Tommy Byrnes and Dennis DelGaudio rock up Movin’ Out

“We’re not your regular pit orchestra,” declares Dennis DelGaudio, guitarist from Movin’ Out, the Broadway musical that joins Twyla Tharp’s choreography and Billy Joel’s music. “Most of us come from the rock and R&B worlds and hadn’t played on Broadway before.” Adds Tommy Byrnes, the show’s musical consultant and co-guitarist: “We’re a 10-piece rock band on a moving platform above the dancers, so there’s a visual aspect that’s similar to an arena concert.”

Now in its fourth year, Movin’ Out has scored ten Tony nominations and uniformly glowing reviews, and Byrnes (also Joel’s touring guitarist and musical director for the past 15 years) attributes much of this success to the show’s high-energy rock vibe. “Twyla’s initial vision called for singing dancers,” says DelGaudio, “But Billy’s music is based around a piano player with a band, so it made sense to build the show the same way. By having [pianist /vocalist] Michael Cavanaugh act as narrator instead of the dancers singing songs as dialogue, the music wasn’t compromised. The band is the band, and the dancers are the dancers, and that’s what the audience wants. Too many musicals of this genre have failed because they nixed the rock band element.” Adds the veteran guitarist, “Over 150 million people own Billy Joel records, and without disrespecting Twyla’s contribution, it’s fair to say the show’s success hinged on doing his music justice. It’s like that line in Jaws—somebody yells ‘Barracuda,’ and everyone goes ‘huh?,’ but if they yell ‘Shark!,’ everyone goes ‘BWAAAH!’ Billy’s music is the great white shark here, and our job is to keep it well-fed every night.”

Although Byrnes and DelGaudio faithfully recreate signature lines from Joel’s recordings, there was still ample space for embellishment within the show’s rigid framework. “I use dropped-D tuning (D, A, D, G, B, E, low to high) to beef-up certain things,” say DelGaudio. “Suffice to say our ‘Angry Young Man’ is a bit more pissed-off than the original.” He notes that the most dramatic rearrangement sprang from an unlikely source: “Twyla wanted a nastier feel for ‘We Didn’t Start the Fire.’ We played her Marilyn Manson’s ‘The Beautiful People’ and she said, ‘That’s what I want!’ So the song’s I-V-VIm-IV progression mutated into power chords over heavy tom-tom triplets.”

After logging over a thousand performances each, both guitarists keep an open ear for new sources of musical inspiration. “Playing the same thing night after night can become tedious—after a while it’s like doing sit-ups,” jokes Byrnes. “We liven it up by having musical conversations with each other. Maybe Dennis will add a new lick to a solo, and I’ll pick it up and add a harmony. If you don’t mess with things a little, your playing goes stale.”

“You have to be careful to avoid ‘show chops’—knowing the show so well you get an inflated notion of your playing,” cautions DelGaudio. “Doing eight shows a week fosters a sense of discipline, but I need to explore other types of gigs occasionally to break out of my comfort zone. It forces me to listen, reminds me to keep growing musically, and keeps things fresh.”