When Michael Cavanaugh appears with the Hawai‘i Symphony Orchestra on Friday to perform “The Music of Billy Joel,” it will be his debut public performance in the islands, though he’s played about two dozen private shows in Hawaii.
It will definitively not be his debut performing the music of Billy Joel.
In 2001, Cavanaugh was preparing for his nightly gig at the piano bar in the New York, New York Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, when he got the message: Joel would be stopping by during Cavanaugh’s set.
Cavanaugh had been playing professionally since he was 13, but all he could think of at that moment was one thing, “My number-one musical hero is coming to see me play!”
“I WAS losing my mind,” Cavanaugh reminisced, calling last week from his home studio in Las Vegas. “Thankfully I held it together. When it matters most I’m pretty good at holding it together, and thankfully I didn’t crack under the pressure.”
Cavanaugh didn’t expect his idol to stay. Joel was too busy, and “way too famous” to hang out in a piano bar watching some guy he knew only as a friend of a friend, but it turned out that the Grammy Award-winning singer, pianist and recording artist liked what he saw.
The “few minutes” Joel had planned to stay turned into Cavanaugh’s entire set. The bar was set up to accommodate two pianists, and Joel sat in on the second piano. Cavanaugh’s set turned into a jam session of their favorite Beatles and Elvis tunes.
“I was thinking, ‘You can kill me now!’” Cavanaugh recalled. “I didn’t know what to expect, but it led to a lot of other things. We became pals. It was unbelievable.”
Among the “unbelievable” things that happened was an invitation to work with Joel on “Movin’ Out,” the jukebox musical Joel developed for Broadway with choreographer Twyla Tharp.
“Movin’ Out” opened on Broadway in October 2002 with Cavanaugh in the lead role of the Piano Man, as a troupe of dancers expressed the experiences of friends living through a quarter-century of life, love and challenges.
Cavanaugh’s renditions of more than 20 Joel songs knit the dancers’ performances together. An original cast album was released in the first weeks of the run.
He had been the Piano Man for more than 1,300 performances when “Movin’ Out” closed in December, 2005.
Cavanaugh’s next step was to build on his Broadway years and create a full-length show around Joel’s music.
He also recorded three albums. “In Color,” recorded in 2008, was a mixed bag of originals, some of his favorite Billy Joel songs, and other songs Cavanaugh wanted to put his stamp on. “An Evening With The Symphony,” recorded in 2010, is a live CD/DVD album of his “Music of Billy Joel” show. “The Way I Hear It,” recorded in 2017, consists entirely of originals.
THE SHOW is “very high energy,” Cavanaugh said.
“I get the audience involved. It’s the Billy Joel songs they know, the songs that a lot of us grew up with, but when you put the symphony behind it, it takes it to a whole new place,” he said. “It’s exciting.”
Cavanaugh’s original instrument of choice had been the drums — he’d been inspired by seeing “Animal from the Muppets.” His parents bought him a snare drum as a starter, but when they realized how loud drum practice could be, “it kind of disappeared one day.”
When Cavanaugh’s parents bought a piano for his mother, he transitioned from drums to keyboards.
Cavanaugh discovered Joel’s music at almost the same time.
“Right about the same time that we got the piano, my dad turned me on to Billy Joel,” he said. “I had three older brothers, and they were listening to everything from Led Zeppelin to Rush to Lynyrd Skynyrd to Ozzy Osbourne and Kiss. My dad said, ‘Listen to this guy.’ He played a Billy Joel song for me, and I loved it from day one.”
Although never a fanatic about the piano (“I was pretty well-balanced, I went outside and played too”), Cavanaugh said he formed his first band when he was 10 and was playing professionally for wedding receptions by age 13.
Cavanaugh was working full-time in an Orlando, Fl., piano bar in his early twenties, and then moved to Las Vegas in 1999 for a piano bar job there. Two years later Joel walked into his life.
The professional friendship that followed led to some surreal experiences.
“We were having lunch in New City — ‘Movin’ Out’ hadn’t opened in New York yet — in a restaurant seated outside near the sidewalk, talking about opening songs for the show,” Cavanaugh said, sharing one of his favorite stories. “Billy’s asking me, ‘What do you think of this song? What do you think of this (other) song?’ and he’s singing the songs to me — singing them to me! He’s Billy Joel, and he’s asking me my opinion, and I’m thinking to myself, ‘Is this really happening right now?’”
“Then, right after lunch he said, ‘Hey, you want to go to Steinway?’ So, we had lunch, we discussed some songs — none of which really had any bearing on what the opening song was going to be, but just the fact that he asked my opinion was unbelievable — and then we went to (the) Steinway (showroom) and jammed on the pianos.”
As a self-described “big fan” of Joel and his music, Cavanaugh says it’s hard to pick a favorite from Joel’s work, but there are two songs that he always enjoys doing.
“As many times as I’ve played it, ‘Scenes From An Italian Restaurant’ is — I consider it like a masterpiece — so that one will always be way at the top of my list,” he said.
”Another song that personally resonates, and it’s a difficult song to sing, is ‘Goodnight Saigon,’ but again, there are so many songs (I like), like ‘She’s Got a Way’ or ‘New York State of Mind.’ And then ‘Uptown Girl’ and ‘Tell Her About It’ and ‘The Longest Time’ are the fun ones.
“Billy Joel’s music goes to so many different places. If I‘m feeling a certain way, I resonate with a certain song even more.”
“THE MUSIC OF BILLY JOEL”
Featuring Michael Cavanaugh with the Hawai‘i Symphony Orchestra
>> Where: Blaisdell Concert Hall
>> When: 7:30 p.m. Friday
>> Cost: $36-$95
>> Info: 946-8742, hawaiisymphonyorchestra.org