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by Michael Portantiere

Party On!

  • Liza&Jim-edit.jpg

    A really fun party always seems shorter than it actually is, so I shouldn't have been surprised to hear that Jim Caruso's Cast Party has been going on for eight years. Stop in at Birdland (315 West 44th Street) any Monday night around 10pm and you'll be part of a unique open-mic event that showcases some of the world's top entertainers alongside talented newcomers.

    On Thursday, February 17 at 8pm, Cast Party will migrate to The Town Hall for a one-night-only "best of" show that will benefit Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. In addition to such regulars as Natalie Douglas, Jenna Esposito, and William Blake, the evening will be sparked by the talents of Chita Rivera, Liza Minnelli, Larry Gatlin, Marilyn Maye, and other stars of equal magnitude. Tickets are priced at a very reasonable $75, $50, and $25, which means that you can see the original Spider Woman and friends for only a small fraction of what you'd have to pay to see Spider-Man. I recently spoke with Jim Caruso about this red-letter event.


    BROADWAYSTARS: Cast Party at Birdland is always a blast. You must be jazzed about bringing your act to a large concert venue.

    JIM CARUSO: It's very exciting. We've never done a "best of" night like this before. Scott Siegel called me and offered me a night as part of his series at Town Hall, and I thought, "I can't believe we've come to such a point in eight years that this is even a possibility." I'm so proud of the way Cast Party has taken off. You know, I tried to have a singing career my whole life. I beat the bushes, and I certainly did some nice things with my trio, but it wasn't till I turned the spotlight on other people that my career sort of took off. I never planned to host a weekly open-mic event; I threw a party at a nightclub that I was helping publicize, and everybody came and sang till three in the morning. The next day, the manager called me and said, "Would you do that every week?" I said, "No!" And here we are.

    STARS: You've been at Birdland for seven of the eight years, but you did some venue-hopping before that.

    JC: We started at The Supper Club [in the Edison Hotel]. Then they slammed their doors on us and we had to find another place really fast, because I also had concerts booked there. So we did Cast Party at Ars Nova for a month, and then for a month at a place called The Pink Room. Then we found our place at Birdland, and it was home sweet home right from the start. Evidently, there was a need for this. Who knew? I think what makes us unique is having musicians like Billy Stritch and Tedd Firth at the piano, and Steve Doyle on bass -- plus the fact that we're at Birdland, a world-class music room with an extraordinary piano and sound system. I certainly didn't create the open-mic concept, but we do it with extremely high quality. And because of my Rolodex, we have superstars coming in and mixing with housewives who get up and sing songs they've written about varicose veins. I always say that "some of the greatest singers in the world perform at Cast Party -- also other people." In a way, the "other people" are what make it fantastic. If it were all Broadway stars, they wouldn't seem so special individually.

    STARS: There have been some awesome drop-ins at Cast Party over the years. People like, umm, Tony Bennett.

    JC: Yes! He came to see a vocal group that performed for us, and he stayed all night. At one point, he got up on stage and said, "You kids are keeping the American Songbook alive! I can't thank you enough!" People in the audience were fainting. It was unbelievable. We've had other crazy drop-ins, like Phoebe Snow and Janis Ian. Nichelle Nichols from Star Trek showed up one night. She had been on The View that day, which was Martin Luther King Day; she talked about her friend and mentor, Martin Luther King, then she sang a gorgeous version of "Summertime." Thrilling. Oh, and Betty Comden made her last public appearance at Cast Party; she got up and sang "100 Easy Ways (to Lose a Man)." I'll never forget that.

    STARS: I was happy to read that some of Cast Party's "usual suspects" who aren't necessarily household names are going to be featured in the Town Hall event.

    JC: Absolutely. We only have a certain amount of time, and we needed to have a lot of big names to sell tickets. I'm over the moon that Liza and Chita are doing the show, and Larry Gatlin, and Marilyn Maye. But we are definitely going to have some of our regulars -- people like Jenna Esposito, who's been a regular pretty much every Sunday for seven years. And William Blake: He came in from Dallas and sang at Cast Party one night. Michael Feinstein was there, and he called me the next day and said, "Do you think that incredible guy would want to do Carnegie Hall with me?" I said, "Umm, I'll bet he would!" That was a huge thing to happen to William during his first year in New York. He's got an extraordinary voice.

    STARS: Who else will be in the show?

    JC: We're going to have Countess Luann de Lesseps from The Real Housewives of New York. She's the one who had a big dance hit with a song called "Money Can't Buy You Class." Now she wants to start a singing career -- and she's going to start it at Town Hall, sharing the stage with Liza and Chita and Marilyn Maye. We also have some unique acts: Rudi Macaggi is a comedian-slash-acrobat who was on America's Got Talent last season. He does the most bizarre act; he balances himself on five chairs, with his head on top of a basketball. There will definitely be some Ed Sullivan moments in this show. All we need is Topo Gigio.

    STARS: I'm sorry to say that I'm old enough to get that reference! I can't let you go without talking about the one-and-only Miranda Sings, who's also on the bill.

    JC: I saw her YouTube videos before she became a big deal. I started sending her hilarious videos to everybody I know, and they started sending them to everybody they know. She went viral and now has millions of hits. Anyway, I emailed her in California and said, "I think you're incredibly entertaining. If you're ever in New York, it would be great if you'd come to this Cast Party thing I do." I got an email back from her about seven minutes later. She said, "Oh my God, I know who you are! Just so you know, that's not me in those videos, it's just a crazy character I made up. I'm a pretty girl, and I can really sing!" About three weeks later, she got on a plane and came to Cast Party. I hooked her up with Danny Reichard, and she gave him a "voice lesson" on stage. That was the first time she performed live as Miranda Sings. Then she did a solo concert at Birdland, and now she works all over the world, packing theaters. She's a great person to have at Town Hall because she really started at Cast Party, and now she actually has a career -- much better than mine.

    STARS: Well, the whole thing sounds pretty fab. Do you know yet what the big-name stars are going to be singing in the show?

    JC: Yes, but I'm not going to tell you! Suffice to say that they're going to do things you want them to do. Nobody will be disappointed. We're still putting this together. I'm not sure if Liza and Chita are going to perform together, but wouldn't that be historic? Billy and I have talked, and we really want to keep this evening as informal and impromptu as it is at Birdland. We'll have some special guests who don't want to be announced, and I think there may some people who come right up from the audience like they do at Birdland. That's part of the fun. I don't want it to feel slick, because that's not who we are.


    [To purchase tickets for The Best of Jim Caruso's Cast Party at Town Hall, go to TicketMaster.com, call 800-982-2787, or visit The Town Hall box office at 123 West 43rd Street.]

    Published on Saturday, February 12, 2011

    Michael Portantiere has more than 30 years' experience as an editor and writer for TheaterMania.com, InTHEATER magazine, and BACK STAGE. He has interviewed theater notables for NPR.org, PLAYBILL, STAGEBILL, and OPERA NEWS, and has written notes for several cast albums. Michael is co-author of FORBIDDEN BROADWAY: BEHIND THE MYLAR CURTAIN, published in 2008 by Hal Leonard/Applause. Additionally, he is a professional photographer whose pictures have been published by THE NEW YORK TIMES, the DAILY NEWS, and several major websites. (Visit www.followspotphoto.com for more information.) He can be reached at [email protected]

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