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His Songs, Her Call

Twyla Tharp and Billy Joel are an unlikely pair with a project to match: She's creating a show from his tunes.

June 30, 2002|CHRIS JONES

NEW YORK — In the summer of '75, Brenda and Eddie, king and queen of the Parkway Diner, were still going steady, unaware that deep-pile carpet and a couple of paintings from Sears would not stem their inevitable fall. In the spring of '02, Twyla and Billy, shooting to be the king and queen of a Broadway fall, did not look much like they would be sharing a bottle of white or a bottle of red any time soon.

The stakes for Brenda and Eddie, characters in a rock song called "Scenes From an Italian Restaurant," were merely fictional. But Twyla Tharp and Billy Joel have staked their hefty real-life reputations on "Movin' Out," an expensive and highly unusual new theatrical entertainment that began performances at the Shubert Theatre in Chicago last week and will open on Broadway in the fall. Instigated and developed by Tharp, a woman hitherto known almost exclusively for choreography, the show has no dialogue (and thus no book writer), no incidental music and no original songs. Although "Movin' Out" is rooted in dance, not traditional narrative, it is billed as the story of six friends whose stormy friendships wax and wane through the bucolic 1960s, the agony of Vietnam, and pain and reconciliation in the years that followed.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday July 05, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 5 inches; 210 words Type of Material: Correction
Billy Joel records--A story in Sunday Calendar about Billy Joel and Twyla Tharp was unclear about album release dates. "The Stranger" was released in 1977, but its four hit singles came out in 1978. Joel wrote songs for his "An Innocent Man" album in 1982, but it was released in 1983.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday July 07, 2002 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part F Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 56 words Type of Material: Correction
Billy Joel records--A story in the June 30 Sunday Calendar about the singer-songwriter and Twyla Tharp was unclear about album release dates. "The Stranger" was released in 1977, but its four hit singles came out in 1978. Joel wrote the songs for his "An Innocent Man" album in 1982, but it was released in 1983.

This story has been put together from 31 existing compositions by Joel, the perennial piano man. Tharp says it all began with the central question of what happens to Brenda and Eddie.

And if the song implies that Joel's characters Brenda and Eddie were an unlikely pair, Twyla and Billy seem equally mismatched.

It's a Thursday morning in May at a spiffy new rehearsal studio overlooking New York's 42nd Street, which these days looks more like Downtown Disney than a haven of urban sin. Tharp has opened her rehearsal to visitors from the Midwest. Clearly, this is one aspect of the Broadway process that she does not especially enjoy.

Tharp is tense and Joel is late.

"I don't think we should wait another half-hour for him," says Tharp, a noted perfectionist and self-confessed workaholic who has won two Emmy Awards, choreographed five Hollywood movies (including "Hair" and "Ragtime") and created more than 100 dances for everyone from the Royal Ballet to Hubbard Street Dance Chicago. Since 1965, she has maintained, off and on, her own company of dancers.

"Billy's in the elevator," says one of the production assistants.

Sure enough, Joel finally ambles into the rehearsal studio, spilling coffee and apologies. The night before, Joel was up very late playing the piano, unannounced and without charge, for a group of delighted investment banker types who happened to be hanging out in the lobby of the swanky St. Regis Hotel.

So this morning, when the car showed up at his hotel, he had the blinds down and thought it was still the middle of the night. "Actually," he says with a laugh as he finally sits down in the rehearsal studio, "it was the middle of the morning."

The hot beverage in Joel's hand, where the nails are bitten down short, still is wavering. "I haven't had coffee in so long," Joel says. "I've forgotten how to hold it." Ever on task, Tharp is already moving to the first number, taken from the first act of the show, in which Brenda and Eddie are enjoying their halcyon days.

"This is 1967," says Tharp, setting up the number, "when things were all perfect and rosy." "Summer love," adds Joel.

"Summer love," allows Tharp.

An assistant hits a button and a voice sounding very much like Joel's begins to sing, and a band sounding very much like the kind of musicians you can hear on such Joel albums as "The Stranger" or "The Nylon Curtain" begins to play. Joel looks worried and leans over.

"You do know," he asks, with nary a trace of irony, "that this is not me singing." For "Movin' Out," Joel's longtime musical director, Tommy Byrns, found a singer--Michael Cavanaugh--who sounds enough like Joel that one will have a Joel-like experience. Cavanaugh, who will head an onstage band made up mainly of longtime Joel backers, sings all of the songs in the show.

The recording moves unmistakably into the introduction of "Just the Way You Are." Perched on a folding chair, looking at the dancers with a rather touching combination of awe and pride, Joel begins playing the chords in the air. "I didn't like this song for a long time," Joel will later say, nodding in Tharp's direction. "I thought of it as a chick song. Thanks to her, I like it again now."

A few minutes later, Tharp is setting up another number. She starts to talk about Eddie and Tony fighting together in Vietnam. Tony? That's Anthony, the fellow who worked in a grocery store, savin' his pennies for someday. He is, of course, warned about heart attacks from a note-bearing woman named Mamma Leone and, thereafter, decides he's "Movin' Out."

In this show, Tony becomes involved with the restless Brenda. But Tharp is getting ready to move on to where Brenda and Eddie make up--a scene she calls "The Reconciliation."

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