Star Of Billy Joel's Broadway Musical "Movin' Out," Michael Cavanaugh Performs At Branson's Mansion Theatre
In 2001, pop singer and keyboardist Michael Cavanaugh met music superstar Billy Joel… and it changed his career and life. His collaboration with Joel and another of today’s superstars, ballet choreographer Twyla Tharp, resulted in one of the more innovative shows to have appeared on Broadway in recent years, “Movin’ Out.” Cavanaugh brings his "Music of Billy Joel" show to the Mansion Theatre in Branson on October 22nd, and we talked with him by phone for this week’s “Arts News.”
Cavanaugh started playing piano at the age of 7 when his parents acquired a small Casio keyboard—and he never looked back. He even formed his first band at the age of ten. “Yeah, that is true,” he said. “My first band was keyboards and drums by my other buddy. We were in fifth grade and we wanted to play for the talent show. He had drums and I had this little plastic Casio keyboard that was, I mean, really small, these little mini keys. And I borrowed my brother's bass amplifier and we played instrumental versions of the Rolling Stones in the fifth grade talent show--and all the girls screamed. That was the first time I experienced that, and I said, I'm hooked. (No doubt a lot of musicians get hooked that way.”
And it was at the age of seven that Michael Cavanaugh became a fan of the music of singer/songwriter/pianist/composer Billy Joel.
As Cavanaugh remembers it, “You know, my brothers were hard-rock guys. I have three older brothers and they were into (Led) Zeppelin and Ozzy Osborne, and I love that stuff too. I love everything. But my dad was the one who said, ‘you got to listen to this guy, Billy Joel!’ right around that same time. I was seven years old and he played me ‘Big Shot’ and I was I was hooked and I stayed hooked. And that's that's when they bought the piano. So it all kind of happened at the same time.”
Years later, in January 1999, the now-adult Michael Cavanaugh was offered a professional gig playing piano at the New York, New York Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. And two years later, that job changed Cavanaugh’s life in a really significant way.
“I would say I must have been twenty seven years old… I guess I'm giving my age away! And then a couple of years later, I got to know Billy Joel's tour manager, Max Oliviera, which was exciting to me just to know somebody who worked for Billy. And he decided to surprise me in February of 2001. It was actually on Valentine's Day. Billy was scheduled to come into town for a concert, and he was in a couple of days early and (Oliviera) called me and said, ‘I'm bringing Billy Joel to hear you at the piano bar tonight’. And I felt like I was gonna have a heart attack!. But fortunately, it all turned out great. I didn't freeze under the pressure. I was energetic, I was ready. I was ready. And it led to me getting that lead role in the Broadway show ‘Movin’ Out.’ It was incredible.”
“Movin’ Out” It has been described as a “jukebox musical”, but it’s actually something much more rare for a Broadway show: a rock ballet.
“It really, really is kind of a rock ballet,” Cavanaugh agreed. “(But they didn't want to call it a ‘rock ballet’ because it would have some ramifications when it came to the Tony (Awards). I think it had to be called a ‘musical.’ And if it was in any way called a ‘ballet,’ it wouldn't be eligible (for Tony consideration). But that's kind of what it was when we did it. You know, the ‘jukebox musical’ thing, it was right around the time when that was starting to happen. ‘Mamma Mia’ and ‘Jersey Boys,’ and our show. So it kind of got lumped in with a lot of those shows being called a ‘jukebox musical.’ But it was very creative. I mean, Twyla Tharp took all these (Billy Joel) songs that had their own stories, and she made one story out of them, and she did an amazing job, for sure.”
Cavanaugh must have been overwhelmed, not only getting to work with his idol Billy Joel, but with one of the great ballet choreographers of the day, Twyla Tharp.
“It was amazing!” he said. “And, you know, Twyla, she's a genius. She made me nervous. She made me very nervous when I first met her. But then I got to know her, and she's great. I mean, she means business. But like I said, she's a genius, and she was great to me. Absolutely.”
Cavanaugh required no choreography to perform his role in the show: he played the character known as “The Piano Man,” the lead singer and bandleader. “I had to sing and play all the songs,” he said. “So I had to really do my homework on how these songs were supposed to be played. And Billy was always happy with the way (I did them). I remember I sang one lyric wrong on one song, and he waited until three months into our run to tell me! And it was very simple. In ‘She’s Got a Way’, I would sing ‘I don’t know WHY it is”… and it was supposed to be, ‘WHAT it is.’” Joel actually hesitated to tell Michael until the show had run for three months on Broadway. “Yeah, I was thinking… I shouldn't tell you,” said Joel. “I'm like,’ please tell me, please tell me that was a small thing!’ He was great. Yeah, he was very supportive the whole time.”
Counting the off-Broadway preview performances, “Movin’ Out” had a respectable run of just over three years, said Michael Cavanaugh. “We opened officially October 24th, 2002, and ran until December 11th, 2005”—which resulted in more than 1200 performances. And Cavanaugh personally received both Tony and Grammy nominations (the latter for the original-cast album)… another rather overwhelming experience for him.
“That was amazing to me, because I wasn't sure how I would fall into the Tony (awards) because they don't have (a) ‘best singer’ category. They don't have ‘best musician.’ They have ‘best actor.’ So I wasn't sure how I would fall in. But I got the nomination, so it was great.”
Since the Broadway run closed, Michael Cavanaugh began touring the world with a sort of modern pop/rock songbook show, playing an impressive list of venues and with major symphony orchestras around the world. “I've been all over the world and I do a lot of shows in theatres with my band, and even (in) some smaller theaters I've done completely solo. I also perform with symphony orchestras all over the world: the Boston Pops, the New York Pops, the National Symphony. We've been out to the Malaysian Symphony—all over the world. We have a few different shows: I have a music of Billy Joel show. I have a music of Elton John show. I have a singer songwriter show, which is the music of mainly Paul Simon, James Taylor and Neil Diamond, and we've been doing these for the last—we started doing this in like 2008, and it's been it's been an incredible ride.”
Michael Cavanaugh will bring his Billy Joel show to the Mansion Theatre in Branson on Friday October 22nd at 7:30pm. Asked how deeply, and how far back, he delves into the Billy Joel catalog, Cavanaugh had to think for a second.
“Oh, that's a good question. I would say the oldest album that we dig into is probably—well, actually all the way to the beginning: ‘Cold Spring Harbor’ (with) ‘She’s Got A Way.’ So, yeah, we go all the way back, now that I think about it. Of course, we do a lot of music from ‘The Stranger,’ ‘Fifty Second Street,’ ‘Glass Houses’, some of those classic albums that everybody knows. But Billy, he's had great songs from start to end from the beginning to the end. There's classics, for sure.
Of course, Cavanaugh wanted to inspire people in the area to come out to the Mansion Theatre for his show next Friday. “If they don't know me and they want to get to know me, they can go on my website,
,” (and) they can go on YouTube. There are so many videos of me performing this music. There's even a video or two of me on stage with Billy Joel when he would call me up one of his concerts. I think he'd do that a couple of times, actually, and they'll get a better idea of what they're coming to see. It's going to be a lot of fun. It's going to be songs that they know. I love to be interactive with the audience, so we all feel like we're hanging out together. I look forward to it myself.”
Tickets for “The Music of Billy Joel Starring Michael Cavanaugh” range from $40-$65. The Mansion Theatre is located at 189 Expressway Lane in Branson. For information, call (417) 385-1118 or visit https://www.themansiontheatre.com.