For Len Cariou, Dying Onstage Each Night Has Been ‘Invigorating’

For Len Cariou, Dying Onstage Each Night Has Been ‘Invigorating’

Chris Domig was ready to throw in the towel.

After a year-and-a-half-long search, a church chapel on the Lower East Side was the only affordable space Domig, the artistic director of the Off Off Broadway company Sea Dog Theater, had been able to find to mount a production of “Tuesdays With Morrie.” Chairs would have to be arranged on a set of risers on the altar. The props would be a piano, a couple of chairs, a walker and a wheelchair.

The company also had almost no advertising budget.

But it did have Len Cariou, an elder statesman of the theater who in 1979 won a Tony Award for originating the role of Sweeney Todd on Broadway. He would play Morrie, a former sociology professor who, after receiving a diagnosis of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or A.L.S., reconnects with one of his students in what becomes a series of weekly meetings.

Cariou, also known for his turns in musicals like “A Little Night Music” and “Applause,” had been taken with the character of Morrie ever since he read the 1997 memoir by Mitch Albom on which the 2002 play is based.

“I said, ‘One day, I’d love to play that part,’” Cariou, 84, said last month during a joint interview with Domig at St. George’s Episcopal Church, where the recently extended “Tuesdays With Morrie” is set to run through April 20. “It’s such a rich role in a show that asks, ‘What if despair and death are not the end? What if there’s something more?’”

But one major hurdle remained, Domig said: How were they going to pull off the play with only a handful of props?

Cariou didn’t miss a beat.

“Len was just like, ‘You know what, we don’t need any of this,’” Domig said. “‘We can do it as a memory play that takes place in Morrie’s head.’”

That attitude is typical of Cariou, said Erwin Maas, the director of “Tuesdays With Morrie” and Cariou’s longtime friend and neighbor in West New York, N.J. “He doesn’t need a big theater or feel like anything is beneath him,” Maas said in a recent phone conversation. “What drives him is a passion for the work.”

During his more than six-decade stage and screen career, Cariou has also played the disgraced Cardinal Bernard Law in the 2015 film “Spotlight,” and, for 14 seasons and counting, starred as a former New York City Police commissioner on CBS’s “Blue Bloods.”

But the challenge of playing Morrie is that it isn’t a role that’s easy to leave at the stage door each night. Many older actors, Domig said, might be reluctant to grapple with a subject — facing the end of life with grace — that might hit a little too close to home.

But for Cariou? “It was easy,” he said.

“It’s kind of like what Morrie says in the play when he gets the news that he has A.L.S.,” he continued. “He says, ‘I asked myself, am I going to withdraw from the world, like so many people do, or am I going to live?’ And he decides, ‘I’m going to live as long as I have left.’ And that’s pretty much what I’m doing.”

Domig, who plays Morrie’s former student, Mitch, opposite Cariou each night, just shook his head.

“It’s such a courageous performance,” he said. “Len has no fear about saying, ‘Let’s see where this lives in me.’”

After rereading the play during the pandemic, Domig said, he had been struck by its rawness and candor. He enlisted Cariou and Maas in 2022 for what was initially a one-night reading of the play in the basement of the church.

Around 60 people sat in folding chairs in the church basement, with Cariou and his wife supplying wine for the reception afterward. “Everyone was in tears at the end,” Domig said. “I had person after person tell me, ‘You guys should do this play as a production.’”

Asking Cariou — who was shooting scenes for “Blue Bloods” during the day — to do a one-night reading was one matter, but enlisting him for a full run was another. (Domig knew, he said, that whatever he could manage to pay Cariou for an Off Off Broadway production could in no way compare with a TV contract — but that didn’t seem to matter. “We wrote him a check for $100 for doing the reading,” Domig said. “But in the end, he didn’t cash it.”)

Plus, Domig knew he had something special on his hands — and hoped Cariou thought so, too. He made the ask.

And Cariou said: Yes.

He was not, it turned out, dissuaded by the play’s frank discussions about dying — even as someone who was himself in his twilight years.

“You’re fighting the age question,” he said. “Morrie’s in his 70s when this happens, so I said, ‘Well, then I’ll be in my 70s.’ That’s what you have to tell yourself.”

Neither was he fazed by the demands of remaining onstage for the entirety of a 90-minute show, six times a week, while raging, screaming, sobbing, falling out his wheelchair and inhabiting the body of a man suffering from progressive respiratory failure.

“I’ve found it invigorating,” Cariou said. “The muscles you need to do a play are ones you must use. It’s like when Morrie talks about having A.L.S.: When your muscles no longer get the message, they wither and die. I’m making sure the message does get through to mine.”

Domig interjected: “There have been multiple days he’s on set for ‘Blue Bloods,’ and then he comes and does this show. He has incredible energy and stamina — he’s concerned about my energy and whether I’m getting enough sleep!”

Cariou’s commitment to his craft is no surprise to his former “Sweeney Todd” castmate Victor Garber, who, along with Angela Lansbury, appeared with Cariou in the original Broadway production.

“Being in the rehearsal room with Len Cariou and Angela Lansbury; I couldn’t imagine anything greater,” Garber, 75, said in a phone conversation. “Watching Len and Angela do “A Little Priest” at the end of Act I will never be equaled.”

“Len is a consummate actor; he lives and eats and breathes it,” he added. “It’s lucky for New York he’s doing it.”

“Tuesdays With Morrie” sold out the final 11 performances of its original three-week run, and the first show of its extension.

“We’ve had quite a few young people in the audience, and I think they’re surprised how much it resonates with them,” Cariou said. “And the same goes for their parents, the adults. They’re reminded of a mentor or a teacher they had growing up who influenced or inspired them, and who, like Mitch, they may never have seen again.”

Others, though, who have read the book, Domig said, have told him they are apprehensive about seeing the show, either because they have recently lost a loved one or because someone close to them is going through a similar struggle.

“Yes, the man dies at the end every night,” Domig said he tells them. “But the way he goes on that journey — the resilience and joy and encouragement and hope along the way — it doesn’t get more essential than that.”

The show is slated to run a few more weeks, though Domig hopes that may not be the end of its life.

“We’re happy to do it as long as people show up,” he said. “And if I could somehow conceive of a Broadway transfer …”

Well, that’d be just fine with Cariou.

“I’m going to play whatever I can, for as long as I can,” he said.

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