Q&A with Movin' Out Tour's Piano Man, Darren Holden

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At just sixteen years old, Irish-born singer, songwriter and stage performer Darren Holden toured the U.K. as the frontman for his own band.  Some years later, he's still rocking – Holden has played some 1,000 performances as the Piano Man in the national tour of Movin' Out, which wraps in Birmingham, AL on January 21st.

As the Piano Man, Holden - a successful recording artist who made his Broadway debut in Riverdance in 2000 - provides the melodies, memories and emotions that drive the characters of Twyla Tharp and Billy Joel's hit dance musical collaboration.  Perched above the dancers and backed by a 10-piece band, Holden performs the classic Joel songs accompanying a tale of Long Island friends and lovers whose relationships are strained – and lives scarred - by the Vietnam War.

Holden, whose newest album "Roadworks" is now available, recently discussed Movin' Out and his career as a singer/songwriter in an e-mail interview.

MC: Congrats on the success of the Movin' Out tour, and on the release of your new album!  On January 21st, you'll be playing your final performance as the Piano Man in Movin' Out.  What has been most rewarding aspect of your experience with the show?

DH: I think it has been the way critics and audiences all over the USA and Japan accepted and praised my interpretation of Billy's songs.  I never wanted to do an imitation of him as there is only one Billy Joel, and thankfully, after he heard me for the first time on Broadway, he told me to just take his material and make it mine. He was very cool like that.

MC: You've played more than 1,000 performances in the role, on Broadway and on tour! How did you keep your performance fresh and spontaneous, particularly in the last few hundred performances?

DH: I would do subtle changes vocally and musically every other show, and the boys in the band would follow me and if it worked, we would keep it in for a few months until I did something new.  That's what I loved about the Movin' Out band - they were always up for a challenge and always met it!  Also, you never lose sight of the fact that every show is like opening night and has to be as fresh as the first one.

MC: Also, did you gain any particular insights into Billy Joel's music and lyrics that you didn't have when you first started as the Piano Man?

DH: I learned that Billy's lyrics speak to people of all walks of life.  Rich, poor, black, white.  He has a magical way of making the listener believe that the song is just about him or her.  That's very rare these days.

MC: Did you work very closely with Twyla Tharp when you first started in Movin' Out?  In what ways did she guide you with song interpretation and in bringing the Piano Man - whom the audience only sees singing and playing the piano - to life?

DH: Twyla was present at my final audition with the band. She really drove me hard asking me to play a certain song and then change to a different song. I must have gone through 12 songs - I guess she wanted to be sure I knew them all! I believe she was happy with the preparation I had put into the role on my own.  I would rehearse 8 hours every day and then go watch the show every night for a month before I started. She was very complimentary. I still have the little note she left me from opening night of the tour in Detroit.

MC: The Piano Man doesn't have direct interaction with the dancers.  How were you able to successfully establish a dynamic between the performers dancing below you and yourself?

DH: I started to make eye contact with them early on in the tour, and become more involved emotionally with the characters they were playing.  If they were going through a rough scene in the show, my expression would mirror that and I think it connected me to them more so than just being the guy above them singing for two hours.

MC: You performed on tour in Japan, as well as in the US and Canada.  The show, which is set during the Vietnam years, concerns a very turbulent era of American history.  Were there any ways in which audience response differed from country to country, particularly in relation to Movin' Out's political themes?

DH: Audiences all over were universal in their praise of the Vietnam element in the show.  There was never a night when we wouldn't get a huge roar of approval after "Goodnight Saigon," or see people wiping away tears during "Elegy." Audiences realized that this is a part of American history that won't go away and in order for the show to succeed, it needed to be in there.

MC: Prior to Movin' Out, you made your Broadway debut singing in Riverdance - another dance-heavy show that, like you, has an Irish heritage! Do you have any favorite memories of that experience?

DH: Ah yes, indeed.  Without Riverdance, I would not be where I am now.  I am forever grateful to Bill Whelan, John McColgan and Moya Doherty for the great opportunity they gave me and for believing in me enough to make me lead vocalist.  I guess my most special memory is the first day I performed the lead role and as I turned to the audience during "At the Edge of the World" I spotted my mum. Her face told it all.

MC: Did you learn any step-dancing along the way?

DH: Believe it or not, I was a silver medal step dancer in Ireland when I was 13 years old!  I did a bit of dancing at the start of Act Two, but thankfully no more than that!

MC: Let's talk a bit about your new album, "Roadworks."  You wrote its songs over the course of two years while on tour with Movin' Out.  What's the concept behind the album, and how do you feel it expresses you as an artist?

DH: "Roadworks" was recorded in hotel rooms around the US and Canada while on tour with Movin' Out.  Fans wrote into my website over and over, asking when the new album was coming out.  My collaborators - Movin' Out saxophonist Bryan Steele and guitarist Denny Blake - and I sat down and whittled about 60 songs down to 10.  Two of the songs were written by Billy Joel's bandleader and guitarist Tommy Byrnes who also produced three tracks. So far the CD has been selling extraordinarily well and I am hoping for a major label release later this year.  I like to write about everyday situations like life, love, loss, happiness.  

MC: You're known for performing everything from pop to country.  Who are some of your songwriting influences?  I'm guessing Billy Joel would be an obvious one!

DH: Absolutely! Also, Elton is another.  Brian Wilson, Richard Marx, Paul McCartney, Jeff Lynne, Barry Gibb.  The list goes on and on. But for me, one man stands head and shoulders above all others, and I hope to one day record an album of his material - Jim Steinman.  Check out my demo of the Steinman classic "Surfs Up" at www.MySpace.com/officialdarrenholden.

MC: "Through Hell and High Water," released as a single, was written in honor of the victims of Hurricane Katrina.  Was writing and performing that a very emotional experience for you?

DH: Yes.  I, like millions of others around the world, was horrified by what I was watching on the news in the aftermath of the tragedy, and one of the women who survived the ordeal said that she had been "Through Hell and High Water."  I think I had it written in 5 minutes and Bryan Steele put the finishing touches to it and did a wonderful production.  Every time I sing it, it stirs up painful emotions.

MC: You've been performing since your teens, and started a rock band at the tender age of 16, I read!  Has the transition from a successful rock singer and recording artist to a stage performer been an easy one?

DH: I guess as a kid growing up, my parents instilled a love of all genres of music in me, whether it was Elvis, Glen Campbell, Mario Lanza, or John McCormack.  I had some stuff to learn about being a stage performer for sure, and I am glad of that. Now I am very disciplined and know how to look after myself as a singer.  To be honest, this has been the best period of my career.

MC: Do you plan to do more theatre, or to focus more on singing and songwriting?

DH: I hope to do all three, if possible.  I would love to do more theatre, and I am hopeful that somewhere out there is someone with a great concept for a show that I would be perfect for.  I am open to all ideas.

MC: Finally, you've performed in front of George W. Bush and Laura Bush as well as in front of over 70,000 people at a San Diego Chargers game.  Which brought out more nerves for you?

DH: To sing at the White House for the President was beyond words, to be honest.  A magical moment that will stay with me always.  To sing the Anthem in front of 70,000....exhilarating!!  It was the greatest moment of my professional career.  And yes, that made me more nervous.  I mean, what do you do if you forget the words in front of that many people!!

For more information on Holden, visit www.darrenholden.com.  For more on the Movin' Out tour, visit this link

Photo #1 by Joshua Waldron

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