5 Things I learned from the Billy Joel show at MSG.

If you follow me on the ol’ Twitter, then you know that I took my wife to see Billy Joel at Madison Square Garden for Valentine’s Day.

We had a blast, singing along, slow dancing and reminiscing about my youth.  (I saw him live at the Worcester Centrum in 1990 and my high school sweetheart broke up with me during the second verse of “Uptown Girl” – good teenage times).

But it wasn’t all fun and memories of broken 17-year-old hearts.  See, whenever I see any form of live entertainment, my eyes and ears are always open, trying to steal something that I can smuggle back to the shores of The Great White Way.

And when you see a master “entertainer” like Billy, it’s like getting a graduate degree in showmanship.

Here are five things I learned from Billy Joel:

1. “It’s a Fielder’s Choice!”

Several times throughout the night, Billy let us, the audience, decide the next song in the set list.  He’d look at a cheat sheet, and then shout to the audience, “Fielder’s choice . . . would you like to hear, “Downeaster Alexa” (applause) or “Say Goodbye to Hollywood” (bigger applause)?

We helped choose our own musical adventure.  It was fun (every time we heard “Fielder’s choice” my wife and I got all anxious . . . how could we choose!) and it helped bond the audience into one, giant unified body, since we were all helping design our evening.

The modern audience wants to participate more in the entertainment experience.  They don’t just want to sit back and watch anymore.  The next generation of shows will involve even more audience interactivity than ever before, especially since the audience and the creators will have grown up on video games, the ultimate interactive entertainment experience.  (Click here for more on my thoughts on that!)

2.  Give me a story song if you want to sing along.

“Brenda and Eddie were the popular steadies, and the King and The Queen of the Prom . . .”

“Now John at the bar is a friend of mine, he gets me my drinks for free . . . ”

“Anthony works in the grocery store, saving his pennies for someday . . .”

Notice anything about these three BJ lyrics?  Names, characters . . . stories.  I tweeted that night that every one of Billy’s songs are mini-musicals. He writes classic “story songs,” which is exactly what every musical needs.

Many celebrated pop writers have come to Broadway and crashed and burned.  Why?  Well, there’s a a big difference between writing a 3-minute song and a 3-hour musical.

And that difference is the ability to write stories about people . . . people that you want to root for . . . underdogs, like The Piano Man, Brenda and Eddie and Anthony.  I mean, don’t you just want The Piano Man to make it big?  And Anthony to get out of that grocery store?

You know who else writes great story songs?  Elton John.  Huh.  Funny how he is probably the most successful pop writer to transition to the stage.

3.  Less shows = longer run

Billy has been in residence at MSG for a few years now.  And he only does one show a month.  Rather than do the traditional seven shows and out, Billy decided to do fewer shows and stretch out a longer run.

Oh, and he shares his space with many other “shows” (like the Rangers and the Knicks).

Sound familiar?  It’s the trend that has been operating for a few years Off Broadway (I did multiple ‘less-than-8-a-week’ productions and found that the fewer shows I did per week, the more profitable they were).  And even Broadway has taken a shot at it (Lewis Black, etc.).

I’d expect to see more and more of this on Broadway soon enough.  And if you’re producing a show, especially Off Broadway, look at the model yourself.  Because the concept of doing 8 shows a week is purely arbitrary.

4.  Give the people what they want.

Billy faked us out.

Throughout the night, he played a lot of “B” sides of singles, and “deep tracks” on albums that many in the audience didn’t know.  But he liked ’em.  So he did them.

And then he said goodnight.

But wait!  He came back on stage for two extended encores and a mega-mix of all the greatest hits that we were waiting for all night long.

He’s such a tease.

Billy knew why most of us were there, and he didn’t disappoint.  In fact, he left us walking out the door on a giant high, with his big hits ringing in our ears.

If you’re doing an adaptation of a book, movie, music catalog or whatever, make sure you deliver the elements in that source material that your audience fell in love with in the first place.  (I remember when The Addams Family added the famed theme song late in its development when they realized the audience was dying to snap their fingers to its familiarity.)

This doesn’t mean make a carbon copy of the source material.  Make your adaptation original and unique.  As written in this terrific book about writing musicals, embrace the spirit of the original, and use that as your inspiration to create something never seen before.

5.  Sushi.  Yum.

I hadn’t eaten when I showed up at MSG.  And, well, news flash, but I’ve given up Buffalo Wings and Coke.  Yep, I’m trying  NOT to eat like a 14-year-old boy anymore (which is hard, because I’ve been eating like a 14-year-old boy since I was an 11-year-old boy).

Lucky for me, MSG had a dozen eating establishments, including a fresh sushi stand . . . so I didn’t even have to use any of my cheat meals!

Am I saying we should have sushi and beer and pretzels at Broadway musicals?

Absolutely not.  BUT, I caught wind of a petition the other day in the UK that is trying to get all food banned at the theater.

It’s important for us to remember that the theater is not about the people that created it.  It’s about the people that consume it.  We make it for the audience, not for us.  We can’t be selfis.  And if they’ll have a more enjoyable experience because they have a sippy cup in their hand, or a bag of (silent) pretzels in their pocket, then I’m for it.

Let me reiterate . . . I’m not for expanding what we’re doing on Broadway or Off.  Just for keeping it the same.

And for all you regional theaters and summer stock theaters that are preventing folks from bringing a Coke to their seats?  Catch up, y’all.  Pick up a bottle of Resolve in case there’s a spill and let ’em bring the stuff to their seats.

A hungry or thirsty person is not a happy person.  Is that who you want seeing your show?

So Billy reminded me to, well, let ’em eat cake, for all you care.


The next time you attend a live entertainment event, whether it’s a concert at MSG or a cabaret at Don’t Tell Mama’s, a boxing match in Atlantic City or a horse race at Belmont, take a look around and see what you can learn and apply to your own show.

And if you know what’s good for you, go see Billy Joel.  Just don’t bring your high school sweetheart.

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Ken created one of the first Broadway podcasts, recording over 250 episodes over 7 years. It features interviews with A-listers in the theater about how they “made it”, including 2 Pulitzer Prize Winners, 7 Academy Award Winners and 76 Tony Award winners. Notable guests include Pasek & Paul, Kenny Leon, Lynn Ahrens and more.