Interview: Michael Orland Enjoys/Loves Being Continuously Booked & Always Giving Back

One of his next shows in Los Angeles will be his Open Mic Event at the Write-Off Room March 22nd

By: Mar. 01, 2024
Interview: Michael Orland Enjoys/Loves Being Continuously Booked & Always Giving Back
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Interview: Michael Orland Enjoys/Loves Being Continuously Booked & Always Giving Back

The consistently busy musical director Michael Orland books gigs on both coasts juggling the multitude of vocalists all vying to have his piano expertise to accompany them. One of his next shows in Los Angeles will be his Open Mic Event at the Write-Off Room March 22, 2024. Michael managed to answer a few of my queries during his drive to Palm Springs.  

Thank you for taking the time for this interview, Michael!

So we’re talking while you’re driving to Palm Springs for a gig. Whom are you playing for?

Tonight, I just have my open mic. Then I come home tomorrow and I'm off on a cruise for a week to play for some fun people. Then I go back to Palm Springs February 28th. I’ve got a couple of rehearsals with Luci Arnez. I’m doing a show with her in Sedona, Arizona on the second of March and then I have more shows in Palm Springs. It's gonna be fun.

You stay pretty busy. Have you ever had to juggle multiple bookings at the same time?

I do. But it's fun. I find it very fun. I love all that organization stuff and I'm actually going to be in Palm Springs literally from April 1st to the 11th doing shows and I have one night off that whole time. It literally all just works out most of the time.

Lucie Arnaz called me, because I fill in for her regular musical director Ron Abel a lot whenever he's not able to do it. She actually called me and said, ‘I just need to know if you're available. I just got a call to do this gig in Sedona, Arizona on March 2nd. If you can't do it, I'm saying no.’ And I was like, ‘You're not gonna believe it. But I have to be in Palm Springs on March 4th. And it works out perfectly.’ It just most of the time works out like that. Once in a while, I've had to turn down a really great gig because I would never get out of a gig last minute for anybody. I just wouldn't ever do that to anybody.

Good for you! You are a much in demand musical director and accompanist for a plethora of Broadway vocalists. Why do you find time to perform for open mic nights so often?

I have to tell you, I just started doing this open mic thing in, in L.A., in Palm Springs about two years ago when the owner of Oscars downtown Palm Springs called me and asked me if I wanted to do my own show. ‘No, thank you. I'm not doing my show. but I would like host an open mic.’ I really haven't done it except for playing the piano bars in New York when I was coming up in the early 80s.

This can be fun. It'll be fun. And it literally turned into this huge successful thing. I get a lot of the same regulars in Palm Springs. It's all so many retired showbiz folk from L.A. and New York. It's the most fun, the most loving, generous audience. It's also a place for a lot of my students from L.A. They drive in. I have at least seven or eight people driving in tonight to come sing because it's just a venue for them to get to perform at. It's just been really fun, and I love doing them. Then I started doing them in Vegas and San Francisco. I've got one coming up in L.A. in March at the Write-Off Room. I was doing them at Vitello’s pretty regularly. They were very successful. It gives everybody a chance to get up and sing something. I love it. It's very little prep work and it's just all fly-by-the-seat of your pants. I love when someone comes up to me and says, ‘Do you know so and so?’, and I go, ‘No, but I'm about to learn it.’ I carry my iPad with me that I can access almost any song ever written. If I don't already know it, I love winging it as they say. I love going, ‘Oh, you wanted a different key? Let's do it.’ It’s just something I love doing and so the open mic thing has been so fun and successful for me because I just love it.

So you don't rehearse with any singer beforehand?

Once in a while a singer will come to me for a private session before. You can do a half-hour session and say, ‘You know? I want to do the open mic night next week.’ But at least 60 to 70% of the people I've never met, sometimes never rehearsed with, never done anything with. I just love that part of it. A lot of my students do come and say, ‘Hey, let's work on some songs. I want to do your next open mic.’

How does one sign up for a slot on the Open Mic night? Does one need to audition?

You literally buy a ticket and put your name on the list. Usually in a three-hour set I can accommodate up to 30 people. It just seems to work. A couple times in Palm Springs and once or twice in L.A., if there were more than 30 people, I'll stay late. I don't care. I love doing it. Sometimes the club doesn't like it. When I did my open mic recently in Vegas, you had to be off the stage in an hour and a half. I said to all the tech people, ‘I'll pay you guys $1 a minute each if I go over because I'm going to. They were like, ‘Don’t be foolish!’ I ended up giving them a $40 gift card because we went late, and it was just so fun. It was such a fun night. The audience loved it, but I just felt bad that sound and lighting people had to stay longer than they were contracted to.

In Vegas, they want you in and out of there. All the shows are sort of very timed because they want you back in the casinos, getting in and out in 90 minutes, not a minute longer. We start on time. It's a different mentality, but I love Vegas.

You’ve played for an abundance of singers, both professionals and newbies. Which would you say has been easier to accompany? Do you need to switch mindsets in dealing with both?

I have to tell you, Gil, a lot of my students or even people that I play for, if you're passionate about what you do, and you love it so much and nobody's forcing you to do it, then I want to work with you. I don't care what level you're at. If you've never done a show, I'm going to help you put together a show or I'm gonna have you call a friend of mine who can help you put it together with me. I just love it. But listen, the people that I work with, they are all professionals. I see why they're professionals. People like Kristin Chenoweth, she rehearses and rehearses and rehearses. I don't want to keep name-dropping, but I did work with Patti LuPone once. I was doing a project with her where she had to learn a song. She rehearsed so much. This is why these people are that good because they do the work. And that's does take that, and you can't skip out on that. So, do I have fun with Kristen Chenoweth as I do an unknown? I really do. It's so creatively stimulating to do somebody like Kristin Chenoweth or a Megan Hilty, any of the Idol kids that I still do shows with, my friend James Snyder that I do shows all the time, or Kevin Chamberlin. They know what they're doing. We put together these shows and it's just so fun and it's fine to travel with them. And so that's the part I love. Especially Clint Holmes, who I play for a lot coming up at the McCallum on April 5th and then again in Tucson at the end of the month. He is literally the consummate musician and performer for me. He's such a good musician that if he messes something up, a lyric or a melody, he knows how to cover for it. It's like what I do as a pianist. If I make a mistake, I make it sound like I did it on purpose and move right around. He's one of those and he's just one of the most glorious storytellers I've ever worked with. I like working with somebody like a Clint Holmes. So rewarding to doing his work. He does this whole show, a tribute to Peter Allen, whom he was friends with. And we're going to be doing a six-piece band at the McCallum in April. It's just so fun. So fun.

You say that these professionals really put in the work. Do you yourself still need to put in the work and practice your piano basics? Or are the numerous rehearsals you do make that unnecessary?

That's so funny. I really do think like all my rehearsals are my practicing too. I will occasionally, and believe me I have, I've had a couple of people I worked with where I go, ‘Okay, I have to take this on and I need to learn it. I need to practice it on my own.’ There's a Jason Robert Brown song or some Sondheim song I've ever played or, you know something tricky. I'm gonna conquer this. Let me conquer this on my own time. I get to rehearse with people so often that it's my rehearsal time too.

What advice would you give to a newbie vocalist?

Well, I'll tell a newbie vocalist… are you talking about a cabaret singer or a pop singer? It's just there's so many different avenues that somebody can take. I just want somebody to be passionate about what they do. I want you to know, you have to put in the work and you have to never stop learning. I still tell my clients, ‘You should go to dance class so you can feel comfortable with your body. If you go to an audition and they make you dance, even if you’re not a great dancer. You're going to be comfortable in that situation.’ I just tell people never stop learning, learning new material, everything you can do. But really practice, practice, practice. The people that put the work in are the people that are so good at what they do.

I'm doing a show April 14th with this amazing woman, Judy Whitmore. She has released an album that she did with the amazing Chris Walden, who's a brilliant, orchestra conductor with a 30-piece orchestra that he recorded at East West Studios. My favorite thing about Judy is that she loves to rehearse, rehearse two, three times a week, for hours at a time. She just wants to be that prepped that it just leaves room for very little error. That's my biggest advice to give somebody - to keep rehearsing. You never rehearse enough yet.

How much in advance do you usually get booked?

I'm already doing a date in November right now. I keep my itinerary very organized with my calendar. And things just work out. I got to play at the Carlyle a couple months ago with this amazing singer. She's won the Tony Award a couple years back. Her name is Joaquina Kalukango. She is so phenomenal. She just called me because they want to book her at the small theater at Segerstrom. That's already in October and I'm like, ‘Oh, my God! I'm going to be another year older by then.’ She won a Tony Award for a show last year and she is such a phenomenal singer/performer. The fun part is her agent is a good friend of mine. So that's helped me get a bunch of gigs too because he's a very big agent at CAA. My friend Steve Levine has been very, very great with me about calling me and saying, ‘Hey, you know my client Joaquina has never put an act together and she needs you to help her, and I think it'd be great.’ She lives in Atlanta and I'm in L.A. We put a whole act together that we did at the amazing Carlyle hotel. We put it all over on Zoom. We never met till three days before, we never met in person. And she's freaking glorious. She's like just an amazing singer and amazing storyteller. She sang the song Let It Burn, that was her big number from Paradise Square, the show that she won the Tony Award. Oh, my God! She's so phenomenal. She's actually getting ready to go back to New York now because she's doing the City Center’s Jelly’s Last Jam. But she works all the time. She does a lot of TV and film, and I'm so happy now she's gonna have a concert career as well. So, it's great.

You were on American Idol for sixteen seasons as their musical director. Other than Adam Lambert and Jennifer Hudson on her talk show, how many of the former Idol contestants have you played for since?

Oh, my God! So many of them and I love every one of them. They're all like my kids. I just did this show with Kristin Chenoweth. Melinda Doolittle, who was on a finalist on season six, is one of Kristen’s backup singers now, a featured background singer. That was so fun to have a reunion with her, and we've worked together before. So many of the Idol kids I still work with. They'll call me when they have an audition they're doing or they're working on.

I wrote some songs with this amazing girl Maddie Poppe who won the first season the show was on ABC which was season 16, my last season on the show. I still keep in touch with her. Like I always say, the bond between a pianist and a singer is the most intimate you can get. It's literally breathing with somebody and feeling with somebody. We just develop this close bond, every one of us, even the ones they don't see regularly. I just did a thing with Katharine McPhee and unfortunately for me, she's married to one of the most brilliant musicians that I so regard as somebody I look up to - David Foster, He was actually unavailable for this one gig she was doing, and I was so happy that I got to jump in and fill his shoes. My feet are bigger. The shoes didn't fit.

Of the American Idol contestants you accompanied in their beginning auditions, who would you say has grown in their confidence and professionalism since then?

Interview: Michael Orland Enjoys/Loves Being Continuously Booked & Always Giving Back Well, I'll tell you, I still tell people to this day to audition for that show. My favorite part of that whole show was to watch people. People started on that show, most of them were great singers. The greatest thing was to watch them gain confidence, growing every week. I used to say, ‘We don't have time to do voice lessons with these kids.’ We were giving them confidence and really to just believe in themselves and to get out there. You have to remember that in the heyday, when we would go somewhere with Ruben and Clay and Kimberly Locke, and I take them in the car to go to a friend's show, people would bomb them. They'd be all over the place. You couldn't go anywhere. It was that kind of time. I don't think it happens as much anymore. I still watch these people develop more and more confidence as they go. So, I will have to say almost all of them. I see that growth and all the ones that you know about, even from season one, like Justin Guarini who didn't win, to Tamyra Gray. They all work all the time and the people that still have a career, even after all these years after Idol, I think is a testament to their work ethic.

Listen, it is a scary thing. I know huge professionals that still get nervous when they perform. But they still make themselves get out there and do it and that's what's really important, too. I work with a lot of kids. I work with this amazing eight-year-old girl, soon to be nine. She used to go to auditions all the time. She was fearless. But going through the pandemic and then all of a sudden never being in person for auditions and doing self-tapes, she lost a little confidence. I told her mom that I wanted to come to my open mic, and she was actually, ‘Oh, I'm nervous about that.’ And I was, ‘No, you gotta just do it again.’ Her mom was saying after two years of only self-tapes, and no in-person, she lost some of that confidence. Just walking into the room, you’ve got to bring confidence when you go to anywhere, any audition, any anything. People behind the desk, read your confidence, and I tried to teach people to fake it until you believe it. It's really a part of it. It's where we all get nervous. If I had to go out there and play a solo, I wouldn't probably drop out of show business. I love accompanying people. I love doing that. And even my open mic night where it's my show, I'm not sitting there alone and it's just I love it.

Did you find some budding new talent in Kristin Chenoweth’s Broadway Bootcamp this past June?

Oh, my God! First of all, I've done it for seven years in a row including online. The talent is unreal. When it was the first few years we did it, only kids from Oklahoma were allowed. During the pandemic, they opened up to taking kids from anywhere outside of the country. It was brought a whole different level of crazy talent that you can't believe.  We also would watch the growth of these kids who would have breakdowns on day one and be fearless on the last day during the final show. It was so great and rewarding to watch these kids do this stuff. Actually a lot of my students that I work with, were able to attend it and that had nothing to do with me. Everybody had to apply and whatnot.

Before even Kristen Chenoweth’s Broadway Boot Camp, I used to work at this amazing camp called Broadway Theater Project, which is out of Tampa, Florida. They shut down during the pandemic. They called me, ‘Guess what we're opening back up with a small program with 12 kids for 10 days. And we want you to come and do a open mic night with the kids and teach them a class.’ ‘I'm in.’ I'm excited besides going back to Kristen Chenoweth’s Broadway Boot Camp in July, I'll be going there in June back to Florida, which I probably haven’t been there for 10 years. The funny thing is that Katherine McPhee went through there when she was a young student. I used to teach with her mom Peshia McPhee. Unfortunately, I've just go back by myself this year but Peshia and I teach a lot together and it was so fun to be at Broadway Theater Project together. Both Peshia’s girls went as students, and also my little sister when she was in high school too, way before I taught there. It was really fun to be there. I really love it. It was a big camp started by Ann Reinking and this amazing woman who was her sidekick, Deb McWaters. They started this huge thing, and it was with Ben Vereen, and all these amazing people. I'm so happy it's back up now. I'm happy to go back for a few days and teach. It'd be really fun.

It would be unfair to ask you who your favorite singer is.

Yes, it would be.

Soooo, would you tell us about your very first professional gig. Whom did you play for?

Okay, well, I will tell you this. This is my one of my favorite things. When I dropped out of college, I went with a friend of mine to Provincetown, Massachusetts. I went with this girl who I played piano for. I met this amazing woman by accident because we went to see her show like three times - Celeste Simone. She at the time was an unbelievable performer. She is now one of the biggest voice teachers in New York. She just lost the performing bug, but she wants to share it with all her students. I love that about her. When I first met her, she literally took me under her wing and hooked me up with all the piano bars in New York City. Within three months, I was working six nights a week in piano bars. I also went on a one-week cruise with her, 1983 or 84. She got hired to be the opening act for this famous puppeteer, Wayland Flowers with an old lady puppet named Madame. She also was opening for Rita Moreno. So, I was playing for Celeste. And Wayland came up to us after the gig after the first set. And he said, ‘Listen, you are an amazing pianist. And I'm looking for a new pianist conductor and if you want to come work with me, I would love to have you.” and I said, ‘Well, I live in New York, I'm so burned out from the piano bars. I think I need a nice little change.’ He said, ‘Well, you come to L.A. I'll pay for your move.’

I was just gonna go there for three months and try it out. Yeah! That was in January of 87!

I've seen Wayland Flowers. He and Madame are so fun.

He was a comic genius. And I learned so much from him. When he sang, all his puppets sang. He was so great to work with. I learned so much from him and then

that led me to work with Kaye Ballard. I worked with all the Shecky Greene and the like. It was huge, but I always credited Celeste because Wayland was one of the first big people I worked with. And it was only because I was with her for this gig that I even was exposed to that. You know, she always say, ‘Oh, you always pay me back.’ She's worked with Kristen. She comes to Kristen Chenoweth’s Broadway Boot Camp where she’s the sole voice teacher. And, may she rest in peace, Chita Rivera worked with Celeste the last three years of her life. I was able to say, ‘Chita, you got to go stay with my friend.’ Chita never really did voice. She was just brilliant all on our own. Celeste made so many improvements with her. We went to go see Chita’s show a few years ago at Segerstrom and she was phenomenal. I mean, she was unbelievable. I heard a difference at age 90. To hear a difference in someone’s voice is unbelievable.

Celeste's still so moved by her passing. She's really having a hard time. They were inseparable. They went everywhere together. They were neighbors and they just became best friends and confidants. Celeste's worked with a lot of great people. I introduce her to everybody. We share a lot of students because she teaches full-time now. And she sends a lot of students to me and vice versa. But I have to credit her because it was because of her that I met Wayland and then I moved to L.A. I tell kids all the time in this business. I feel like such an old man right now. This business is who you know, being at the right place at the right time and having the talent when the door opens, because talented people don't get an open door just by sitting at home.

I have so many breaks that were all lucky breaks. That just happened because I happened to be somewhere at that time. And I'm gonna say if I didn't obviously have the goods to follow through with it… I had so many opportunities, even American Idol was because I knew and worked with Barry Manilow. Somebody who knew me through Barry Manilow had called me to come in to help one day at Idol and I was there for 16 years. I tell people all the time, ‘You gotta get out there!’  You know now today with social media, any little bit you can put yourself out there. I still tell kids your parents should be watching your accounts because who the hell knows what’s out there. But it's such a great place to just have a showcase for yourself, to continually put music out there. You don't ever know who's gonna see them. Whenever I do a masterclass, I tell them to tag me on social media. I want to see what you're doing. And if it's really great, I'm happy to repost it, encourage you to keep going.

Okay, last question here: You offer your piano and musical expertise to many charity benefits. Is there one organization that’s closest to your heart?

I will tell you I do work with a lot of amazing organizations - a hospital in New York, University Medical Center of Southern Nevada, National Breast Cancer Coalition. But I have to tell you, one of my favorite charities that I do every year is the Children's Hospital of L.A. It's such an amazing organization and to see what it does. We do a tree lighting arrival of Santa Claus every year, through my friend Chris and Becky Lythgoe. It's just such an amazing, rewarding thing to see those kids. I just I love it. I do look forward to the Children's Hospital every year just because you see what it does to these kids. You're hands on with them. All the celebrities that come. They go up to the kids’ rooms when they can't come down or can't leave their rooms. They have an airing in all the kids’ rooms too, so they get to see the whole show. It's really so rewarding.

Well thank you again, sir! I look forward to hearing you again live.

Thank you. Take care.

To see Michael’s extensive bookings, log onto his Instagram Michael Orland (@michaelorland) or his Twitter Michael Orland (@MichaelOrland) / X (twitter.com)

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