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They're the piano men

Matthew Friedman of 'Movin' Out' (Joan Marcus) Matthew Friedman sings and plays piano in ''Movin' Out.''
By Megan Tench
Globe Staff / March 20, 2009
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Perched on a platform high above the stage, Matthew Friedman, the piano man, soulfully belts out the songs of Billy Joel as characters below him wrestle with their fates after graduating from high school in the '60s. Some head for the Vietnam War; one of them doesn't return. Others struggle with lost love. They reunite only to rediscover all they have lost as they try to piece their lives back together.

"Movin' Out," coming to the Colonial Theatre tonight through Sunday, has no dialogue, just dancers interpreting the action through Twyla Tharp's choreography and, at the heart of the production, the piano man singing and playing almost nonstop.

"I really worked hard for this," says Friedman, the 10th piano man to play in "Movin' Out" since it hit Broadway in 2002. Speaking by phone from New York, Friedman says, "It's the best job in the world."

Friedman, a Billy Joel aficionado, was born and raised on Long Island, just a few towns away from where his idol, Joel, grew up. Now 40, he began playing the piano when he was only 3 years old. He says he started singing before he could talk.

His father often tells the story, he relates, of when the young Friedman tried to play a Simon and Garfunkel song, "Scarborough Fair", only to toss his xylophone aside, saying it was broken. The little guy was upset.

"It wasn't broken," he explains, laughing. "It's just that I heard sharps and flats, and the xylophone didn't have them. I couldn't understand that. So my dad was like, 'Time to get you a piano.' "

Friedman spent 11 years as an attorney, a job he hated, but in his free time he worked weddings and other events with his band. Landing the role on "Movin' Out" was a three-year process: A drummer for the show recommended Friedman to the producers, and when the role finally opened up, he auditioned, but was told he wasn't ready. So for more than a year he sat in the back of the theater where they rehearsed in New York, learning the music and how it was played and just soaking it all in.

Then the unbelievable happened.

He was sitting in a studio when one of his pals received a call. His demeanor suddenly became very serious. His friend, bass player Jerry Brooks, was preparing to play at Billy Joel's wedding, and on a whim he told the person on the phone that he was bringing Friedman with him to a wedding rehearsal. During rehearsals, Joel liked Friedman so much that he asked him to play solo for the wedding dinner and accompany him in a performance afterward.

Michael Cavanaugh, the show's original piano man, was in attendance and asked Friedman why he wasn't in the show. Friedman suspects Cavanaugh must have said something to the producers, because soon afterward, he landed the part. "I gave my boss four days notice. I couldn't wait to get out of there," he says.

"If I hadn't been there that day, it wouldn't have happened," he adds. "It was incredible."

Now he's been with the show three years. "I busted my butt to rehearse this stuff for a long, long time," he says. "I also worked harder than anyone else to get it. I never get tired of doing the show."

His alternate, Jon Abrams, 25, was born and raised in Lowell and attended Lawrence Academy in Groton. He was an elementary school teacher in Lexington for a few years, but also played in a Billy Joel tribute band on the side. Word got to producers. Abrams was called in to audition, and three weeks later he was hired.

"My mom made me take piano when I was 6. I wanted to play the drums," he says by phone from Lowell. "Thank God she did that."

As for life on tour, he says, "At the very beginning I didn't know what to expect, but just like anything you kind of get used to a lot of time on a bus and living in hotels." Now Abrams is living his dream.

"This is much closer to the job I wanted to be doing," he says. "I wanted to be a touring musician. I wanted to bring music to people. And I'm doing it."

Information: 800-982-2787 www.broadwayacrossamerica.com

Megan Tench can be reached at mtench@globe.com.

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