Jim Caruso's Cast Party
Another stand for the 'extreme open mic'
If the term "open mic" fills you with dread, Jim Caruso has your back. The cabaret veteran, who cut his night-club teeth singing in Dallas, has been hosting a weekly showcase where anyone can perform for seven years running, but his is no marathon of ear-numbing self-indulgence. It's his own cast party, with all the festive air that term implies: relaxed atmosphere, banter between host and guests, upbeat numbers (no ballads allowed), and staggering levels of talent. For his regular Monday installments at legendary Manhattan jazz club Birdland, the cream of Broadway talent routinely drops by, and his first Los Angeles version at the Magic Castle counted Melissa Manchester, Jo Anne Worley, Cybill Shepherd, and Joely Fisher among its participants. (Response was so strong that Caruso will return there in late May for what may become a monthly series.) Twice, Austin Cabaret Theatre mastermind Stuart Moulton has lured Caruso and partner-in-Cast-Party-crime Billy Stritch to Austin to give us a local edition, and they're returning May 20 and 21 for a third round. (Warning: This reporter has been invited to sing.) In advance of that occasion, Caruso explained to the Chronicle what makes Cast Party unique.
Austin Chronicle: You very pointedly call what you do a party and not a show. Why the distinction?
Jim Caruso: I never set out to run a three-hour show. That sounds like a nightmare to me. If you put it on paper, it sounds like everything I would not enjoy as an audience member. But if you add the elements of conversation and interviews – "Where are you from? Why are you here singing? What got you here?" – that's fun. Yes, Liza Minnelli comes in. Yes, Martin Short comes in. But there's also the housewife from Commack, Long Island, who wrote a song about pollution. What got her here? Instead of just song after song after song, it's much more fun to have conversation.
AC: Are there essential ingredients to Cast Party that makes it work not just in New York but in L.A. and Austin and wherever?
JC: The high quality of musicianship that we have on stage. That's what makes it more than just another piano bar get-up-and-sing. To have Billy Stritch, the guy who plays for Liza, and all these superstars at the piano – you're singing with one of the best players in the world. And the upbeat quality of it – to have a host and musical director who are upbeat and fun and positive. There's nothing bitchy about it. There's nobody judging. The audience never boos. It's always supportive and always fun-loving. That's a little unusual. Those things are what make Cast Party like an extreme open mic.
AC: You've built such a community around it in New York. Is it tough going to cities where you don't know the community or who will show up?
JC: Everybody is from somewhere. And everybody who comes into Cast Party in New York is from somewhere. They didn't grow up on Broadway. I did an open mic in Dallas for 10 years, and those open mics were unbelievable. We had country; we had jazz; we had theatre singers; we had classical singers. I was able to bring in these four girls I knew that were just starting in little, weird restaurants in Richardson called the Dixie Chicks. So everybody is from somewhere, and I have no qualms that there is brilliant talent – just as brilliant as in New York – in Austin, in Los Angeles, in Chicago, in Provincetown. Of course, there's great talent in all these places.
AC: And it's still fun for you after all this time?
JC: I hate it. It's agony. I want to eat shards of broken glass. No, I love it. I wouldn't be doing it if I didn't. Nobody's getting rich off of this. Yet.
Jim Caruso's Cast Party runs Thursday & Friday, May 20 & 21, 8:30pm, in the Kodosky Lounge at the Long Center for the Performing Arts, 701 W. Riverside. For more information, call 462-2287 or visit www.austincabaret.org.