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

Published May 2 2012

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.