Concert pairs TSO with Joel tribute veteran

2014-01-23T00:00:00Z 2014-01-23T11:52:04Z Concert pairs TSO with Joel tribute veteranBy Gerald M. Gay Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
January 23, 2014 12:00 am  • 

The man who channeled Billy Joel for the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical, “Movin’ Out,” will perform songs from Joel’s repertoire with the Tucson Symphony Orchestra this weekend.

Michael Cavanaugh spent more than three years as the voice of the hit production, performing Joel classics such as “The Longest Time,” “Uptown Girl” and “Just the Way You Are” nightly to packed houses.

Cavanaugh’s role led to the creation of a symphony-based pops program, using Joel’s music, which he debuted in 2008.

He has traveled around the world with the show and will perform it with the TSO at the Tucson Music Hall Saturday and Sunday.

Here’s the history:

Before “Movin’ Out,” Cavanaugh worked as a dueling pianist, first in Orlando, then Las Vegas.

Cavanaugh, who started playing piano at age 7, describes the experience as “ ‘Animal House’ with two pianos.”

“It was nuts,” he said. “I was dancing, jumping off the piano and doing crazy stuff. It was more about taking requests and everyone singing ‘Brown Eyed Girl’ than playing every note correctly.”

Cavanaugh began as a dueling pianist at 22 years old. He said the years he spent in that environment helped him communicate better with his audience.

“It made me so much more of a well-rounded entertainer,” he said.

He met Billy Joel while playing piano in Vegas.

Cavanaugh had been working on a project with Joel’s tour director Max Loubiere when Loubiere brought Joel to watch Cavanaugh play.

Cavanaugh knew that Joel was being dragged to the show, but “by the end of the set, he was on the other piano,” Cavanaugh said. “We were jamming together, playing Beatles and Elvis tunes.”

That first meeting led to a fast friendship. Cavanaugh would hang out with Joel backstage at shows and attended his wedding to food critic Katie Lee.

“He is a great guy,” Cavanaugh said.

The friendship led to Cavanaugh’s role in “Movin’ Out.”

It wasn’t long after Cavanaugh met Joel, that Cavanaugh was put in touch with Tommy Byrnes, Joel’s bandleader to try out for famed Broadway choreographer Twyla Tharp.

“I didn’t know who she was at the time,” he said. “Luckily, she liked me. There were a lot of people who auditioned who she didn’t like.”

Cavanaugh was green to the harsh realities of the Broadway musical scene, but soon discovered how tough a business it was.

“I didn’t realize we were rolling the dice when we started,” Cavanaugh said. “So many shows came and went while we were there; shows with music from big names like John Lennon and The Beach Boys.”

After “Movin’ Out” ended its run, Cavanaugh took to performing with orchestras.

Cavanaugh and his agent were approached by leaders of the Indianapolis Symphony in 2007 to create a string-backed Billy Joel show.

“After being on Broadway and my association with Billy, it was a slam dunk from day one,” Cavanaugh said. “We had bookings with large symphonies before we even had everything arranged.”

Today, Cavanaugh is the centerpiece for three different types of pops concerts — The Joel show, a concert performing the music of Elton John and a pop standards show featuring music by artists such as Joel, Paul Simon and James Taylor.

“The symphony world is going after a new audience with tributes to artists of their generation,” he said. “I am pleased to be a part of that.”

Contact reporter Gerald M. Gay at 807-8430 or ggay@azstarnet.com

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