On one hand, by focusing their attention on the stage level of Santo Loquasto’s ingenious high-tech set, they can see a collection of New York’s finest dancers working their way through the complicated, challenging choreography devised by the show’s co-creator and director, Twyla Tharp.
On the other, by glancing just a little bit higher, they’re likely to be mesmerized by the performance of a young Irish-American singer and pianist, Michael Cavanaugh, who, with a nine-piece back-up band, supplies the venture’s rich score, made up of more than two dozen mainly familiar songs by Billy Joel, Tharp’s creative partner on “Movin’ Out.”
People familiar with Joel’s massive output maintain that the 30-year-old, Ohio-born musician sounds much the way the prolific songwriter did in his earlier years, but Cavanaugh is far from a carbon copy of the bard of Long Island, and what he’s doing is vastly more creative, and more interesting, than the work of even the most dead-on accurate impressionist.
Every night, after the performance, outside the stage door, hoping to get Cavanaugh to autograph their Playbills, a little clutch of teen-age girls waits, overlooking, as often as not, the show’s male dance stars, John Selya, Keith Roberts and Scott Wise among them.
Cavanaugh, who’s been performing since he was 12, is to some extent accustomed to adulation, but perhaps not precisely this particular type of admiration, because he’s never been connected with an actual stage project until now.
Born and raised in Middleburg Heights, one of Cleveland’s western suburbs, Cavanaugh is the youngest of four sons of a lithographer and a nurse. Virtually everyone in the family had musical ability and when he was about 5, he decided to learn to play the drums.
Citing what he calls “the noise factor,” Cavanaugh recalls that his parents vetoed the idea, opting instead, when he was 7, to buy a piano, a decision that, in its way, set the course his life would follow.
“When I was 12, I started a band with my older brother Tom,” he said. “Actually, he started it and we played our first bar when I was 12, and by the time I was 13, we were booked a solid three nights a week.”
Cavanagh, who is gifted with perfect pitch, one of the most valuable assets a musician could hope for, lives in Bergen County, N.J., with his wife, Karin, who is pregnant, and their 6-year-old son, Matthew. There is a freshness and enthusiasm about him and about his work that communicate powerfully and immediately to the audience. He is, unquestionably, one of the primary elements that make “Movin’ Out” such a positive experience. At the end of the show, when he performs “New York State of Mind,” it is, in large measure, his technique and his savvy that get the audience on its feet, cheering.
Asked if the way he does the song, the manner in which he holds and then releases the words, comes from him, or if it was perhaps something director Tharp had suggested, he responded: “That was all me.” And then, thinking that he’d come across as egotistical, he added: “If you think I hammed it up at the end, you should have seen me earlier. Twyla had to cut me back here and there. She had to tell me to do less.”
In 1994, after playing clubs and restaurants in the Cleveland area for years, Cavanaugh was offered a full time job in Orlando, Fla., in a bar called Blazing Pianos, where, in addition to his solo gig, he was part of a three-piece group called Jammin’ Pianos.
When Elizabeth Parkinson, the dazzling female lead in “Movin’On” was asked where in the world the show ever found Michael Cavanaugh, she replied, simply, “Las Vegas.” Here’s how it happened.
After four-and-a-half years in Florida, the singer was offered a job at one of the Nevada city’s top venues. “It was at the New York, New York Hotel and Casino, in a room called The Bar at Times Square,” he explained.
It was there that the wheels which eventually carried him to “Movin’ Out” began to turn. “I met a man called Max Loubiere who is Billy Joel’s tour manager. One night he brought Billy in to hear me. It was a complete surprise to me. It nearly petrified me, but it went great. I was up for it, and I didn’t meltdown. I gave it my best, and Billy loved it and he wound up singing some songs with me. The crowd went insane.”
About four months later, Cavanaugh got a phone call. “There was going to be a Broadway show. They didn’t even know what it was going to be called, and they didn’t know if I’d be onstage or offstage.” At this point, Cavanaugh’s well-honed performing instincts kicked in.
“I basically said that if I was going to be in the orchestra pit, I wouldn’t be interested,” he said.
Billy Joel’s guitarist, Tommy Byrnes, put the band together. “I told him that if I were to leave my Vegas job, I wanted exposure,” he said. He got it, and he knows precisely what his “Movin’ Out” assignment is.
“It’s almost like I’m the narrator through music,” he said. “It’s also a lot of fun to do.”
Cavanaugh displays scrupulousness at certain times during “Movin’ Out.” There are three moments when he isn’t singing or playing, and the music the audience hears are pre-recorded piano passages, selected from an ambitious suite of reveries Joel composed for a serious, non-vocal album he released last year. Those fragments are played, on tape, by Stuart Malina, who also provided additional musical arrangements and orchestrations for the show.
“I’m really careful to keep my hands off the keys during those moments, because I wouldn’t want to fool anybody. I wouldn’t want people to think I was faking,” he said.
It was director Tharp who picked the order in which the songs are performed. She also helped Cavanaugh shape his participation in the overall event.
“She made me understand that there’s a story going on down there on the stage,” he recalled.” It’s almost like there are two shows going on — a rock concert, and there’s a story. There are times when I’m looking at the audience, and other times when I want to watch what’s going on down on the stage. Twyla helped me learn about that.”
Cavanaugh’s voice isn’t really similar to Billy Joel’s, but people tend to think it is, and for a very solid reason. “People get in there and they hear the band playing the music, and they hear me phrasing the lyrics the way Billy does, so they think I sound like him,” he said. “I phrase the lyrics very close to Billy, because that’s the way I’ve always heard them, because I’m such a big fan. I let the words out the way he does. I don’t think our voices are alike and Billy doesn’t think so, either.”
Musician Cavanaugh’s three older brothers, Mark, 39, Tom, 38, and Ken, 35, still live in the Cleveland area, as do his parents. The family’s Irish roots are in Dublin, but the singer has never been there. Taking his family to Ireland is one of his fondest dreams.
“I’m dying to go,” he said. If all goes well, an international tour of “Movin’ Out” just might introduce Michael Cavanaugh to Dublin.