"There was never any doubt in anyone’s mind as to what I was going to do,” says pianist and singer Michael Cavanaugh, who performs “An Evening of the Music of Billy Joel and More” at New Brunswick’s State Theater on Thursday, July 16. The “more” refers to songs identified with other performers, including Elton John, the Beatles, Stevie Wonder, and the Who. Cavanaugh is backed by his band of five other musicians: guitar, bass, drums, synthesizer, and sax.
When Cavanaugh was seven years old, his family purchased a piano. It was meant to be for his mom who, with her sister, performed locally as a singing duo. Cavanaugh describes them as “a female version of the Everly Brothers.” However, it was young Cavanaugh who was “all over that piano the first day and ‘writing’ songs.”
Seven was a magic number for him. Not only did he find his instrument, he also found his inspiration. He is the youngest of four boys. When his brothers, big heavy metal fans, went to see the group Kiss, he wanted to go, too. His mom had decreed that he could go only if his father went with him. Even though they were sitting in the back row, young Cavanaugh was mesmerized by the performance: “The production, the stage, the people going crazy. Right then I knew what I wanted to be, and that hasn’t changed.”
As most parents would do when a child shows such an impressive interest, they got piano lessons for him. “I really frustrated my teachers,” he says in a phone interview. “I’d say, ‘Just play it for me once,’ then I could play it back to them.” He never learned to read music very well. “I read music about as well as a preschooler can read English.” His natural ear for music has taken him far on a fast track.
Cavanaugh was born in Cleveland and grew up in the suburbs of that city where there was an active music scene. He started playing clubs when he was 12. “I was doing this three nights a week. Of course, my parents had to be there every night.” Being thrown into the club scene at such an early age could have had a really bad influence on him; however, it had the reverse effect. “I saw how drugs ruined lives and I’ve never done them. I learned from other people’s mistakes.”
When he was only 13 he was allowed to take out a bank loan to purchase music equipment. “You’re not supposed to be able to do that,” he says. In high school, he relates his usual activities as choir and talent shows. But of course, at night he was gigging with his band called the Difference. Around the time that he turned 21, he began to play at piano bars where patrons make requests. “By then, I knew a couple of thousand songs.” He admits that he had wanted to go to music school —- maybe Berkeley. But he was always performing. There wasn’t space in his life for school.
There had always been music in his home as he grew up. His dad loved music, especially jazz. “He’s a music fanatic, took me to hear Woody Herman, Buddy Rich.” Now retired, he worked as a salesman for high-end audio equipment, which Cavanaugh equates with being in a toy store. “That was the best job ever for him.” As for the singing sisters, his mom became a nurse, his aunt, an airline hostess. Though all of the brothers played musical instruments, he is the only one to make it his career. One brother is a professional photographer and made the photos for Cavanaugh’s recent CD.
At home growing up, he heard the recordings of Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Mel Torme, and his brothers’ heavy metal. “I like everything from classical to jazz to rock.” It was also his father who introduced him to the recordings of Billy Joel.
Flash forward: Fortune brought Joel to a club in Las Vegas where Cavanaugh was playing piano and singing. This brought about the next major event in his life: Joel chose Cavanaugh to play and sing the central role of “The Piano Man” in the musical he and choreographer Twyla Tharp were preparing for Broadway, “Movin’ Out.”
Cavanaugh was lucky to be in at the beginning of the development of this musical where he would be the on-stage surrogate for Billy Joel. Primarily a dance show, Cavanaugh sang and played the piano as the story of young people of the ’60s reacting to the war in Vietnam danced around him. He was nominated for a Tony Award as the Best Supporting Actor in a Musical. His wife, Karin, then eight months pregnant, attended the awards with him.
He played the entire New York run of “Movin’ Out,” which, according to the Internet Broadway Database, opened on Broadway in October, 2002, and played for a total of 1,303 performances. You can add to that the out-of-town tryouts in Chicago during all of the previous July.
Not surprisingly, he decided not to stay with the nationwide tour. He has built a show featuring music from the modern pop/rock songbook. He has played in venues all over the country, including concerts with symphony orchestras, among them, the Boston Pops. His home base is Las Vegas. He and his family moved there from Glen Rock, New Jersey, where they had lived while he was on Broadway. With his own show, he controls his schedule. And he makes sure that he has plenty of at-home time with his family. When he is performing in Vegas, he often sees old friends who are visiting. They invite him to go out on the town after the performance. “Sometimes they don’t understand when I say, ‘No, I’m going home.’” He laughs, “I’m Ward Cleaver.”
He is currently developing a new show for Las Vegas, with the hope of a major booking there that would keep him in his hometown working four or five nights a week for three weeks, then taking a break, then coming back to do the rotation schedule again. “My family is always first to me.” He and his wife have two children, Michael, who will be 13 next month, and Mikayla, who will soon be six. He is ever the proud father as he talks about his children’s achievements. “Mikayla is definitely a performer,” he says. Last year she competed in a school-wide talent contest that included youngsters from pre-K through high school. “She sang ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’ right on pitch and won first prize.” He knew that they wouldn’t give the prize to her again this year, but he supported her entry literally, accompanying on the piano. “I think that’s a sign of things to come,” he says. “She’ll be the star and I’ll be in the background.”
Son Michael is less interested in music though he has inherited his father’s perfect pitch. “He’s more into statistics, loves numbers, geography. He excels on standardized tests and was valedictorian of his grade school class.” Cavanaugh hasn’t totally given up on his son’s musical development, however, noting that one of his own favorite piano players, Bruce Hornsby, didn’t begin until he was 17.
Meanwhile, he and his wife are very involved with the children and the school they attend, Green Valley Christian School, where Karin is a dedicated parent volunteer. As Cavanaugh puts it, “an all-star mom volunteer.” The family also attends church there.
He marvels that he always knew what he wanted to do in life. “There may have been questions about whether I’d be successful doing it, but I was going to be a musician. I’m very happy and blessed.” Support from his mom and dad and now from his wife certainly are integral to his success. His parents often drive to see him wherever he is performing if it’s close enough to the Cleveland area. Since both are now retired, they are free to take to the road to check up on their talented son.
“I grew up fast. Now I think I’m going in reverse: getting younger every day. I’m doing what I want to do. Not many people can say that.” In addition to his upcoming Vegas show, he says he would like to record another album and would love to do soundtracks for films and television. Meanwhile, he says, “I want to keep doing what I’m doing, keep working as hard as I can and see how far it takes me.”
Michael Cavanaugh, State Theater, 15 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. Thursday, July 16, 8 p.m. “The Music of Billy Joel and More” with a full band. Cavanaugh, the original lead vocalist, pianist, and frontman of “Movin’ Out,” the Broadway show based on the song book of Billy Joel and choreographed by Twyla Tharp, which received both Tony and Grammy nominations. $32 to $42. 732-246-7469 or www.StateTheatreNJ.org.