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How Michael Cavanaugh came to Indy 

click to enlarge Michael Cavanaugh with the ISO
  • Michael Cavanaugh with the ISO

It was 2008. Michael Cavanaugh, who had come to national prominence playing piano and taking lead vocals in a Broadway-born jukebox musical based on the music of Billy Joel, Movin' Out, was at a crossroads.

"I was concerned from the beginning about type-casting," Cavanaugh said, calling from his Las Vegas home a few weeks ahead of his Indianapolis run. "Would I be able to find another role on Broadway? What would I do if there weren't another opportunity?"

Here's where the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra enters the story, represented by Jack Everly, principal Pops conductor, and Ty Johnson, senior director, Pops programs and presentations.

"I had worked at American Ballet Theatre and have a long friendship with Twyla [Tharp, who directed and choreographed Movin' Out], so I was quite intrigued," recalled Everly during a phone interview.

He and Johnson attended a performance of Movin Out, enjoying Joel's song cycle "eloquently told through dance," but there was something more.

"We realized Cavanaugh is a masterful interpreter of Billy Joel," Everly said. "We have a legacy at ISO for creating new programs exclusively for our Pops audiences and our desired aim for "up close and personal" defines who Michael innately is. He knows how to embrace an audience so they can embrace him. The repertoire he performs is familiar."

The timing was right when Everly and Johnson started talking with Cavanaugh's agent about a Joel show with orchestration.

"After three and a half years and 1,200 shows I was drained," said Cavanaugh. "I wasn't interested in the money making, I wanted flexibility. I was asked to consider a role in the Million Dollar Quartet, but I realized I had to be honest with myself, be honest with where I shine. Even though I love traditional Broadway musicals, I had to know what I could do honestly. I sold my house in New Jersey and bought a house in Las Vegas."

He listened to Johnson and Everly, admitting, "I was green, not knowing what was involved. It was scary thinking about working with arrangers and an additional 65 people, besides a 4-piece band. But it's opportunity meets preparation. I have always worked at making myself better."

Cavanaugh came to Indianapolis to prepare the 2008 premiere. Ultimately, the gutsy choice became an amazingly successful touring opportunity.

"Even before we opened, Pittsburgh Symphony signed us up," he said. "I credit Jack Everly for that."�

For the ISO Pops collaboration Cavanaugh said he "took a lot of what I learned at the piano bar where everything is spontaneous. It taught me how to connect with an audience."

The goal is to bring the honesty of each song to the fore. "It's about the music and the writers reaching into the audience so each person feels involved at some point if not throughout the whole concert."

Everly and Cavanaugh together choose the song list.

"I then take each wonderful, successful original and enlarge and enhance it, integrating Michael and his fabulous band into the fabric of the orchestrations with ISO players," Everly explained. "My desire is for everyone to forget everything but what is happening during those two hours we are together and to go home with a joyous spirit."

Cavanaugh concurred. "Being on stage and seeing how music can affect people in a positive way is the best part."

This weekend's program, Rock Singers and Songwriters, is a little different from previous collaborations between the Cavanaugh and the ISO. This time around Cavanaugh will leave most keyboard duties to Jamie Hosner and perform most songs on acoustic guitar, standing front and center before the audience.

"I will tell stories about what the songs of Paul Simon, James Taylor, Neil Diamond, John Mellencamp and others from the 1970s and '80s mean to me," Cavanaugh said of the show. "I'll be connecting on a more personal level. It's the logical place for me to go after Billy Joel and Elton John who are grouped together in the public's mind."

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