Jim Caruso Brings Together Stars and Up and Compers at Birdland’s Monday Night Open Mic

“Jim Caruso’s Cast Party” has been bringing music and razzle dazzle together at an open mic variety show at the legendary Birdland Jazz Club every Monday night since 2003.

| 08 Jun 2024 | 01:15

Superstars of showbiz hit the stage alongside up-and-comers, serving up jaw-dropping music and general razzle-dazzle on the famous Birdland Jazz Club stage at Jim Caruso’s Cast Party.

“I’m the ringleader of the entire affair, and my best friend and musical director, Billy Stritch, holds court at the ivories,” said Caruso, who has been running the show at Birdland every Monday night since 2003. “The ‘Symphony Orchestra’ also includes Steve Doyle on bass and Daniel Glass on drums, who are two of the best musicians in the world.”

“The real fun starts when the audience participates in the onstage festivities. Broadway legends, jazzers, cabaret divas, starry-eyed tourists, and kids right off the bus storm the stage to entertain. If you have a voice, a dream, and some sheet music, your Cast Party moment awaits,” says.

Reflecting upon when he started 21 years ago, did he ever think it would still be going strong today, Caruso chuckles, “I wouldn’t have believed it in a million years. It’s been a very happy show biz fluke.”

“When we celebrated our 20th Anniversary last year, Mayor Eric Adams proclaimed it “Jim Caruso’s Cast Party Day,” the State of New York named the date “Cast Party Appreciation Day,” and the New York City Council celebrated the show “for it’s outstanding contributions to New York City and the American theatre.” Isn’t that crazy? Believe me, none of that is regular fare for an open mic night!”

Speaking to the array of different entertainers that have performed he says, “We get to meet some extraordinary instrumentalists and variety performers. We’ve been entertained by tap dancers, acrobats, jugglers, bagpipe players, whistlers, hula-hoopistes, impressionists, and ventriloquists! It’s like a neo-Ed Sullivan Show!”

Max von Essen, who stars as Billy Flynn on Broadway in the production of Chicago says, “For me, Cast Party means New York. It means showbiz. And every Monday it’s a surprise. You never quite know what you’re in for, but I always know I’ll run into great friends and witness some incredible talent.”

I asked von Essen, who has had such a successful career, why he participated in open mic night?

“To be honest, the idea of “open mic” has always kind of terrified me. It’s easy for me to get onstage and play a role, but it’s way harder for me to sing and be myself. Cast Party has been an incredible way to overcome that fear. I’ll never fully overcome it; I’ll always have a little stage fright, but I think that’s a good thing,” he said.

Tamar Springer, the daughter of Philip Springer, was there in the audience. I asked her what brought her to Cast Party? “I have been friendly with Jim Caruso since he interviewed my dad, “Santa Baby” composer Philip Springer, for “Pajama Cast Party” during the pandemic...While in New York, going to Cast Party at Birdland was a priority,” she said. “I have seen Cast Party 3 times in Los Angeles, but never before in New York.”

Ada Pasternak, a classically trained violinist who discovered her ability for songwriting after a bad breakup, sang her moving song “2024”. I asked her what it is like as an artist to have a venue like Cast Party at Birdland?

“Well, I just recently found out about Cast Party so it’s been fun and inspiring for sure. I’ve met some wonderful people and made new friends! It’s so great to have the opportunity to showcase my talent in front of new audiences on such a legendary stage.”

DeBorah Sharpe-Taylor, a former singer in the Supremes, described how she end up up singing at Cast Party. She told us, “I happen to be a Tony Award voter in from California, and walking home from observing a Broadway show, I noticed the bright, happy, welcoming, smiling face of Jim Caruso on the building inviting singers and others to come join the Cast Party, so I got on the list. Now, if I’m in New York and free on a Monday or if they are in Los Angeles (which they sometimes are)... I’m there.“ She told me that an open mic evening is important because “performers need to perform to keep their “chops” ready for the next opportunity.”

She shared her path to stardom with us: “It was 1977, and someone heard a demo I had sung at a recording studio and inquired who the singer was. So I got this call to the studio, met the guy, and he took me to this other studio, which turned out to be Stevie Wonder’s Studio. Stevie proceeded to play for my audition. When he played the last note, he said ‘Supremes’; I didn’t know at the time that they needed a singer, but his folks introduced me to their folks, and the rest is history! I went from rags to riches, from working as a temp at The Atlantic Richfield Company to traveling first class, with pictures, autographs, and instant celebrity status, touring as the third member of the Supremes with Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong.

When I asked Caruso if anyone famous would be there next Monday, he said, “I have no idea! Cast Party is an open mic night, so I don’t usually know who is coming until they walk through the door. But our stage has been home to folks like Liza Minnelli, Natalie Cole, Martin Short, Ariana Grande, Tony Bennett, Ariana DeBose, Carol Channing, Donny Osmond, Jeffrey Osborne, Darren Criss, Chita Rivera, Kenny Loggins, Michael Feinstein, Jonathan Pryce, and all the Real Housewives of New York City.”

Do you have any memories of someone you had never heard of who performed at Cast Party and made it to stardom? “A thirteen-year-old theater kid from Florida used to jump up and sing Aretha Franklin songs. She was adorable, funny, did impressions, and charmed us all. That kid is now one of the biggest pop stars in the world...Ariana Grande.

“Similarly, a fourteen-year-old Charlie Puth used to entertain us with his extremely beautiful and intelligent original songs. It’s been a joy to watch his path to superstardom! Ariana DeBose stunned our audiences long before she was an Oscar and Golden Globe winner. Like Ari and Charlie, she had that certain ‘it’ factor you can recognize immediately!”

Quite a few success stories have started with an impromptu Cast Party performance,” he said. “I remember Stephen Schwartz hearing a friend of mine sing, then making a beeline to suggest a Wicked audition. It’s such a warm and supportive audience so that performers can shine on that stage. The fact that the Cast Party Symphony Orchestra accompanies them doesn’t hurt! It’s the perfect setup for onstage success.”

And Caruso’s an enthusiastic booster of them all. “There is brilliant talent everywhere,” he says.