Keyboard stars of the classic rock era are showcased in an original musical production at the Palace Theatre. The Four Piano Men is a blend of tribute show, concert and interpretive dance featuring the songs of Elton John, Billy Joel, Stevie Wonder and Freddie Mercury. It’s the latest project of the theater’s artistic director, Carl Rajotte.
“These are four artists with really broad audience appeal,” says Rajotte, who oversees Broadway shows but also stages an annual original production, like last year’s Swing Fever. “This is a different side of me that doesn’t get to come out too often, but I’m really enjoying writing these tribute shows. I love music, I love dance, so it’s an easy segue.”
The show is divided into impressions spotlighting each artist. Dominique Scott portrays Wonder and Mercury, while Matthew Friedman plays Joel and John. Care is given to costume and set design, like the silhouette of the Brooklyn Bridge used for Billy Joel’s “New York State of Mind” set. The Elton John segment is rich in the production touches that marked his mid-’70s heyday. “My big thing for Elton was his costumes,” says Rajotte. “He put on a show like Liberace; we’re trying to do it that way. So I picked songs that have a definite image to them … it’s almost like paying tribute to his videos.”
Originally, four different actors were to be cast; Scott was the first pick. “He blew me away,” says Rajotte. “He sounded exactly like him. He came into the piano room, jammed out and I just knew that he was my guy.”
As the principal “Piano Man” for the national touring company of Movin’ Out, Friedman was a natural choice for the Joel role. Then Rajotte watched him cover tunes like “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting” on YouTube. “I liked them even more,” he says. “He really got his feel, his voice, his timbre.”
Rather than search for a third performer, he went back to Scott and asked how he’d feel about trying a few Stevie Wonder songs. “He said, ‘I know all of his repertoire, I had to study it in college.’ He’s fantastic. I didn’t believe he’d be able to pull off both Freddie and Stevie totally differently. So I’ve got these two major headliners that are wonderful.”
Queen’s orchestral rock may seem an odd fit with Joel, John and Wonder, but Rajotte is an unabashed fan of Mercury’s songs: “I wanted to be able to take his stories and flip it and make it a little more artistic than the rest of the guys that we’re portraying,” he said. The Queen front man transformed his instrument, said Rajotte. “You might think it’s boring watching someone sitting at the piano all the time, but Freddie really changed that view.”
The entirety of Four Piano Men is staged and choreographed by Rajotte. He’s recruited top dancers and vocalists from talent-rich New York City for the effort. The dancing, says Rajotte, was inspired by the television show So You Think You Can Dance? “It’s like that, all different styles — tap, hip-hop, contemporary, swing, lots of ballroom, lots of tricks.” The troupe includes Bethany Blanchard, a Rockette in the Radio City Christmas Spectacular.
Leaving out celebrated ivory ticklers like Leon Russell, Jerry Lee Lewis, Paul McCartney and Alicia Keys was hard, says Rajotte. “I could do Piano Men part two, three and four,” he says with a laugh, adding that Lewis’s music may well appear in the tribute show he’s working on for 2012, featuring Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson.