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Sunday, August 18, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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A&E >  Music

Billy Joel brings singer Michael Cavanaugh from bars to Broadway

Tony-nominated singer Michael Cavanaugh will perform with the Spokane Symphony as part of “The Music of Billy Joel.” (Courtesy photo)
Tony-nominated singer Michael Cavanaugh will perform with the Spokane Symphony as part of “The Music of Billy Joel.” (Courtesy photo)

As a teen, singer Michael Cavanaugh had a good reason for trying to get study hall first period.

No, he wasn’t staying up late watching TV or hanging out with friends; he was performing in a Top 40 band in bars around Cleveland.

He performed in his first bar when he was 12, and by the time he was 13, he was performing three nights a week. At age14, Cavanaugh could be found performing in bars up to five nights a week.

“I was working like crazy,” Cavanaugh said recently from his home in Henderson, Nevada. “Everyone in the band was older. I might have been a little sleepy during those first few periods.”

The band’s sets were often stacked with tunes by Journey, Bon Jovi, Paula Abdul and even Milli Vanilli, but in the middle of the set, Cavanaugh would perform a Billy Joel song, usually “She’s Got a Way” or “Honesty.”

With his spot-on voice and impressive piano skills, Cavanaugh quickly earned the nickname “Young Joel.”

“I wound up playing a lot of instruments … but the piano has always been my home musically, for sure,” Cavanaugh said. “That’s where I live. And Billy Joel has been my favorite artist since my dad played me the song ‘Big Shot’ when I was a kid.”

Cavanaugh eventually found himself performing songs by Joel and Elton John in dueling piano bars, which he described as “ ‘Animal House’ with pianos.” After playing in Blazing Pianos in Orlando, Cavanaugh moved to Las Vegas and began performing in the New York-New York Hotel and Casino.

Cavanaugh has since graduated from dueling piano bars and will perform at the Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox on Saturday as part of Spokane Symphony Pops: “The Music of Billy Joel.”

But it was back in the casino, on Valentine’s Day 2001, that Cavanaugh met his “musical hero,” who was in town a few days before a concert of his own.

Cavanaugh had befriended Joel’s tour manager Max Loubiere, who had heard Cavanaugh’s set a couple months earlier.

Because he knew Loubiere, Cavanaugh thought there was a good chance he could meet Joel and shake his hand.

But Loubiere had something else in mind and brought Joel to Cavanaugh’s show.

“I was literally flipping out just as much as you would think,” Cavanaugh said about hearing the news. “I was losing it.”

Cavanaugh met Joel backstage, then went to perform, with Joel sitting about 10 feet from his piano.

By the end of his set, Joel had made his way onstage and was jamming with Cavanaugh.

Later that night, the two went out for dinner, and Cavanaugh ended up going to Joel’s show a couple days later.

“I was thinking ‘Wow, I know Billy Joel. I can’t believe it,’ ” Cavanaugh said. “Not thinking it was going to change my career.”

What Cavanaugh didn’t know at the time was that dancer/choreographer Twyla Tharp was working on a musical featuring Joel’s music, which would eventually become the jukebox musical “Movin’ Out.”

About two months after their meeting, Joel asked guitarist Tommy Byrnes to put together the band for the musical.

Byrnes, who Cavanaugh had also met, said Cavanaugh was the right man for the part. Joel agreed, but Cavanaugh still had to audition for Tharp.

“Fortunately, she liked me,” Cavanaugh said. “When you come in with the piano man’s thumbs up, that really helps.”

“Movin’ Out” was nominated for nine Tony Awards and six Drama Desk Awards. Cavanaugh received a Tony nomination for best performance by a featured actor in a musical.

In 2004, the cast recording was nominated for the Grammy for the Best Musical Theater Album.

The show opened in Chicago, then moved to Broadway, where it ran for three years. Cavanaugh handled about a thousand of the show’s 1,300 performances.

“It was amazing, and it was a ton of pressure,” Cavanaugh said. “In a Broadway audience, people are looking at you under a microscope. They notice everything, and the sound is so pristine. If there’s a crack in my voice, everyone’s going to hear it.”

After “Movin’ Out” closed, Cavanaugh was approached by the Indianapolis Symphony about being a guest performer.

He had only sung with a symphony once before at Carnegie Hall (“Talk about getting thrown in the deep end of the pool,” Cavanaugh said) and was excited to add more symphony shows to his repertoire.

That was in 2008, and since then Cavanaugh estimates he and his band have performed with more than 100 symphonies around the world.

Vocally, Cavanaugh’s symphony performances are nearly the same as his work in “Movin’ Out.”

But musically, some songs, like “Pressure,” get a bit of a facelift.

There’s a classical sounding part that is typically played on the synthesizer. But when he performs with symphonies, Cavanaugh lets them take over.

“It sounds like Beethoven with rock and roll,” he said. “It’s really cool. My whole younger part of my career, you would have the symphony on a record, and you would replace it with a synthesizer. Now we get to do the opposite. We get to take the synthesizer and replace it with a symphony.”

It’s Joel’s ability to think outside the box – adding classical-inspired elements to a rock tune, or infusing a Latin feel into “Don’t Ask Me Why” – that Cavanaugh believes has kept so many interested in his music.

“He has so many different ways to pull so many different people in because he has so many different styles,” he said.

That variety has kept Cavanaugh interested in performing Joel’s music, from bars to Broadway to symphony stages.

“That guy’s pretty good,” Cavanaugh said with a laugh. “If he keeps trying, he’s going to be big someday.”

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