Making of ‘The 100th: Billy Joel at Madison Square Garden’ roundtable panel with 5 Emmy contenders [Exclusive Video Interview]

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Executive producer Steve Cohen has worked with Billy Joel for decades, and if there’s one thing he knows about the legendary musician it’s that Joel is quite reluctant to perform on camera. But the New York native made an exception for a historic milestone in his monthly residency at Madison Square Garden. To celebrate the 100th consecutive sellout at the world’s most famous arena, Cohen and Joel decided to commemorate the occasion with a special event on CBS, “The 100th: Billy Joel at Madison Square Garden,” the first concert film for Joel since 2010’s “Last Play at Shea.”

“I’m an old school guy, I remember appointment television on Sunday evening and Billy’s the same,” Cohen tells Gold Derby in an exclusive video interview as part of our Making of “The 100th: Billy Joel at Madison Square Garden” roundtable panel. So the choice was made to create a broadcast event rather than pitch the show directly to a streaming platform.

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“He’s a man of the people and he wanted to give this thing away for free, it was really the most important motivation,” Cohen says of Joel. “Maybe we could’ve had a bigger payday [if we went with a streamer first]. But that was not what this was about. What this was about was sharing this incredible energy that happens every night at Madison Square Garden with the country. Dennis Arfa [Joel’s booking agent] always said he wanted the in-laws of relatives who live in St. George, Utah, to know about the show – not just the people on both coasts.”

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Mission accomplished. “The 100th: Billy Joel at Madison Square Garden” debuted on CBS in April and reached more than 10 million viewers across two broadcasts. (The concert special is now streaming on Parammount+ as well.) Executive produced by Cohen, Barry Ehrmann and director Paul Dugdale, the special captures the magic of Joel’s unprecedented run at Madison Square Garden, which started in 2014 and will conclude in July. The milestone concert, which took place in March, features guest appearances from Sting and Jerry Seinfeld.

According to both Cohen and Dugdale, the throughline of “The 100th” was always the tangled relationship between Joel, his audience, and MSG itself. “We had audience much closer to Billy, upstage of him, so they became part of the stage set,” Dugdale explains of how the special adds a layer of intimacy to the show for home viewers. “The venue itself lends itself to being really inclusive to showing the artists and the crowd at the same time. That was just the number one thing we were chasing – to show those relationships because ultimately, it’s all about a kind of human experience. And that’s really what we were trying to get – really bottle that lightning, basically.”

The invisible work done by Dugdale and the tweaks by lighting designer Mark Foffano (who has worked with Joel for 25 years) helped keep Joel and his accomplished band free to worry only about the performance and their connection to the live audience that night. 

“Musically, we just kind of have to take the bigness of what we sound like and put it into your soundbar, and that can be tricky,” says lead guitarist Tommy Byrnes, who’s played with Joel for 34 years. “But I think it worked out really well. It harkens back to a conversation I actually had with Billy last night. It was a moment of, ‘Well, we as a band, we might not be much without you. But you, as an artist, you’re nothing without them, the audience.’ So they are the reason we do this. And the all-important thing that brings us all together is what happens when they show up. Because we can play Beatles songs all afternoon and have a great time at soundcheck. But when they show up, what are we going to do? I think that is what Steve was able to show everybody. This is what happens when the lights go down.”

Watch the full conversation with Cohen, Dugdale, Ehrmann, Byrnes and Foffano above.

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