Jim Caruso is like any other guy who has friends around for a sing-along at the piano once a week. Except in his case, the piano is in one of the most famous jazz clubs in the world and his friends are some of the biggest names in show business. His open mic night, “Jim Caruso’s Cast Party” is a Monday night institution at Birdland on West 44th St in New York City. Up and comers are invited to share the spotlight with the celebrities that stop by.
Caruso does more for the Broadway community than just offer them somewhere to get out of the weather on Monday nights when their theatres are usually dark. He produces a concert series at Birdland which features great songwriters and performers. Recent concerts have featured songwriters Marcy Heisler and Zina Goldrich (Taylor, the Latte Boy), youtube sensation Miranda Sings and Tony winning composer Jason Robert Brown.
Jim and his long time collaborator Billy Stritch also perform in cabaret across the United States and they both travelled ‘round the world with Liza Minnelli before opening “Liza’s at the Palace” on Broadway in December of 2008.
Cabaret Confessional: What was your very first job? Was it theatrical or civilian?
Jim Caruso: My first ‘job’ was about as civilian as it could get. In sixth grade, I entered the fast-paced, glamorous rubber stamp industry. I’m not kidding. I wanted a job, so a friend of my parents hooked me up. It was as exciting as it sounds.
What inspired you to get into show business and was there a point where you realised definitively that this was what you were meant to do?
I am a product of television. I loved Lucy, Dick Van Dyke and Red Skelton. I knew I wanted to entertain folks with music and comedy, just like they did!
What sort of study/training did you do?
I always say that Carol Burnett was my professor. I studied her like a chemist studies the periodic table. But, I did a lot of children’s theater, community shows, and acting classes in Pittsburgh, PA., and when I moved to Dallas, TX, I got really serious with a vocal coach, the fabulous Anne Jackson. She was THE voice teacher to study with if you were in the theater.
Is it true that one of your earliest cabaret shows was with your mother?
Oh, yes. I wasn’t getting any roles in the Dallas theater scene – and was constantly relegated to the ‘ensemble.’ I mean, how many ‘townspeople’ can you play without losing your mind? So I figured, “I’ll do my OWN damn show!” My mother is a wonderful pianist – and had her own radio show when she was in high school. (“Patty Howard’s Black & White Magic!” Anyone…?) We started to put material together – which was uber-sophisticated and very over-the-top for a mother/son act. I mean…Edith Piaf songs? Really? But we finally got a booking to play Happy Hour in a Dallas fish restaurant. There was nothing happy about the act, and the crowd just stared at us with crab claws hanging out of their mouths. By the way, the act was called “Son of a Bitch.”
You toured with Wiseguys, an act that you founded in the 1980s. Who were your influences musically and performance-wise at that stage?
I was completely obsessed with a brilliant vocal/comedy trio from the 70’s and 80’s called Gotham. They were a groundbreaking act that started in gay clubs with Bette, and eventually made albums and played Carnegie Hall. There were three men in tutus singing “At The Ballet.” You could faint from laughing. Also, my friend Billy Stritch was a third of a spectacular act called Montgomery, Plant and Stritch. I’d never heard such harmonies and vocal blend. My goal was to be as funny as Gotham, and as musical satisfying as MP&S. We ended up playing Carnegie Hall ourselves, and opening for Liza, Rosemary Clooney and Joan Rivers. Oh…and we played the White House for President Clinton’s first State Dinner. Not that you asked…
Although you work with a number of great pianists at Cast Party, over the years you’ve developed a strong musical partnership with Billy Stritch. You’ve said that you knew of Billy from Montgomery, Plant and Stritch. Did you work together in Texas or did you meet through Liza?
OH! I guess I answered that to an extent! But Billy and I met in a quasi-seedy cabaret in Dallas. I was part of a duo show with Steve Webber in which we’d do Donny & Marie medleys and songs from “Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.” Billy came in to see us with his two singing partners. After we were introduced, I invited them onstage to do a number. Much to my horror, they were about a trillion times better than we were, but it was the beginning of a life-long friendship!
What do you admire about Billy as a collaborator/MD?
Anyone who has worked with him will tell you that Billy is the best accompanist on the planet. He literally breathes with whomever he’s playing for. He also knows how to play around someone’s vocal weaknesses, of which I have numerous. We both grew up obsessing over television variety shows, so he knows how to put song medleys together like Peter Matz did on the Carol Burnett show. We call them ‘train-wreck medleys,’ when one song goes crashing into the next. We have a lot of the same musical references, too, which is key to what we do together. I’ll mention the “Alice” TV theme song, and he’ll play it. I’ll discuss a certain song from “The Sonny & Cher Show,” and he’ll remember how it was arranged. It’s a very bizarre talent…maybe more of a quirk!
Do you have any new shows of your own in development? You mentioned working on arrangements for a Fred Astaire show a while back. Now that your dancing feet have appeared on Broadway will we see your Astaire show any time soon?
Oy, my dancing feet! Liza Minnelli forced me into being a dancer. How many people can claim that?! When “Liza’s At The Palace” was in the talking stages, the plan was to sing those great Kay Thompson arrangements sitting on stools, bathed in beautiful lighting. That turned into months of nightmarish dance rehearsals involving perspiration and pain, two things that are foreign to me. In the end, of course, I’ve never been prouder of anything in my life. Singing and…um…dancing…with Liza was a compete and utter thrill! That being said, I haven’t been beseiged with offers to join any dance companies or re-create the moves of Fred Astaire. I did one solo act that celebrated the amazing Astaire songbook, which was a lot of fun. But I opened with “I Won’t Dance,” if that tells you anything.
What were the origins of your infamous open mic night Jim Caruso’s Cast Party?
Cast Party didn’t start on purpose. I was doing press for a now-defunct nightclub. I would write press releases for drink specials, which was almost as enchanting as selling rubber stamps. I decided to throw a party for my friends in the space, and everyone showed up, ate, drank, and sang around the piano until dawn. The next day, the manager of the club asked if I’d do it every Monday. I said no. Seven years later, it’s still going strong!
You regularly attract famous names at Cast Party. Do you find that the ‘celebrity’ performers are still willing to get up and sing in an environment that’s not as controlled as they might have become used to?
I think that just might be the attraction. Liza used to have parties in her home, where Tony Bennett, Cy Coleman, Madonna, and Barbara Cook would get up and sing for no reason whatsoever. It was just about the music and the fun. There was no lighting or brilliant sound system, like they were used to. It was music for the soul. Cast Party grew out of that – although now it’s much more of a ‘performance’ than when it started. But I think fancy people love to share their music just like us regular folks, and they know that Birdland is a safe-haven-of-sorts. Marty Short has tried out material he’s about to do on the Letterman show. Phoebe Snow decided to end her professional hiatus and came to us to see if she still ‘had it.’ There’s a packed house of supportive people who are eager to love these performers. What’s not to like?
Cast Party really is ‘open access’ in that you’ll let anyone get up on stage. Have you ever had to refuse someone the chance to strut their stuff?
We rarely have a problem at Birdland. It’s mostly performances by people in the business, or at least, on the outskirts. It’s always my fear that someone will think Cast Party is some kind of drunken karaoke situation.
As host, what’s the trick to handling a performer who hasn’t shone in their performance?
One of my pet peeves is to watch a snarky, bitchy host denigrating a performer. You can imagine how I feel about Simon on “American Idol!” People put themselves on the line – and do their best. Believe me, we’ve had some disasters on our stage. But as host of a party, it’s my job to make each performer feel comfortable, and to somehow let the audience know that I know it was nightmarish for them.
You maintain an entertaining and very gracious manner. What have you learnt about yourself through your role as host at Cast Party.
Listen, I spent my entire life hawking my wares as a singer. The second I put the spotlight on other performers, people became much more interested in me! Where the hell was THAT information the first few decades of my life?! I have learned that I love celebrating talent. It’s so not all about me – although you’ll notice that my name is on the title of the show…!
Who are some of the discoveries you’ve made at Cast Party? People you didn’t know who got up and knocked you off your feet?
There have been hundreds, maybe thousands of those moments! I remember one fabulous woman with a big, black afro coming in and telling me she wanted to sing “Da Doo Ron Ron.” I thought…OK…that’s a choice. She got up and KILLED, dancing and wailing and dazzling the crowd. I asked her who the hell she was, and she explained that she was Lala Brooks, and was the lead singer for The Crystals, who happened to have a huge hit with a song called, “Da Doo Ron Ron.”
You produce a successful series called Broadway at Birdland. What prompted your foray into the business side of show business?
I had the luxury of jamming the best music room in the country with show-folk and the people who love them every Monday at 9:30pm. I went to Gianni Valente, the owner of Birdland, and proposed a Broadway series, Mondays at 7pm. He went for it immediately. I was seeing friends of mine singing in filthy clubs with ear-splitting sound, ridiculous light shows happening all around them, serving overpriced drinks and vile food. I’m thrilled to offer these brilliant singers a space that is run like I think a club should be run. Gianni runs a tight ship, and loves and respects talent as much as I do.
Birdland has been home to Cast Party and Broadway at Birdland for a number of years now. How did you come to choose Birdland as a venue and how has your relationship with the management there developed over the years?
The first couple places where we did Cast Party went out of business. That’ll put a damper on a party. Hilary Kole, a marvelous jazz singer, called me and suggested I look into Birdland. I pooh-poohed the idea, saying it was a world-class jazz club…why would they want my crazy open-mic. She insisted I call Gianni. I did…thank God! Six, almost seven years later, I have to say it’s still a very, very good relationship. I’m sure I annoy the hell out of him with my anal-retentive ways, but he rolls his eyes, tells me to shut up, and fixes whatever I’m whining about. From his angle, I’m bringing in some pretty spectacular talent and packed houses. From my side, I get to play Ziegfeld every week in the best, and most historic music room in the country.
You manage to juggle so many aspects to your career and business. Give me a rundown of an average week in the life of Jim Caruso, performer and impressario extraordinaire.
I love the word ‘impressario!’ Amanda Green is the first person who called me that. It sounds like I should wear a fedora and an overcoat over my shoulder. And I just might. I spend a lot of time at my desk on my five-year-old MacBook Pro. I have to book the series, send the contracts, create the press releases, do follow-up press calls, write the weekly Cast Party newsletter, edit the photos, Photoshop my face, update the Facebook and Flickr sites and have inter-personal relationships with all the talent. Plus, I’m working on a new cd of my own, so it’d be nice if I’d learn the songs. I also book Cast Party all over the country – so there is all of that…travel, hotel, and the search for local talent. In my spare time, I’m studying rocket science and hand-modeling. It’s a lot…but I’m not complaining.
If for some reason show business ended tomorrow, is there any other career you would like to try?
Show business has ended for me many, many times. I’ve learned to do other things. It’s made me better and stronger at what I DO do. I can’t worry about it.
A friend who lives in NYC once told me that she loved the fact that the city was so dense with people, but for that same reason she needed to get out of town now and then to reclaim some personal space and recharge. Where do you go and what do you do to unwind?
I love the rat-race. I love New York. Rewinding to me is enjoying a Coke at Bar Centrale after the theater, and seeing all the celebs. Is that weird? I’m doing exactly what I always wanted to do in the city I’ve always wanted to live in. That’s not to say that a few days in Turks & Caicos would be a bad thing. But after about three days on a deserted beach, I’m ready to type a press release.
We have two great cabaret festivals in Adelaide in June each year. The Adelaide Cabaret Festival and the Cabaret Fringe Festival. If you were Artistic Director of a Cabaret Festival who are the well-known names that you’d invite to perform?
Are you asking me who my all-time favorite acts are? This will get me in trouble, because all of the acts I book are my favorites! I do have a special spot for Christine Ebersole & Billy Stritch, Sam Harris, Amanda Green, Miranda Sings and Chita Rivera…each for totally different reasons. I’m not sure I could book a Festival – it’d feel too limiting! That’s why I have an ongoing series!
Through your friendship with Liza, you were close to her Godmother, Kay Thompson. She was obviously a woman who had a powerful effect on the people she chose to keep around her. She was vocal coach to some of the biggest stars at MGM. What do you think was the most important thing she passed on to her ‘students’ there?
Kay brought jazz to MGM. She was a huge fan of rhythm and blues, and if you listen to her arrangements, you’ll notice that she was way ahead of her time. She essentially brought rap into the culture, with her clever wordplay and scat. When she’d go into it, I’d call her “L.L. Cool Kay,” which made her howl with laughter. Can you imagine a 95 year-old understanding that reference? That was Kay. I think she freshened-up those MGM singers with a whole new sound they never knew they could have. She made them hip.
Given her success in navigating a lasting career through personal and professional ups and downs, what is the most significant thing you have learnt from Liza?
That’s easy. When my trio broke up, I called to tell her. “It’s over,” I said, heartbroken. “Great! What’s next?” was her cheerful response. I was completely floored and didn’t understand for years. But that sense of optimism, of always moving forward and looking for the next big thing, will stay with me the rest of my life.
What is the most significant thing that Liza has learnt from Jim Caruso?
Anyone can learn to dance.