Photography by Bill Westmoreland
Editor’s note: There is no one more qualified in New York City to curate an issue full of ridiculously talented people than Jim Caruso. He’s also the one man in New York who I take at his word – no questions asked. If he says there’s an artist I need to listen to, seek out, get tickets to see – I do. He’s always the coolest guy in the room, though he’d never admit to it. It’s an honor to call him a friend and to have him and his talented friends all over this issue. – Ryan
Cast Party has been host to everyone from Tony Bennett to Ariana Grande, from Lisa Lampanelli to Liza. Last year, however, the cast of Bravo’s “The Real Housewives of New York City” paid you and the Birdland gang a very memorable visit.
It’s true! Cast Party is like the Ellis Island of Open Mic nights…at some point, they all come through the gates! The “Real Housewives” showed up with bugle beads and a gigantic camera crew. The resulting episode garnered over a million viewers, a ton of Birdland screen time, and a People Magazine piece. It was come-what-mayhem! They all ended up singing, and Billy and I provided backup for Countess LuAnn de Lesseps, which made Pinot-swirling Ramona Singer livid. She began a Ramona-coaster of insults, hinting that LuAnn had personally hired Billy to play for her. LuAnn sniped, “He’s Liza Minnelli’s accompanist, you cow!” which turned into Cast Party Quote of the Year!
Before I knew Klea, her publicist tried in vain to get me to her one-woman Merman show. I kept saying no, because it sounded like my idea of hell, only because I wasn’t so much into Ethel. When I finally saw Klea in action, I couldn’t believe I’d been missing so much fun for so long. She’s one of the most entertaining, intelligent performers on the cabaret and theater scene, and as a Utah native, a fellow Osmond fan. –Jim
What do you bring to the table during a concert?
My calling card, or claim to fame that put me into this world, was a show about Ethel Merman. It was a tribute from one personality to the greatest personality of that ilk. I like songs and the music to be put into a certain context. I like people to go away learning a little bit. I think having a context for a song lifts it for an audience today. I’m thinking of a Gershwin Brothers song called “Sam and Delilah,” which is the first song Ethel Merman sang on Broadway, about 7 and a half minutes before she sings “I Got Rhythm,” which becomes the big hit. So to say that on the opening night of Girl Crazy, George Gershwin is in the pit, and there’s Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Jimmy Dorsey, Glenn Miller, Gene Krupa – all of these guys are in the orchestra pit while Gershwin is conducting – I swear to you, that bit of info gets audiences so excited, as if I have anything to do with any of it, which I don’t. I like people to have laughed and really enjoyed themselves.
We like to say that Natalie has performed 745 concerts at Birdland over the past ten years. It’s more like 30, but that’s not as funny. Natalie was one of my first Birdland bookings, and boy, did she do me proud! With fabulous shows, consistent sell-outs and that thunderous voice, is it any wonder her photo now graces the wall at Birdland? –Jim
You had your third headlining run at the Crazy Coqs in London. What is the difference between a London audience and a New York audience?
A London audience takes a tiny bit longer to realize I want them to laugh. I want them to engage. Part of cabaret has lost meaning and occasionally when I’m doing shows across the country and tell people it’s a cabaret, they think that means stripping. It’s actually about the communication and the connection I love to make with an audience. It’s a complete dialogue; they just don’t have any lines. The audience is your scene partner. So it takes a second longer for the UK audience to know that I want that connection, but once they’re there, they are so fantastic and interested.
I’ve been doing this for a while and I always try to talk about the anecdotal, fun and interesting things about these songs. I just did a Dolly Parton show and I know that some people who showed up knew more about Dolly than I did, some came because of me, and some came because of the room. All of those people need to have an entertaining and good experience.
After I saw Julie Halston’s first one-woman show at “Eighty-Eights,” I bounded up to her and said, “You’re fabulous, and we have to be best friends.” Amazingly, she didn’t call security. We went to dinner, had a ball, and have been yakking and working together ever since. Very few people on the planet make me laugh harder than Julie-Lynn. –Jim
How did You Can’t Take It With You challenge you as an actor?
It’s very physical. There’s a very physical moment in Act 2 where I have to do something on a very steep staircase. So not only do you have to do this very physical thing, but you have to keep the audience in paroxysms of laughter while you’re doing it. That was the challenge. Every night, it is something that I have to condition for. Also, this is an American classic that is so well structured, but it’s fast paced. It’s like a musical. It’s rhythmic. It takes a lot out of you, you have to be on your toes and if you don’t get the timing right, the joke will fall.
This play was written in the 1930’s and we talk about all the same stuff we are still talking about. Russia, taxes, Wall Street, sex, romance, family. Done. Kaufman and Hart. They knew what they were doing.
I first met Billy in a smoky Dallas piano bar in 1982. He wore a piano brooch, big red glasses and was playing better chords on that piano than any human I’d ever heard. We became BFFs, due to our similar sense of humor, mutual love of The Carol Burnett Show medleys and a certain Eydie Gormé torch song. There is no end to the fun we’ve had touring the globe with Cast Party, Liza and our own duo show. He’s one of the all-time best accompanists known to man, and a thrilling entertainer in his own right. –Jim
What’s your favorite part about working at Bemelmans?
I just like the whole vibe of the Carlyle. It’s such a glamorous, old New York hotel. I always tell people, if they want the quintessential New York night, an evening at either the Café Carlyle or Bemelmans fits the bill. There aren’t a lot of places with an environment like that in New York that have great live entertainment. It’s a great vibe, you never know who you’re going to see there. That’s where a lot of the celebrities stay so you get to see stars all the time. But it’s low key so that’s nice.