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A conversation with John Cariani

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John Cariani and Kate Reinders in "Something Rotten!" John Cariani and Kate Reinders in "Something Rotten!" (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Cariani (who spent his high school years in Presque Isle) has carved out a particularly impressive resume. He's got a Tony nomination (for 'Fiddler on the Roof' in 2004). His play 'Almost, Maine' is in nigh-constant production all over the country and all over the world. And he is currently one of the stars of the hit Broadway musical 'Something Rotten!', having originated the role of Nigel Bottom.

Quite a list, no?

Cariani who is scheduled to pass the Bottom baton to Josh Grisetti next month has done his share of film and television work, but his relationship with the stage is a particularly long one.

Mr. Cariani was kind enough to take time out of his schedule to speak to The Maine Edge about that relationship and much more. His romance with the theater started at an early age. He and his family moved to Presque Isle when he was eight years old, but it was in high school that he first gotten bitten by the bug.

'I was a freshman and we were doing this Calamity Jane musical,' he said. 'I played this ticket taker. I had a scene where I got a laugh and I thought I like this a lot.' Music was big for me, too.'

When Cariani went to college at Amherst, he majored in history and performed with an a cappella group, but the draw of the theater was still strong.

'I had a lot of friends in theater,' he said. 'I was actually a bit of a groupie.'

After spending a few post-college years working and seeing the world, Cariani decided that acting was what he wanted to do and started applying for internships. The one he got was at Stage West in western Massachusetts.

'Stage West really gave me my start,' he said. 'I was there for three seasons and did everything from taking acting classes to cleaning toilets. I understudied roles, did children's theatre, you name it.'

It was after that experience that Cariani decided to take the plunge and move to New York.

'The bulk of my training was at Stage West,' Cariani said. 'A lot of classical theater. Then in 1996, I started working with the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival; I was there for three seasons.'

Cariani spent a few years doing film and television work with roles in movies like 'Scotland, PA' and shows like 'Law & Order,' but that work soon led him back to the stage. Specifically, the Broadway stage and 'Fiddler on the Roof.'

'They were looking for an actor who could sing,' he said. 'And after seven auditions, I convinced them to take a chance on me.'

It was a chance that paid off. Among the six Tony nominations for the 2004 revival was a Best Featured Actor in a Musical nod for Cariani's portrayal of Motel the tailor. However, his success didn't immediately translate to more work on the Great White Way.

'After Fiddler,' I thought that I'd do Broadway,' he said. 'But I couldn't really sing well enough for most roles. That was when the writing passion followed.'

Cariani was still a working actor, landing screen and stage work, but it was a show at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles that sent him down the path toward Broadway once again.

'I did a show called Minsky's' in 2009; I played Rachel Dratch's boyfriend,' Cariani said. 'The director of that show [Casey Nicholaw] would go on to direct Something Rotten!'

'So I got asked to read for Something Rotten!' in January of 2012 this was a reading for producers and writers. They had us do this reading and after that, I knew I was Nigel. I read this script and just thought it was awesome and about how badly I wanted to do it!'

Three years later, the show was on Broadway. 'Something Rotten!' officially opened at the St. James Theatre on April 22 of 2015 after a month of previews. The musical with a book by John O'Farrell and Karey Kirkpatrick and music and lyrics by Karey and Wayne Kirkpatrick is set in 1595; the story follows the Bottom brothers Nick and Nigel as they strive desperately for success in the theatrical realm and compete against the darling of the age, William Shakespeare himself.

'It's the most fun I've ever had,' said Cariani (who is departing the show as of July 17). 'It's so funny, this wonderful combination of highbrow and lowbrow. The show really feels almost like an animated movie; it works on all levels of comedy. It has really given me a new understanding of what good family entertainment can be.'

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Cariani has spent years with 'Something Rotten!', but his next step involves moving forward by way of revisiting some of his past work.

'I'm going to spend some time writing a young adult novel based on Almost, Maine,'' he said. 'MacMillan Publishing approached me about it. At first, I said no, but they simply wouldn't take no for an answer. It's nice to think that people think so highly of it.

'When I first wrote Almost, Maine,' there were lots of stories,' he continued. 'It's basically a collection of short stories.'

The new book will include material from the play as well as some short plays that weren't included in the original piece.

'Almost, Maine' has become a universally beloved piece, performed by community, school and professional troupes all over the country globally, too. But the vignette-driven romance had its share of ups and downs along the way.

It certainly started strong. After the show was part of Portland Stage Company's Little Festival of the Unexpected, 'Almost, Maine' was given a mainstage slot at PSC. The resulting 2004 production immediately became the biggest hit the theater had ever had, succeeding both critically and commercially to a massive degree.

However, when the time came for the show to hit the off-Broadway scene, things didn't go quite as smoothly.

'In 2006, the show went to New York with a different cast,' Cariani said. 'I loved the actors we had, but I also loved the actors we hired. Unfortunately, [the show] was not super well-received by the powers that be; we quietly closed after a couple of months.

'But thenit took on a life of its own.'

Indeed it did. There have been over 2,000 productions of 'Almost, Maine,' with shows mounted all over the world Scandinavia, Belgium, Israel, the Philippines, you name it. It has also proven wildly popular with companies of all stripes here in the U.S.

'It's interesting how things developed,' he said. 'When it came out in the mid-2000s, the humor of that time was a little snarky, a little sarcastic and that's not what Almost, Maine' is. But the more recent trend has been towards more warmhearted fare.'

Warmhearted, yes but Cariani would prefer you not refer to it as sentimental.

'These stories appear simple and joyful on the surface, but there's some pain underneath,' he said. 'I like romance, but I don't really care for sentimentality.'

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When talking about his successes particularly in the written realm Cariani doesn't mince words. The path he's taken hasn't been an easy one, but he has some advice for those artistic aspirants out there.

'It doesn't happen overnight,' he said. 'It's really a matter of showing up every day. I write every day, even if it's just for two minutes. Maybe it's just two minutes, maybe it turns into all day. You should make an effort to take one step every day toward where you want to go.

'Every job is hard,' he continued. 'But you don't have to think about it as hard. Think of it as life. Luck plays a part, good or bad and character is revealed with bad luck.'

He also advises budding writers to be honest and thoughtful when dealing both with others and with themselves.

'Be careful of criticizing. If you don't like something, ask yourself why. Don't be content to just complain; find ways of improvement. And don't lie to yourself, either. If you're not writing, don't call yourself a writer. Be honest with yourself every day.'

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Cariani has carved out an impressive career on the boards across the board, with high-profile roles like Motel and Nigel balanced against an impressive slate of plays beyond 'Almost, Maine,' he has also written 'Last Gas,' 'cul-de-sac' and 'Love/Sick.' And while his latest turn on Broadway is coming to an end, there's no doubt that there's plenty more to come from this incredible and rare talent.

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