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Broadway’s ‘piano man’ joins The Florida Orchestra Saturday

Bill DeYoung



When Michael Cavanaugh performs out in front of The Florida Orchestra Saturday at the Mahaffey Theater, he brings not only tremendous talent and a site-specific expertise, but a CV with one-of-a-kind credentials.

Cavanaugh and his four-piece band will join TFO for a pops concert, The Music of James Taylor, Neil Diamond & Paul Simon. There’s an “and more” attached to that title, as the song catalogs explored include those of such notables as Elton John, the Beatles and Billy Joel.

That last name has special resonance for Cavanaugh. For more than 1,000 performances on Broadway – three and a half years’ worth – he was “the narrator” in Movin’ Out, the Tony-winning stage collaboration between Joel and choreographer Twyla Tharp.

The band – with Cavanaugh front and center, playing a grand piano and singing dozens of Billy Joel tunes as dancers told the story of young lovers Brenda and Eddie – was right there on the stage, on a “bridge” above the performers.

“It was a very intense gig,” Cavanaugh explains. “Probably the most difficult gig I’ll ever do, just ‘cause it was six nights a week of that stuff. So it was a lot of singing. But it was amazing and it changed my life.”

Cavanaugh was a performer at a Dueling Pianos piano bar in the mid 1990s in Orlando, where he was living at the time. In 1999, he had relocated the act to Las Vegas, and through mutual friends he became acquainted with Billy Joel’s tour manager.

Joel was due in town, for one of his own dueling piano concerts alongside Elton John, and at his manager’s suggestion flew in a day or two early to catch Michael Cavanaugh’s interpretations of his songs.

At the end of the evening, Joel got onstage and jammed on Elvis and Beatles covers with the wide-eyed musician. “It was the kind of thing you dream about when you’re a young Billy Joel fan,” Cavanaugh says.

Movin’ Out was in its early planning stages. At Joel’s suggestion, Cavanaugh flew to New York and auditioned for Tharp and the show’ producers.

Initially, he recalls, “I said ‘That sounds great, but it’s not my dream to sit in an orchestra pit.’ They said ‘No, you’ll be onstage. There’ll be a spotlight on you the whole time.’ And I said ‘Cool! All right, I’ll be there.”

There was no guarantee he would get the job. “Luckily, Twyla liked me. Because she can be very particular. I saw other guys audition that were awesome, but for whatever reason that’s not what she wanted.

“Even though I had Billy’s thumbs-up, he said ‘This is Twyla’s deal. Twyla’s running this, and whatever she wants to do is fine.’ So if she had said ‘No, I don’t want Cavanaugh, he’s not the right guy,’ Billy would have said ‘OK.’”

The show closed in December 2005, and Cavanaugh – after a year or so of playing lucrative (but not terribly challenging) corporate gigs – got an offer from the New York Pops to play at a multi-artist tribute to the New York Yankees at Carnegie Hall.

He was the first performer onstage, playing “New York State of Mind” with the symphony.

Next, the Indianapolis Symphony invited him to headline a series of singer/songwriter concerts – first Billy Joel, then Elton John, then others. And that’s when The Music of James Taylor, Neil Diamond & Paul Simon was created.

Along with his band, Cavanaugh sings and plays piano and guitar.

There’s nothing quite like performing with a massive orchestra, he says. “It’s like putting these songs on steroids. It’s a huge sound. And I’ve gotten used to it, but when we first did it, it was almost jarring at times. Because it’s just massive.

“One of the songs we do in this show is Paul McCartney’s ‘Blackbird.’ And I’d done that song for so long, with just me and acoustic guitar … it starts with just me, but then the whole orchestra comes in behind me. And I feel like I’ve been given wings. Like I’m flying.”

Chelsea Gallo conducts Saturday’s 8 p.m. concert. Tickets are available here.












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