LA JOLLA — One night three years ago, William Lon Wright was performing his usual mix of recent pop hits and older standards in a quiet piano bar in the Westwood district of Los Angeles.
As he was getting ready to leave, a man walked up and suggested Wright's vocal and piano-playing style was better suited for interpreting show tunes from Broadway musicals, particularly those of the 1920s, '30s and '40s.
"A few nights later, the man returned and gave me nine 90-minute cassette tapes of classic American theater music from his vast library of original cast recordings, which he had been collecting for more than 30 years," Wright said.
"Some of the songs were from popular productions, like 'Blue Room,' from Rodgers and Hart's 1926 musical 'The Girl Friend.' Others were from more obscure shows that had run on Broadway for maybe a week or less. But they were all wonderful.
"And as soon as I finished listening to all nine tapes, I said to myself, 'This is what I should be doing.' "
Wright immediately began learning songs from the tapes and adding them to his nightclub act. Gradually, he learned and added more show tunes he discovered on his own.
By the time he moved to San Diego a year ago to tickle the ivories in the piano bar in the Top O' the Cove restaurant in La Jolla, Wright was singing and playing nothing but songs from America's rich theatrical heritage.
"The people who wrote these songs had a high degree of sophistication and a great deal of sensitivity for beautiful melodies," said Wright, now 36. "And their lyrics are some of the best American poetry there is.
"Instead of standing alone like regular pop songs, show tunes are specifically written to further the action of a play, to have a dramatic impact on theater," Wright said.
"So if you take them out of the theater, their emotions are often larger than life because they were written so dramatically. And this gives the singer-interpreter an opportunity to display a greater range of feelings than found in the average pop song," he said.
The more than 400 show tunes Wright has mastered over the past three years range from Irving Berlin's "I Love a Piano," written in 1915, to contemporary songsmith Stephen Sondheim's "Send in the Clowns," from the 1976 Broadway musical, "A Little Night Music."
Among the more popular selections Wright is apt to perform at the Top O' the Cove each Wednesday through Saturday night are "Blue Room"; Cole Porter's "Let's Do It," from the 1928 musical "Paris," and George and Ira Gershwin's "Changing My Tune," from the 1947 movie, "The Shocking Miss Pilgrim."
"My reason for doing these songs is to elevate the piano bar scene into more of a cabaret, where people listen to the music instead of letting it pass over their heads," Wright said.
"Unlike pop songs, which usually have one hook that's repeated 20 or 30 times, show tunes demand greater attention because they tell a story.
"They're written so concisely--there's so much packed into each quatrain--that unless you listen closely, you'll miss it," he said.
Wright's fans, many of whom are regulars, agree.
"His taste is impeccable," said Susan McQuillen, 41, who has been coming to the Top O' the Cove to hear Wright perform "at least three nights a week" since February.
"It's real obvious that he enjoys what he's doing, and that sort of compels you to listen," she said. "And a lot of these songs are so much more romantic, so much more meaningful, than what you hear in most piano bars."
Born and raised in Houston, Wright learned to play the piano when he was 9. After graduating from Houston Baptist University in 1973 with a music education degree, he taught music in public school for a year before becoming musical director at Houston's Theater Under the Stars, where he arranged scores for 14 musicals, including "Cabaret," "Carousel" and "Annie Get Your Gun."
In 1977, Wright moved to Southern California and hit the piano bar circuit, performing in nightclubs in Palm Springs and Los Angeles. And with one interruption--in 1981, he landed a role in the San Jose Civic Light Opera production of "Funny Girl"--he's been a professional piano man ever since.
Aside from his nightly engagements at Top O' the Cove, Wright said, he "daylights" as a pianist at Nordstrom department store in University Towne Centre.
Last month, he released a cassette-only album of show tunes, "Take Me to the World," that has already sold more than 200 copies, even though it's only available at his gigs.