Michael Cavanaugh’s earliest memories of growing up in the suburbs of Cleveland are of banging a snare drum so loudly and so often that his parents made it disappear, even though they had given it to him as a gift. But his distrust and frustration with his parents for taking away his greatest joy was abated at the age of 7, when his mom bought a piano and he started hitting the keys on that instead.
A precocious pianist who could pick up the best music of the 1970s easily by ear, Cavanaugh spent years afterwards mastering the songs of the two best piano men in the pop music business: Billy Joel and Elton John. Yet even he didn’t realize as a child that this passion would pay off with a thriving career in which he received both a Grammy nomination and a prestigious Tony nomination for Best Actor in a Musical in the smash Broadway hit “Movin’ Out” (for singing and playing the greatest hits of Billy Joel).
He parlayed that experience into touring the world to perform Joel’s songs with symphonies, and since then has added the best tunes of Elton John to his symphonic repertoire. He’ll be joining the Pasadena POPS this Saturday night at the Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanical Gardens in Arcadia, as they perform “The Music of Elton John Featuring Michael Cavanaugh.”
“I’ve been doing this show for nine years, starting in 2010, after starting the symphony shows of Billy in 2008,” says Cavanaugh. “I would say each has its own challenges, because Billy and Elton are different types of piano players.
“Elton might have influenced me more as a piano player. I think the difficulty level is about the same. This is music I grew up listening to everyday. It’s in my blood and it comes out flowing naturally. It’s like I’ve been preparing for this my whole life. Years from now, looking back they’re both going to be seen as legends, but honestly they’re apples and oranges.”
The concert will feature numerous hits from the beloved “Rocket Man,” including “Crocodile Rock,” “Tiny Dancer,” “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” “Bennie and the Jets” and “Candle in the Wind,” backed by both the orchestra and Cavanaugh’s own rock band. The chance to play for thousands at each stop is a long way from when the 47-year-old was pounding out their hits in a dueling-pianos bar in Vegas in the early 2000s.
“I was in a dueling piano bar in Vegas and I got to know Billy’s tour manager,” Cavanaugh recalls. “Billy came to town a couple days before a concert there and with 15 minutes notice I was told he was coming to hear me. I didn’t know there was a Broadway musical going on. All I knew was I was meeting a musical hero.
“By the end of my set, Billy was on the other piano, so we jammed together that first night and hit it off,” Cavanaugh continues. “Later, I heard about the musical and Billy wanted me for it, but I still had to audition for Twyla Tharp.”
Tharp was the legendary choreographer who conceived of telling an epic story of life and love using only the songs of Joel and the dramatic moves she trained highly skilled dancers to perform. Cavanaugh had to fly to New York and meet all the producers as well as Tharp herself to land the job.
“When you come in with the Piano Man’s thumbs up, it’s a really good start,” says Cavanaugh, referring to Joel. “But Billy wasn’t extremely involved at that point in the planning, so if [Tharp] had turned on me he would have probably let it go and moved on to someone else.”
The massive success of the play, in which he performed more than 1,200 shows in three years, enabled Cavanaugh to become friends with Joel, visiting his home and attending one of his weddings. He only met Elton John once, while he was hanging out backstage at one of Joel’s and John’s many joint concerts, but understands Joel well enough to offer a theory about why Joel has notoriously refused to release new pop albums since “River of Dreams” in 1993.
“I don’t think he’s lazy,” he says, in response to a reporter’s opinion. “I think Billy still writes, he just doesn’t want to put it out there anymore. Maybe he feels he’s said everything he’s had to say. Do I want him to write more music? Of course I do, but he’s not fading out because he’s still selling out stadiums.”
Regardless of which musical master he’s performing the songs of, Cavanaugh is happy to be here in Pasadena. He previously performed with the POPS three years ago with an evening of Joel’s tunes and has fond memories of the Arboretum setting.
“Pasadena is awesome, and I’m looking forward once again to seeing the ‘Fantasy Island’ house at the Arboretum, because it takes me back to my childhood,” says Cavanaugh. “They’re a great group, and in the LA area I can tell the symphony fans get the pop thing, which is great”
Michael Cavanaugh performs with the Pasadena POPS at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the LA County Arboretum and Botanical Gardens, 301 N. Baldwin Ave., Arcadia. Tickets are $10 to $150. Visit pasadenasymphony-pops.org.