best musical theatre songs ever written. And, since I love Andrea and Marc, here’s a combo of both.
Afterwards, I played for Rachel Bay Jones, who is one of the stars of Sondheim’s final musical, Here We Are. She sang an incredibly moving “American Tune.”
Also on the bill, Christine Pedi performing her brilliant “Twelve Divas Of Christmas,” featuring impressions of Maggie Smith, Fran Drescher, Angela Lansbury and Elaine Stritch. Holy cow, the audience loved it! She includes this in her holiday show Snow Bizness. The number is different every time because audience members picks names out of a hat. Here’s the version from Tuesday’s show, starting with Barbra:
Get thee to 54 Below on December 29th and see what Christine does that night. Or buy a ticket for the livestream and watch it from the comfort of your delicious bed!
Back to the Follies. One of the most amazing performances happened in the middle of the show. I came out and talked about the revival of Sweeney Todd and how I saw the original company back when I was 12 years old. I told the story I had heard about the fact that when the show was in previews, Broadway was still experimenting with body mics. After one performance, Hal Prince had told the sound designer to lower Len Cariou’s body mic because he was louder than everyone. The sound designer then told him that Len wasn’t wearing a body mic! #YesTechnique
I then explained to the audience that the revival cast was supposed to perform, but they were filming one of NPR’s “Tiny Desk” concerts, so they couldn’t be there so I had to get a replacement. The curtain went up, and the “replacement” was the original Sweeney himself, Len Cariou. Amazing applause!
Len told the story he had told on Stars In The House, our livestream fundraiser for the Entertainment Community Fund (formerly The Actors Fund). I’ll recap it here.
When A Little Night Music was in rehearsals, Len’s 11 o’clock number as Frederick hadn’t been written yet. While they were waiting for it, the scene between Frederick and his former lover Desirée (played by Glynis Johns) was evolving. In the show, this is the point when she thinks they are going to get back together, but he confirms that he is not interested. Director Hal Prince, Len, Glynis and book-writer Hugh Wheeler invited Sondheim (or “Steve” as Len called him) to watch the new scene, hoping it would inspire him to write Len’s song.
After they performed the scene, Len told us that Steve went “Ah,” and then left. Len asked Hal, “What does ‘Ah’ mean!?”
Hal simply said, “Well, that’s Steve.”
The next day, Sondheim came in and apologized to Len. Why the apology? Well, the good news was, he had finally written the 11 o’clock number, but it was no longer for Len. It was for Glynis. Len told us that’s when everyone first heard, “Send In The Clowns.”
Can you imagine being the one of the first people to hear that song? This is why I want every rehearsal for every single Broadway show to be filmed so we can all experience it!
Regardless, since that 11 o’clock number was originally supposed to be for Len, he claims it now as his own and sang it for the theatre. Holy cow. It was incredible to be onstage while he hypnotized the theatre with his version. David Katz (who is our tech guru on Stars In The House) filmed it from the wings. Watch the magic!
Later in the show, after Patrick Page beautifully led the Moment of Silence, I came out and talked about how AIDS has robbed the theatrical community of so many people. I follow the social media account of the AIDS Memorial Quilt, and 90 percent of the people mentioned who passed away because of AIDS were artists. My mind can’t fathom how many incredible projects could have been created by the many established geniuses we lost like Howard Ashman. I also think of the many people who died so young that we have no idea of their potential. Imagine how many shows could have been created, performances could have been deemed iconic, etc. We lost a giant part of an entire generation.
It’s same way I think about the Holocaust. If Leonard Bernstein had been born in Europe, he would have been the age that so many Jews like him were murdered by the Nazis. Instead, by the luck of where he was born, we are now able to enjoy the fruits of his genius, like West Side Story. Imagine how many works of art were curtailed by the gas chambers.
That also brings me to a wonderful show I just saw on Broadway, Harmony. That incredible group, The Comedian Harmonists, were destroyed because of the Nazis. How fantastic that Barry Manilow and Bruce Sussman created a show that tells their story. And, holy cow, what a great score! There is so much comedy in the show (they were called The Comedian Harmonists after all), but I love the dramatic songs so much.
In the show, Sierra Boggess plays a non-Jewish woman married to a Jewish man. He wants her to protect herself because being with him will mean she’s in danger. But she won’t leave him. She vows, “Where you go, I will go.” However, Julie Benko’s character is Jewish, and her husband claims it’s safer for her if they separate. She realizes that he’s trying to save himself. She tells him that he will always be haunted by his selfishness and tells him, “Where you go, I will go.” It’s an amazing use of the same lyric meaning two different things and Sierra and Julie sound fantastic together. Watch!
Okay, I have much more to write about, like the amazing Tony Award-winning cast changes that happened each day during the Dreamgirls segment we did (with video!) and the fantastic shows I just saw (Purlie Victorious and How To Dance In Ohio). But please wait until next week.
P.S. Come see me in Lafayette, Louisiana, Aspen, Colorado, Las Vegas, Nevada, and Raleigh, North Carolina. Details and tickets are available here.
Now get thee to BroadwayCares.org for some holiday shopping. Peace out and happy holidays!