At 7 years old, Michael Cavanaugh was hooked on Billy Joel. While his brothers were jamming out to KISS and Led Zeppelin, Cavanaugh was playing the piano and listening to Joel’s Glass Houses album.
Coming full circle more than 20 years later, Cavanaugh was handpicked by Joel himself for the lead role in the Broadway musical Movin’ Out. The Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra will perform “The Music of Billy Joel” with Cavanaugh at 8 p.m. tonight at the Reg Lenna Center for the Arts in Jamestown, under the baton of Principal Pops Conductor Stuart Chafetz.
Even though the entire CSO won’t be in attendance, Chafetz said “the energy will be there.”
“Having the additional brass … and these lush strings and woodwinds just makes such a difference as far as the weight of the song,” Chafetz said. “There’s so much power coming from Billy Joel … with Michael Cavanaugh and his band on top of that, with the symphony orchestra, … it’s just magical.”
Cavanaugh learned to play the piano as a child and began performing in bars 20 years ago. For Movin’ Out, Cavanaugh and the cast received a multitude of accolades, including nominations for both Grammy and Tony awards.
“I think probably the main thing that has made me such a huge Billy Joel fan is all the different styles he writes. … He’s very eclectic,” Cavanaugh said. “If you listen to ‘You May Be Right,’ that could be a Rolling Stone song. I could hear Mick Jagger singing. You listen to ‘Uptown Girl,’ it sounds like Frankie Valli. It’s really diverse.”
Since 2008, Cavanaugh has performed “The Music of Billy Joel” with over 100 orchestras all around the world. Cavanaugh said it’s “very interactive” and “a lot of fun.” For orchestral accompaniments, Cavanaugh said songs like “New York State of Mind” or “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” were obvious choices. But he also said unlikelier choices such as “Pressure,” which begins with a synthesizer, were added to the program.
“It’s actually very classical, what the synth is playing. So we have the orchestra play that part, and it sounds like Beethoven,” Cavanaugh said. “It’s really an awesome thing. … We’re taking these songs and kind of putting them on steroids.”
Chafetz has worked with Cavanaugh before in other orchestras and said “his energy, his voice, his piano-playing is excellent.” Living up to Joel’s legendary musical career is something Cavanaugh said he doesn’t try to do. Instead, he “wants to serve the song the right way.” During the opening night party for Movin’ Out, Cavanaugh said Joel’s mother told him “I can’t tell you two apart” when he and Joel sing.
“Billy and I started laughing, because we don’t necessarily think that we sound so much alike,” Cavanaugh said. “I think what happens is these songs are such a part of me that they come out kind of the way they went in. I wind up singing some things the way he does … but it’s not even necessarily intentional.”
For so many fans, Joel’s music has become a part of their lives, too. When they hear a particular song like “Movin’ Out” or “Big Shot,” “it takes (them) back to where they were in that moment,” Cavanaugh said. Even though it’s Cavanaugh singing and not Joel, he said the lyrics still speak for themselves.
“The song is always more important than the guy singing,” he said. “In my opinion, it’s the most important thing.”
Chafetz has a long-time, personal connection with Joel’s music, since both grew up on Long Island in New York City. He remembers riding Nunley’s Carousel, mentioned as part of Joel’s “Waltz #1” from 2001’s Opus 1 to 10 Fantasies and Delusions album.
“There’s just so many things that resonate with me about Billy Joel’s music and the culture of Long Island and New York,” Chaffetz said. “… Hearing the music orchestrated just adds that much more sheen and velvety gorgeousness.”
Even after a storied career working with world-class musicians, orchestras around the world and his childhood musical idol, Cavanaugh doesn’t forget where he started all those years ago.
“You can take the boy out of the piano bar, but you can’t take the piano bar out of the boy,” Cavanaugh said.