Jim Caruso, host of ‘Cast Party,’ detail of photo by Bill Westmoreland
By PAM HARBAUGH
After day-dreaming about an exciting after hours haunt where local talent heads to a piano bar to sing at an open mic, I thought it would be a good idea to talk with the big name in this field — Jim Caruso.
While at heart and profession, Mr. Caruso is a singer who has performed in big nightclubs such as Bemelmans Bar at The Carlyle Hotel and the Colony Palm Beach Hotel in Florida…and on stage with Liza Minnelli…and at Carnegie Hall…and, oh yes, The White House (!), he’s found himself in the unexpected position of the idea man and director of the popular “Jim Caruso’s Cast Party” held Mondays in New York City’s famous venue, Birdland Jazz Club.
If my fantasy were to have any “legs,” I’d have to talk with Mr. Caruso to see what Brevard would have to do to make the daydream a reality. I emailed him a request for a phone interview and, to my delight, he responded promptly with a generous ‘YES!’
He was certainly enthusiastic, explaining that a “few years ago” he brought such an experience to Mad Cow Theatre in Orlando. I asked if he had used local Orlando-based talent for those open mics.
“Oh yeah!,” he said. “That’s the whole point.”
Mr. Caruso has been doing this for 13 years, so if an entrepreneur out there wants to give this a try, best listen to him.
“It turned into a life-changing thing for me,” he said. “Who knew? I was just a singer with a night club act, opening for stars…Somehow this just happened and the Broadway community specifically took a liking to it and started to support it immediately.”
Here are his suggestions:
To make such a venture a success, first you need the venue, then you need a great piano player.
“There are piano bars here in town,” he said. “We’re at Birdland which is one of the most prestigious music venues in the world. And Billy Stritch is at the piano. One of the best players in the country, Liza’s musical director and for other super stars…Those performers wouldn’t come in if we had a mediocre piano player.”
The talent, huge names such as Chita Rivera, Michael Buble, Natalie Cole, Tony Bennett and, yes, Liza as well, revere Mr. Stritch’s musicality and flock to him in order to have a chance to perform with him. (That’s the thing about musicians — be they vocalists or instrumentalists, they LOVE to get into the music with each other.)
“They know that if Billy is at the piano, they are protected,” Mr. Caruso said. “There is no rehearsal. A lot of singers don’t like singing with those they haven’t rehearsed with.”
It is a “high octane” evening which has to be supported by the performing arts community. It’s also “unbelievably important” to have a regular, consistent time and that the venue advertise the event.
Then there are the singers who pop in to perform. A patron never knows who she will see that evening.
“What makes it so fun is the variety,” he said. “That’s why I think Cast Party has been a hit. It’s not just a piano bar or karaoke where people get drunk. If that were to happen, I’d shoot myself!
“And we put our foot down, we don’t allow ballads….if you’re a beginner, a ballad is endless (and) no one wants to sit and listen to an evening of three hours of ballads.”
And, as stated on the Cast Party website, no speeches allowed: “Seventeen-minute personal journeys or in-depth biographical information on ‘Mister Cole Porter’ is strictly prohibited and should be inflicted only on your psychologist or the audience at your cabaret act.”
While the pianist can serve as host, at Birdland it’s Mr. Caruso who takes on that role. He opens with a song performed with Mr. Stritch.
But, he said: “You have to have a host who has the ego to celebrate other talents.”
“The rest of the night is all about the performers,” he said. “We have 30 singers every Monday. That’s a luxury. But the evening is not about us. I’m not up there singing every other song and hawking my CDs. It’s not a self-aggrandizing thing. That was the biggest surprise to me. I’ve been trying to be a well known singer my whole life. the minute I turned the spotlight onto other people, I got more recognition.”
For those heading to NYC…Jim Caruso’s Cast Party begins 9:30 p.m. Mondays at Birdland, 315 W. 44th St., NYC. $25 cover, $10 food/drink minimum. Call Call 212-581-3080 or visit castpartynyc.com or visit birdlandjazz.com.
SIDEBAR: Mr. Caruso and Mr. Stritch will perform at The Royal Room in the Colony Hotel in Palm Beach in October and November. This is a nightclub act, NOT a “Cast Party” experience. You can get more information on that by visiting thecolonypalmbeach.com and hoping that their website has been updated.