First Love

Special Features   First Love After the success of his first Broadway venture — Movin' Out — Billy Joel's back in a composing state of mind

When Billy Joel was a little kid — "I don't know, four, five, six years old" — in the Levittown section of Hicksville, Long Island, every Fourth of July his family would watch "Yankee Doodle Dandy" on "Million Dollar Movie." He'd see Jimmy Cagney singing and dancing and kicking up his heels as George M. Cohan, and would think: "That looks like a real good job."

Not quite 50 years later — June 8, 2003, Tony night — Billy Joel found himself at a grand piano on a raised platform in the Father Duffy triangle in Times Square, singing all the New York songs he could think of, including "Give My Regards to Broadway" and, finally, to kick off the three-hour Tony broadcast, his own "New York State of Mind" — "with these people on Broadway going by, same as every day, and the buses going by at eye level, and all those tourists thinking: 'Of course, New York City, where a guy's singing "New York State of Mind" at a piano in the middle of Times Square, just like always.' I'd come full circle. My own "Yankee Doodle Dandy" moment."

Actually, The Piano Man's more particular moment of triumph had come a half-hour earlier, when the 2003 Tony Award for Best Orchestrations went (pre-broadcast) to Billy Joel and Stuart Malina for Movin' Out, the hit show of songs by Joel set to choreographic pizazz by Twyla Tharp (herself a Tony winner that night) at the Richard Rodgers Theatre.

"As a matter of fact," Billy Joel would later say by phone from temporary residence on the waterfront at Sag Harbor, while his house in the Oyster Bay area was, he dearly hoped, nearing the end of construction — "I've been thinking a lot lately about George M. Cohan in the scene where he's retired and explains the headline 'STIX NIX HIX PIX' to those kids in that jalopy, and then starts thinking about going back into the business with his partner."

Crouched knees-up on a high stool, stroking his goatee, Joel had told the press in the Rainbow Room across the street from Radio City Music Hall the night of the awards, "My songs don't need me anymore. They have a life of their own. I'm just sitting there, watching myself, saying, 'That's my shit.' It's those dancers who are killing themselves, thrilling stuff, risking life and limb." But for all that, having had a taste of Broadway glory, Joel is now, like George M. Cohan, thinking of becoming unsemi-retired. "I'm no longer compelled to write pop songs, but what I'm hoping to do once the house is finished is move in, set up my piano, and start composing again — my first love. Much as I want to retire out of this crazy life, I also want to write music."

What he has in his head is a book musical about the music business. "I was always told, 'Write what you know.' Well, I know the music business, just the way Mel Brooks knows the movie business. I'm thinking of a whole history of rock 'n' roll."

A laugh over the phone. "Everybody wants to be a musician," he says. "I could write songs based on the entire milieu. And there's one thing I've learned: The secret of success on Broadway is collaboration. My participation [in Movin' Out]" — he has remarked, tongue in cheek, now and again — "was to say, 'Okay.' After that I stayed out of the way. [Twyla Tharp] is a visionary woman. But you also need sound people, lighting people, costume people, props, musicians, publicists, producers. You can't do this in a vacuum."

Joel had heard of but had never met Twyla Tharp when, a couple of years ago, "I got a message that she wanted to speak to me about doing, quote, 'a project.'" She invited him to come see videos of some of her choreography. "I watched, and said, 'Oh, my God,' and she said, 'Come see it live.' I still had no idea of the premise she had in mind, but I knew that a lot of my music had rhythmic movement, syncopation, counter-rhythm, half-time, double-time, tricky stuff."

On its way to Broadway Movin' Out had its ups and downs, particularly after the first negative critiques from Chicago. "When the reviews were insulting, we just ignored them. From the others, we learned. Twyla learned. She cut to the bone, cut to the chase. What I loved was the risk inherent in the whole project. She took this crazy idea, this fiasco, turned it 180 degrees, and made it work. She did that."

Early on, the choreographer had said to Joel, "I don't know if you're Italian, Jewish, Irish, or what." He'd replied, "My family's Jewish, my friends are Italian and every woman who ever broke my heart was Irish." Now, on the phone, the 54-year-old kid who once thought James Cagney had a real good job says, "All this would make a good movie, wouldn't it? Who's going to play me?"