If you love theater, you can love theater anywhere. Jim Caruso has proven that with “Cast Party”. While its home is the Birdland Theater on 44th St. in Manhattan, Jim takes the show on the road as well. Just as Jim and Billy returned from a California trek, “Un-Block The Music” spoke to Jim about the start of Cast Party and also how the famed Birdland Jazz club continues to embrace and expand on Broadway themes.
(Photo: by Bill Westmoreland)
“Cast Party started as a fluke. It was not my intention to be schlepping open mic nights all over the country,” Jim laughed. “I was doing public relations for a night club. I threw a party one night.” There was a piano, and all of his friends all ended up around the piano singing, and it lasted until 4 in the morning. The next day, the manager called and asked Jim if he would do that every Monday. “I said ‘no, that’s crazy.’ He said, ‘just do it, and see what happens.’” He did, and indeed people came.
While that original space closed as did another and another, Cast Party kept on! Then, finally Birdland called Jim and said, “we hear something is going on that we would like to be involved in,” and the rest is history. That was 17 years ago. “We have been at Birdland every single Monday since. Before Cast Party, I tried forever to be known as this entertainer. I did some exciting things, built my name a little bit, but nothing really caught fire until Cast Party. And, I noticed that the second I put the focus on the talent of other people, other people found me more interesting. That was a life lesson!”
The Birdland Jazz Club has been around since 1949 when they played host to musicians like Charlie Parker. However, not long ago, owner, Gianni Valenti was given the opportunity take on the basement of Birdland, according to Jim. “He asked my opinion. ‘Should we build a Yoga Studio? A Recording Studio? Or should we expand on what we have built with Broadway? With the success of Cast Party, I started to bring in Broadway performers and began producing ‘Broadway at Birdland”. This space would expand on that.”
The Birdland Theater finally opened this past September, and “Un-Block The Music” was invited. Not only is the venue beautiful and quaint, the sound is amazing. I have been chasing the sound designer, Robert Polanco since then. I think he is a little shy when it comes to speaking with the press. But, kudos to him! It’s a fabulous sounding space for not only Broadway, but for everything from cabaret to dance, comedy, drag, and burlesque.
Opening night, I was able to enjoy, vocalist Natalie Douglas, “Anastasia” star Max von Essen, singer and trumpeter Benny Benack III, singer/songwriter Gabrielle Stravelli, and tap dancer Luke Hickey…and all with the great Billy Stritch on piano.
Who is Billy Stritch? He is described by Birdland as one of the premier singer-pianists on the New York and national jazz and cabaret scenes. He began his career in Houston, Texas, where he formed the vocal trio Montgomery, Plant and Stritch which lasted until 1990. A chance meeting with Liza Minnelli in March of 1991 resulted in her asking him to create vocal arrangements for “Liza Stepping Out at Radio City Music Hall”. Those arrangements turned into a 25-year collaboration with Liza. Billy also performed on Broadway in the 2001 revival of “42nd Street” and in the off-Broadway revue “The Best Is Yet To Come – The Music of Cy Coleman”. He is best friends with Jim, and has played piano for Cast Party for The last 17 years!
How does Cast Party work? Jim explains. “People show up around 9 o’clock. I am standing there with a pad and paper, and people sign up. It’s amazing. Every week at 9:05, we swear no one is coming and we have had our last one, but by the end of the night we have seen 20-25 singers. Some are superstars and others you would never care to have on stage again. Hilarious people, jazz people, cabaret singers, chorus kids, you name it; they all come.” (http://www.castpartynyc.com/)
But, New York is not the only place for Cast Party. They go on tour! “New Yorkers are such snobs,” Jim jokes. “It’s not the only place for musical theater. There is fabulous talent everywhere. Columbus, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, …It’s always exciting.” Normally when you go out of town, you may wonder where to go to hear interesting people. Well with Cast Party, “they come to us. How lucky am I? We meet the locals. The most talented people in town.” And the ages start as young as college, with students who may be studying musical theater.
The participants and audience in New York varies as well. What is the mantra for this blog ???? “Un-Block The Music.” Birdland’s Theater is a great place to expose yourself to all genres of music. Jim agrees with my rants. “I hate it when people of a certain age talk about music as if there is no good music being written anymore. They were saying that in the 1950s.” Listen to everything once! Not everything has to be on your playlist. Jim said, “When ‘Hamilton’ opened on Broadway, I got a text from an 80-something friend of mine saying, ‘this is the greatest thing I have every seen in my life. I didn’t know I liked hip hop.’” Precisely.
To get off my soapbox, the moral of the day is to check out Birdland Jazz and Birdland Theater. See it all!