“I started putting these shows together as a job, but it almost feels like community service at this point,”
That’s Jim Caruso talking about Cast Party, the weekly “extreme open mic” shows he’s been hosting at Birdland in Manhattan since 2003, and brings to Feinstein’s at the Nikko later this month.
Caruso, who has his own regular singing gig at Bemelman’s bar at the Carlyle Hotel and has had an eclectic show business career—including back-up singing and dancing for Liza Minnelli on Broadway—has found an unexpected niche for himself as the emcee/impresario (“I hate that word!” he objects. “It makes me think of myself in a full-length fur coat.”) of Cast Party.
“Cast Party is the biggest piece of my life right now. After all these years of wanting to be a singing superstar, the thing that I’m most successful at is turning the spotlight onto other people. One of my friends calls me ‘the talent whisperer.'”
“I’m obsessed with great talent and I love meeting people who are willing to put themselves out there, on the line.”
At Birdland, Cast Party takes place on Mondays, commonly dark nights for Broadway shows which means the talent pool includes hundreds of talented professional singers from their companies. Which means it can be a particularly daring move for aspiring amateurs who come to the club and put their names on the evening’s sign-up sheet. It takes a lot of guts for a housewife from Long Island to get up on stage after someone who regularly plays clubs like Feinstein’s.”
Caruso opens each show with a musical number of his own and then assumes the hydra-headed role of cheerleader-coach-fanboy for the rest of the evening, cracking wise with the self-appointed performers and egging the audience on without a smidgen of snark.
“It really feels like a party,” he explains. “All of the songs have to be upbeat—no ballads—and the environment is super supportive.
It’s not a contest like American Idol or the Voice on television. I’m really not comfortable with the idea of judging talent.”
In fact, Caruso aspires to bringing a version of Cast Party itself to cable TV or a high-production value internet channel, showcasing a mix of unknown and celebrity performers without the gimmickry and artificial melodrama of the current singing competitions. “I’m having conversations with a new network currently,” he hints.
While many Idol contestants have gone on to featured roles on Broadway, Caruso points out that moves in the other direction are few and far between.”There’s no place for Broadway talent to sing on a television series these days. There’s nothing like Ed Sullivan or even the Rosie show.”
For his two San Francisco Party performances, Caruso says he’s stacked the deck with some of the Bay Area’s best musical talent. And while hardcore local theater and cabaret-goers may be familiar with them, Caruso provides a great opportunity to see three or four of them on the same bill, accompanied by plenty of insider show business banter. But there’s still a chance you’ll see the breakout performance of a housewife from Daly City—Caruso’s been recruiting performers through his Cast Party website and social media channels.
Here’s Jim Caruso fielding quickie questions on PBS…