THE LEADING MEN: Movin’ & Groovin’

News   THE LEADING MEN: Movin’ & Groovin’
It’s Tony time, and tunes are bustin’ out all over because it’s June, June, June. This month we’re spotlighting Michael Cavanaugh, the "Piano Man" of Movin’ Out, with notable quotes from fellow Tony nominees Antonio Banderas and Robert Sean Leonard. Plus, cabaret crooner Jeff Harnar gives his regards to "Broadway."
Michael Cavanaugh
Michael Cavanaugh Photo by Ben Strothmann

Movin’ Out is Twyla Tharp’s thrilling dance musical set to Billy Joel at the Richard Rodgers, but for two hours "that voice you’re hearing in that hall" is Michael Cavanaugh’s. Backed by a hot band, he makes his Broadway debut perched above the stage. When "we’re all in the mood for a melody," this gifted and good-looking singer-pianist belts everything from "Scenes From an Italian Restaurant" to his electrifying encore of "New York State of Mind." For driving the show with his magnificent musicianship, he earned a Tony nomination for Best Featured Actor in a Musical.

Pretty good for a 31-year-old guy from Cleveland, Ohio, who was playing in a Las Vegas piano bar until Joel himself "discovered" him through mutual friends. On Feb. 11, 2001, Joel went to see him perform, and Cavanaugh "almost had a heart attack. The whole place was screaming. Then Billy came up onstage and we did the Beatles’ ‘I Get By With a Little Help From My Friends.’ He was so cool." Talk about "Pressure."

But he’s more than a "Piano Man." This 6-foot devoted dad and husband also is a terrific tunesmith in his own right. He’s got a gift for melody, and his pop songs range from the fun and infectious "Sounds a Lot Like Me" to the haunting, hymn-like "Give It Time." Even Joel raves: "He’s a talented writer who harkens back to another era."

Question: You’re in a Broadway hit, you’ve got a Tony nomination, and you and your wife are expecting your second child. Does life get any better than this?
Michael Cavanaugh: No, I’m a happy man. It’s been unbelievable.

Q: What’s it like hanging out with Billy Joel? I hear you appeared with him at a concert in your hometown before a crowd of 20,000.
Cavanaugh: That was so great. Billy’s been my idol since I was seven. He’s a rock ‘n’ roll legend and yet he’s such a down-to-earth guy. For instance, he threw a Christmas party for Movin’ Out downtown at La Madre. Billy had a little electric piano set up, and he was playing Christmas songs. And we were all singing along: everything from "O Holy Night" to "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." It was really a blast! Q: Considering the rave reviews and success of Movin’ Out, I hope he’s encouraged to write an original musical for Broadway.
Cavanaugh: Billy says he already has an idea for a book. He sounds more excited about it than another pop album. I bet it’d be phenomenal. He’s a storyteller.

Q: Congrats again on your Tony nomination. To me, great singing involves great acting. Do you consider yourself an actor?
Cavanaugh: Yes, because I wear different faces on certain songs. I’m really narrating the story. It’s not traditional acting, but I feel like I’m steering the ship. There are times when I’m talking to [the character of] Eddie and looking at him like he’s a prick. And in "Big Shot," I’m connecting with Brenda, so I am acting.

Q: You’re also a songwriter, and you’ve had some of your material recorded with the Grammy-winning producer Phil Ramone. Tell me about your music.
Cavanaugh: You can definitely hear the influence of the Beatles and Billy Joel in my music, but it’s got a modern twist. I’m hoping to get signed to a major label and I’ve gotten some interest, but if that doesn’t happen, I want to release a CD myself and maybe sell it at the theatre and through my website.

Q: When did you know you wanted to be a performer?
Cavanaugh: When I was seven and went to my first KISS concert. Another major moment was when my aunt took me to Broadway. I was 13. I saw The King and I with Yul Brynner, 42nd Street and Little Shop of Horrors. My aunt says I said, "I’m gonna be on Broadway someday." And by 15, I wanted to be a rock star.

Q: Showbiz can be rough. Ever thought of throwing in the towel?
Cavanaugh: Yeah. When I was 19, I had surgery on my [vocal] cords. I was burnt out on playing for drunks in bars and competing with the dartboard for attention. I gave up singing. So I went to school to become a piano tuner. After six months of opening up dusty old pianos, I thought, "What am I doing? This is crazy!"

Q: It was around this time that you met your future wife, right?
Cavanaugh: I met Karin at 18, and we married at 21. She had me wrapped [up] pretty quick. It’s weird because I thought: "I’m never getting married." I was ready to live the crazy, rock ‘n’ roll life. I was gonna drink, go on the road and get into all kinds of trouble. But then I met Karin. She was so pretty and awesome. We shared a lot of the same beliefs. We’re both born again Christians and we just clicked.

Q: You two have an adorable six-year-old son Matthew. Is he musical?
Cavanaugh: Yeah, he taught himself to play the beginning to Billy’s "Goodnight Saigon" all by himself. And he likes to sing, but he’s so silly. Matthew is like a little SpongeBob SquarePants. All we do is run around and wrestle.

Q: And is he excited about getting a baby sister?
Cavanaugh: Very. Her name’s Mikayla Christine, and she’s due Sept. 21. Matthew always hugs Karin’s tummy because he wants to hug his sister.

Q: So you’ve made your Broadway debut. Still wanna be a rock star?
Cavanaugh: Sure! Some people become a rock star, then do Broadway and wind up in Vegas. It’s almost like I’ve done everything in reverse. I’ve played Vegas, now I’m doing Broadway, and I still have this rock star dream. I’d love to sing my own songs in front of thousands of people and perform at the Grammys.

Well, with Cavanaugh’s charisma and talent, I’d say: Just "Give It Time."

For more info and snippets of his songs, visit

Antonio Banderas: This sexy Spanish movie star scores a perfect ten with his Broadway debut in Nine, but he’s no stranger to the stage. Back home, he was a member of the National Theatre of Spain. Asked about the first Broadway musicals he ever saw, Banderas recalls Big Deal ("It was a Bob Fosse show that wasn’t a success, but I loved it") and Song and Dance, starring Bernadette Peters. Dream roles? "The king in The King and I. I remember Yul Brynner in the movie. And Bernardo in West Side Story.’’ Since Nine is based on Fellini’s "81/2," could he see it being turned back into a film? "Absolutely, and I would love to do it!"

Robert Sean Leonard: In the riveting revival of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, he plays Eugene, the sensitive son with a touch of the poet, but do you remember Leonard’s previous role on Broadway? He made his Broadway musical debut by playing Harold Hill to beat the band in The Music Man. What was that like? "After doing Stoppard, O’Neill and Shaw, it was fun to be in a show that’s sweet and light and had audiences cheering,” says the handsome Tony winner (The Invention of Love). "It was like being in the Bahamas. At one show, one of the dancers noticed that a couple had left [Music Man] during the intermission. I told her, "Honey, try doing Iceman Cometh. You wind up counting the people who stay." Though Leonard still prefers plays, would he do another musical? "Yeah! I’m working on it and talking to Melissa Errico."

If the Tony Awards ever honored a cabaret act that best celebrates the thrill of musical theatre, Jeff Harnar would win for The 1959 Broadway Songbook. Easily the best theme show I’ve ever seen, it features the ebullient baritone crooning a tune from every musical on the Great White Way that season, from At the Drop of a Hat ("Have Some Madeira, M’Dear") and Destry Rides Again ("I Say Hello") to West Side Story ("Tonight"). Framed by a sweet boy-meets-girl story, it was a terrific tour de force for Harnar’s acting, singing and showmanship, not to mention Alex Rybeck’s amazing arrangements and Sara Louise Lazarus’ deft direction.

Though he first performed this act in 1991 at the Algonquin and recorded it live for Original Cast, the two-time MAC Award-winning vocalist will be reviving a couple of its songs in his new show, Dancing in the Dark, Fridays, June 13, 20 and 27 at 8 PM at Don’t Tell Mama. In fact, Harnar and Rybeck will toast their 20th anniversary of cabaret collaboration with selections from all eight of their "Songbook" shows, which include salutes to Comden & Green, Cole Porter, the Gershwins and Sammy Cahn.

In those two decades, the 5-foot-8 singer from Manhattan Beach, Calif., has sung at Carnegie Hall, Rainbow & Stars, the Russian Tea Room and the FireBird Café, accompanied by his multi-MAC-nominated musical director.

Their very first show was on June 13, 1983, at Palssons (now The Triad). Harnar, 43, says, "I don’t know why we click, but we really do, like brothers. I bring a lot of ideas to the party, but Alex has the genius to pick out the good ones. He has impeccable taste." Rybeck, 45, who also accompanies Liz Callaway and Karen Mason, adds, "Jeff’s a great entertainer, but he’s also such a good and loyal friend. And though everyone thinks of Jeff as the king of theme shows, we’ve always done a variety of stuff. People also have no idea how truly wacky and silly Jeff can be, and I love him for that."

For example, when Harnar "got depressed [about showbiz] and stopped singing" in the early 80’s, he worked as Phyllis McGuire’s houseboy. But that later inspired him to write a parody of a song from Working, which he called "Just a Houseboy." "To this day," he says, "my dad thinks no show has matched the brilliance of that number." A big film buff, Harnar also used to do a cabaret tribute to "Valley of the Dolls" in which he recited from the novel and made a movie-inspired mobile from coat hangers.

The NYU grad has always kept his sense of humor, even when he learned last year that his record producer, John Jerome, who was supposed to put out his latest CD, "Dancing in the Dark," was arrested for embezzling over $3 million from Alliance Capital.

"When I first heard the news, I laughed hysterically," he said. "Then the reality of it sunk in. I had three months of Jerome-subsidized [gigs] in London, Chicago, Boston. All of a sudden, I had no work, and all these people who worked on my CD were owed thousands of dollars. It was horrifying. To Alex and me, these are our friends. Now I’m paying them off and hope to have my CD out later this year or early next."

Like any performer, Harnar has had many highlights, like the night Liza Minnelli invited him to do his Vincente Minnelli theme show in her apartment: "It was great. I was singing Judy Garland songs to Liza, while her dog, Lily, who looks like Toto, was running around my feet." And then there have been the fiascos, like the time his then-Norwegian boyfriend booked him to do a midnight show in a jam-packed disco in Oslo: "Everyone was rocking their brains out and I’m introduced [to sing Cole Porter]. It was so bad!"

Though Harnar came to New York to be on Broadway, he’s happy with his home in cabaret: "I love to perform and direct. I also love the marketing end of it. I love writing and creating. And musically if you can sing songs you care about and you’ve somehow touched people’s hearts or minds, I can’t imagine anything more fulfilling!" For more information, visit

BROADWAY: Brent Barrett is back in like Flynn in Chicago on June 2, and he’ll be joined by Melanie Griffith, who’ll make her Broadway debut as Roxie on July 11. . . . On June 6, Cabaret will play host to a new Emcee: Jon Secada. . . . James Barbour, the Rochester, big and tall, of Jane Eyre, fills in for Jeff McCarthy Lockstock and barrel in Urinetown from June 13-July 6. . . . Adam Pascal leaves Aida on June 15 and Richard Blake steps in as Radames from June 17-29, but Will Chase (The Full Monty) takes over on June 30 with Toni Braxton.

OFF-BROADWAY & MORE: The York Theatre Company will salute rising musical-theatre writers with NEO, a star-studded concert, on June 9 at 7 PM at St. Peter’s Theatre, and it’s loaded with leading men: Bryan Batt, James Barbour, Matt Bogart, Matt Cavenaugh, Darius de Haas, Deven May, Matthew Morrison, Adam Pascal, John Tartaglia and Max von Essen. (212) 935-5824. . . . The Broadway Musicals of 1960 brings back the era of Camelot (and Bye Bye Birdie) on June 9 at 8 PM at Town Hall. And what a cast! Brent Barrett, Tovah Feldshuh, Eddie Korbich, Marc Kudisch, Doug Ladnier, Liz Larsen and Lisa Vroman. (212) 840-2824. . . . Chaz Esposito will make a "Splish Splash" playing Bobby Darin in Mack the Knife, the new musical about the legendary pop star. It opens June 22 at St. Peter’s Theatre. (212) 239-6200.

CABARET: Matt Cavenaugh, who really earned his spurs in Urban Cowboy, steps into the Broadway Spotlight on June 2 at 8 PM at the Ars Nova; (212) 977-1700. . . . Jim Caruso hosts his celebrity-studded Cast Party on Mondays at 10 PM at the King Kong Room, but the merry musical comic will kick off Mondays at 8:30 there on June 2 with his own show, followed by Johnny Rodgers (June 16) and Mark Nadler (June 30). Billy Stritch’s June 23 gig, meantime, has been rescheduled for Aug. 4. Turns out that the club has been booked for a special event starring a onetime sax player named Bill Clinton. (212) 921-1904. . . . Two-time Bistro Award winner Tim Di Pasqua has had his sensational pop songs sung by Tom Andersen, Scott Coulter, Alix Korey and Phillip Officer, and Stephen Schwartz calls him "one of the freshest and most melodic writers" around. You’ll be singing Di Pasqua’s praises, too, if you catch him June 17 at 9 PM or June 28 and 30 at 7 PM at The Duplex; (212) 255-5438. Visit … Ruben Flores, a hot, charismatic crooner from Mexico, made his New York cabaret debut only a couple of months ago, but he’s already a must-sí. His vibrant vocals and Latin allure landed him the role of Gaston in Beauty and the Beast back in Mexico City, but here he delivers sultry Spanish songs about "amor" by the score, along with Porter, Rodgers and Wildhorn. He’ll sing again June 25 at 9:15 PM and June 30 at 7 PM at Danny’s Skylight Room; (212) 265-8133. Visit

Got comments or questions? E-mail me at

Until next month, let’s hear it for the "boys"!

Wayman Wong edits entertainment for the New York Daily News. He has been a movie and theatre critic for the San Francisco Examiner and a Drama Logue Award-winning playwright.

Jeff Harnar, with one of his favorite things: a Broadway cast album
Jeff Harnar, with one of his favorite things: a Broadway cast album Photo by Ben Strothmann
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