More or less every Monday evening since 2003, singer and bon vivant Jim Caruso has taken his place onstage, picked up a microphone, and launched into the theatrical grab-bag get-together known as Jim Caruso's Cast Party
Caruso, who hosts the weekly open mic night at Birdland nightclub in Manhattan, walked Playbill through a typical Monday fête: “The doors at Birdland open for Cast Party around 9 PM. Broadway legends, jazzers, cabaret divas, starry-eyed tourists and kids right off the bus [get ready to] take to the stage and entertain each other. If you have a voice, a dream and some sheet music, your Cast Party moment awaits. Hopeful performers line up to chat with me about material, and I start to get a sense of what the night holds.”
After the adventurous audience members takes their seats, order up a cocktail and nosh, the show is off and running.
Caruso says, “Billy Stritch and the Cast Party Symphony Orchestra (Steve Doyle on bass and Daniel Glass on drums) perform a swinging standard and show off their considerable talents. They introduce me, I sing a quick ditty, then explain what Cast Party is all about. From that point on, it’s all about the guests who have volunteered to entertain us with their impromptu brilliance. Everyone is asked to perform one fun, upbeat song, which keeps the audience engaged, and the energy high. The performer has a quick chat with the band while I cavort with the audience, then they sing their heart out. The evening shows off superstars and upstarts, musical geniuses and occasional weirdos…but everyone is cheered and celebrated equally like it’s a showbiz democracy! After about three hours of come-what-mayhem, everyone leaves Birdland happy and thoroughly entertained.”
He isn’t shy about naming his favorite guests from the long list. “Anyone who has spoken to me for five minutes knows that my goal in life is to be an Osmond Brother. As an only child, I grew up watching them, being mesmerized by their tight harmonies and begging my parents for siblings. When Donny Osmond stormed the Cast Party stage, sang his head off, then offered me Honorary Brother status, my life was made. And then there was Carol Channing. After joining me on stage, and gabbing about arts education (I’m not even kidding), she launched into the ‘Let me go, Ephraim’ monologue from Hello, Dolly!. Miraculously, Billy Stritch was right there to lead her into ‘Before The Parade Passes By.’ She performed the song like she was center stage at the St. James in 1964. People were gasping, and I was a big, sobby mess.”
The format has proven to be remarkably durable. But Caruso says he didn’t necessarily originally plan it that way. “I certainly didn’t go about concocting an ‘extreme’ open mic variety show. I threw a party at a now-defunct nightclub and everyone showed up and entertained each other until the wee hours. I remember standing in a packed room watching someone sing at a very early Cast Party, and thinking, ‘Holy crap. This could be something. Look how happy everyone is.’ The next day, the manager asked if I’d do it every Monday, when the Broadway shows are dark. I said yes, and my life changed for the better.”
Now, all these years later, he said, “We just do our job week after week. Then someone comes up and tells me that they come to NYC once a year, and never miss Cast Party. From Kentucky. Or Sydney. Or Finland. That’s when you realize that what’s happened has become a part of people’s lives…of people’s history. I hate to sound corny, but in the world’s turmoil, it’s a tiny ray of light that reminds us of the beauty people can create on their own. It’s all about a wonderful venue, a grand piano, some swell musicians and that all-important open mic. Like Oprah says, ‘Everyone wants to be heard!’”
Caruso and Stritch have also taken the show on the road, and celebrated talent in London, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, San Francisco, Chicago, Austin, Dallas, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Miami, and Delray Beach, as well as very special all-star events The Town Hall and Jazz at Lincoln Center in Manhattan. Cast Party has been honored with a MAC Award, a Bistro Award, and a Nightlife Award.