Tuesday, November 20, 2018
Features and More

Billy Joel interpreter, 'Movin' Out' star Michael Cavanaugh plays at Mahaffey with Florida Orchestra

When Michael Cavanaugh performed Billy Joel's music in the Broadway hit Movin' Out, it was not uncommon for reviewers to say he did iconic songs like Scenes from an Italian Restaurant ("A bottle of white . . .") or Uptown Girl better than Joel himself these days. "You know what? I did get some reviews like that. But as far as I'm concerned, Billy is the master. There's only one Billy Joel," Cavanaugh says, suitably modest, talking about the show of Joel songs he and his band are doing Friday with the Florida Orchestra.

Strictly speaking, Cavanaugh wasn't the star of Movin' Out — Twyla Tharp's dancers enacted the story of a group of friends over more than 25 years — but he was crucial to its success. Without a credible, appealing piano man, the musical that had a score of more than 20 Joel songs wouldn't have made any sense.

Billy Joel impersonators are staples on the piano bar circuit, but Cavanaugh is something entirely different and more interesting. Chosen by Joel, he was the vocalist and pianist with Movin' Out for its entire Broadway run of more than three years.

"I'm not an impersonator," Cavanaugh says. "I'm more of an interpreter. With Billy Joel, it's really close to me. When I play Movin' Out or other Billy Joel songs, it doesn't feel like a cover band. I feel like I've got the right to sing these songs."

Cavanaugh, who turns 40 this month, grew up in the Cleveland suburbs. By the time he was 14, he was working four or five nights a week, playing keyboards in bands for weddings and dances, and Billy Joel was his musical hero.

"Billy's music is so eclectic that different songs connect with different people," he says. "Certain people, all they want to hear is Just the Way You Are. Certain people, all they want to hear is Uptown Girl. Certain people only want to hear the rock 'n' roll stuff. And everybody wants to hear Piano Man."

For four years in the 1990s, Cavanaugh lived in Orlando, playing at piano bars, such as Blazing Pianos on International Drive.

"The piano bar thing really taught me how to perform," he says. "It was all about working the crowd. Showmanship. I had to bust out of my shell to survive in that world."

Joel songs, of course, were frequently requested. "No question Piano Man was the No. 1 request. A close No. 2 was American Pie. Then Great Balls of Fire. One song that used to make me groan, because it was so difficult, was Bohemian Rhapsody. That one was tough. But when you work in a piano bar, if somebody puts enough money in your tip jar, you play the song."

With Movin' Out, Cavanaugh became friends with Joel ("I'm close enough that I can call him up"), and the pop legend did him a huge favor by giving him the rights to perform his songs outside the musical. As a result, he is able to do lucrative corporate concerts for the likes of State Farm Insurance, the PGA, Met Life and other heavyweight clients. Last year, he and his band played for the wedding of casino mogul Steve Wynn in a ballroom of the Wynn Encore.

"You can imagine what a Steve Wynn wedding was like," says Cavanaugh, who lives in a Las Vegas suburb with his wife and two children. "We had Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood up. We did a lot of Billy Joel. We did Can You Feel the Love Tonight? from The Lion King with a choir. The audience was like Clint Eastwood and Steven Spielberg and Sylvester Stallone. It was filled with people I've admired my whole life. I had to tune that part out of it and just do my thing."

Cavanaugh's orchestra show includes some other music, such as Beatles or Elton John songs. There is also a taste of Joel's classical music, a couple of the little piano pieces that were in Movin' Out played by the orchestra. "It's a nice departure because it's still Billy Joel music, it shows off the orchestra, and it gives me a chance to catch my breath," he says.

The Florida Orchestra has a genuine Joel connection. Coffee concert conductor Stuart Malina won a Tony Award for his orchestrations for Movin' Out.

Does Cavanaugh ever feel trapped by his close association with Joel?

"I've certainly gone through that," he says. "When Time magazine calls you a Billy Joel stand-in, even if they mean it in a nice way, you get typecast a little. People are always going to know me mostly for the Billy Joel stuff, and I'm okay with that. That's a good guy to have your name floating around with."

John Fleming can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8716.

Comments
Bar review: Turnabout time, Tampa: St. Pete exports hip to the Heights

Bar review: Turnabout time, Tampa: St. Pete exports hip to the Heights

By Justin GrantTimes CorrespondentYou know downtown St. Petersburg is cool when Seminole Heights brings a couple of the city’s well-loved institutions across the bridge. Best of all, they’re bundled together into a single lot, bringing ...
Updated: 6 hours ago
Local craft beer of the week: Matte Black, Brew Hub

Local craft beer of the week: Matte Black, Brew Hub

By Justin Granttbt* correspondentThough it originally launched as a brewery allowing off-site brewers to outsource production, Lakeland’s Brew Hub has been on a tear with its house-brand releases, from the award-winning Rome City IPA and the o...
Updated: 6 hours ago
What’s on stage this week: Florida Orchestra happy hour concerts now free, Benji Brown, Radio Theatre Project

What’s on stage this week: Florida Orchestra happy hour concerts now free, Benji Brown, Radio Theatre Project

The casual Wednesday concerts return for a third year. Comic Benji Brown brings his humor to the Straz.
Updated: 7 hours ago
What’s happening in sports: Turkey trots, turkey day traditions, Bucs and Lightning

What’s happening in sports: Turkey trots, turkey day traditions, Bucs and Lightning

RACES: GOING AFOWLHappy anniversary, Tampa Bay Times Turkey Trot. Start off your Thanksgiving with a buffet of races in this, the 40th year of the Times Turkey Trot. The menu includes the 1-mile Gobbler, the Abe’s Drumstick 4K, Wingding 5K and...
Updated: 7 hours ago
New restaurants: Amigos Tortilla Bar is open now, Jewish deli coming to Tampa

New restaurants: Amigos Tortilla Bar is open now, Jewish deli coming to Tampa

Amigos Tortilla Bar opens in St. Pete while Tampa awaits the opening of Cass Street Delicatessen downtown this winter.
Updated: 7 hours ago
From meatballs to Cuban sandwiches: 15 delicious meat-free versions of Tampa Bay menu items

From meatballs to Cuban sandwiches: 15 delicious meat-free versions of Tampa Bay menu items

Looking to eat less meat for whatever reason? Here are 15 meat-free versions of normally meaty dishes to try at Tampa Bay restaurants.
Updated: 10 hours ago
Six holiday movies to see at Tampa Theatre this Christmas season

Six holiday movies to see at Tampa Theatre this Christmas season

Tampa Theatre has released the lineup for its annual Holiday Classics series, including “Elf,” “A Christmas Story” and “It’s A Wonderful Life.”
Updated: 10 hours ago
Comedian performs comedy marathon for confused Tampa airport train passengers

Comedian performs comedy marathon for confused Tampa airport train passengers

A truly captive audience on a Tampa airport people mover and a marathon of standup comedy make for an odd short film called Plane Train.
Updated: 11 hours ago
Don’t want to cook a Thanksgiving feast? Where to make reservations (or take out) instead

Don’t want to cook a Thanksgiving feast? Where to make reservations (or take out) instead

There’s still time to find a place for roast turkey and all the fixings.
Updated: 11 hours ago
For 250 refugees, a first Thanksgiving feast in Tampa hit all the right notes

For 250 refugees, a first Thanksgiving feast in Tampa hit all the right notes

Church organizers and nonprofit groups bring together 250 refugees for an interfaith Thanksgiving feast, multiculturalism front and center and gravy on the side
Published: 11/20/18