THE LEADING MEN: Song and Dance Man Tommy Tune Brings His Act to NYC, But Will He Direct Again On Broadway?
By Kenneth Jones
November 18, 2012
Tommy Tune is getting his act together, shrinking it to cabaret size and singing and dancing in Manhattan again. We get the lowdown on Taps, Tunes and Tall Tales, plus an update about his hopes for directing and choreographing new musicals.
Tommy Tune, the Broadway actor, dancer, choreographer and director who won nine Tony Awards for bringing a serious wow factor to musical theatre — he staged and choreographed The Will Rogers Follies, Nine, Grand Hotel, My One and Only, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas and more — never lost his love of performing, even if he has all but disappeared from commercial theatre as a visionary director of musicals.
(Boy, do we need him now! Just look at some of our recent and poorly reviewed shows and you can't help wondering what kind of oomph and sizzle Tune might have offered, possibly improving the commercial legs of those shows, if not the storytelling itself. "What Would Tommy Tune Do?" would be a useful sentence for a choreographer to scrawl in the margin of a script.)
Tune has not staged a Broadway show since 1994's The Best Little Whorehouse Goes Public, although he is credited as "production supervisor" of the 1994-98 hit revival of Grease. He did, however, quietly develop a new disco musical at the University of Miami in Florida in fall 2011, with librettist Mark Saltzman. They're hoping Fifty*Four*Forever (about the founder of Studio 54) will glitter in the future.
At age 73, he has not lost the itch to perform; he's had it since high school in Texas. In recent years he has appeared in New York and regionally with various song-and-dance acts (Tommy Tune Tonite!, Tommy Tune: White Tie and Tails and the autobiographical Steps in Time) and regionally in musicals (Dr. Doolittle on tour, the upcoming Houston Grand Opera revival of Show Boat, in which he'll play Cap'n Andy).
This month (Nov. 18, 25 and 26) he's playing six performances in Manhattan with his longtime musical director Michael Biagi (just them and a piano). The intimate cabaret act is called Taps, Tunes and Tall Tales at Feinstein's at Loews Regency.
We caught up with the 6-foot-6-inch Tune by telephone from Los Angeles, where he is shooting episodes of the newly revived TV comedy "Arrested Development."
Let's talk about the fact that you're dancing on a postage stamp-sized stage this week at Feinstein's at Loews Regency.
Tommy Tune: I'm making my New York, fancy-uptown, nightclub, cabaret, whatever-we-call-it debut. I've never done this before. This is a brand-new horizon for me.
Is this an all-new evening, or are you choosing material from Steps in Time?
TT: Well, it's my story, so there's so many ways to tell it! [Laughs.] I have some Steps in Time in it. I have a lot of new stuff — some tales. I believe in truth in advertising. You're getting taps, you're getting tunes, and you're getting tall tales. There is some Steps in Time involved, but every arrangement is different because I don't have the guys with me, and it's just Michael Biagi and me, and that's it. So, it feels like a new show.
Is there stuff that you never sung before?
TT: Oh, yeah. Michael found something in the bottom of his trunk that was the last thing that [late musical director and pianist] Wally Harper had sketched out for me. I forgot about it, and Michael was going through [material]. We're always searching for the right song, but mostly for the right lyric that pushes my story along, so that you don't have to talk so much — let the lyric do the work. There was this song called "Sand in My Shoes." And, it's not [the more famous] "Sand in my shoes… Sand from Havana." It's another song called "Sand in My Shoes." … "I've got sand in my shoes… The tide's just near me." Do you know that song?
No, I don't. Who wrote it?
TT: I didn't either. We don't know! But this was Wally's last gift for me. Wally would choose songs for me and put them in the right key and make little sketches, and this one got misplaced I guess, and so it's really — I think he's sending it to me from above, and it's just my favorite number that I do in the show.
Does it allow you to do soft-shoe?
TT: I use some of the rhythm taps that Charles "Honi" Coles left behind for me — that he taught me. It all sort of comes together with this song and my life. So, what else? "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head." I've never sung that before. It just fits in really, really nice. I'm using a new opener: "I've Got Them Feelin' Too Good Today Blues," Leiber and Stoller. I'm using that to open with. I can't trace through the show right now. It's very early out here [in California]. I worked until, like, midnight on the set last night. I'm out here doing "Arrested Development." I think it's a secret, but I'm telling you. We're working on four episodes at once. We keep cross-cutting between them. I don't know how they keep it together. They don't tell us anything. We just drive on the set. They give us the script, we look it over, and we shoot. It's the most fascinating way of working. And, this guy who runs it — his name is Mitchell Hurwitz — he is just amazing. I think he's one of the best directors I've ever worked with. He just is so great.
Without giving too much away, what's the character?
TT: I play Liza Minnelli's brother — her baby brother! [Laughs.] It's crazy! It is a wacko show. It is. And, none of us knows what's happening. It's all in his head, and he's piecing it together. It's really something. We're having a ball.
Photo by Dominick Totino
You're playing Cap'n Andy this winter in Show Boat at Houston Grand Opera.
TT: Yes, I'm playing my first "dad" role. [Laughs.] I'm actually playing a grown-up role. It's so odd that I'm doing a show called "Arrested Development," and now I'm going to play a father figure! [Laughs.]
I have the feeling that this Cap'n Andy might tap dance a little.
TT: I think she might want him to — Francesca Zambello is directing it, and we've just had a little preliminary conversation. You know, Show Boat can kind of get twisted around: There's so many versions of it. I like her version of it very much, but she wants to incorporate some stuff for me.
Well, it's great casting because Cap'n Andy certainly is a showman, as you are.
TT: Well, that's what I said! I said, "Now, listen. I would never choose myself to play this role." I've done Show Boat many times — directing, choreographing and appearing. I played Frank, I played Rubberface, and I said, "Why did you choose me?" She said, "Well, Cap'n Andy is a showman," and when she said that word, which you used just now, I went, "Oh, I get it. Totally." That's what I do. I take my shows around. I'm not on a ship, but I fly out with my group, do a little show, we pack up, we go to the next place, the next port, and we do our little show. I can relate to that.
It's a show that always moves me in that it's about the ephemeral nature of show folk — how they move on, how things change. It was also an incredibly ambitious show for its time, as you know. Do you relate to it? What's your relationship with it?
TT: Well, I've done it so many times, The first time I ever did it, I was in high school, and then I went to college, and my first year in college they were doing Show Boat. And then, when I got up to New York, one of the first summer stock gigs I got [was] at the Spa Music Theatre in Saratoga Springs, they were doing Show Boat. So I've visited it many times. And I saw it when I was a youngster at the Dallas Summer Musicals, starring Shirley Jones and Jack Cassidy, but you know, it's such a huge show that we really can't afford to do that [size] show on Broadway anymore, it's just so huge. But, for it to be done by the Houston Grand Opera, I think they're going to be able to afford the whole black chorus and the white chorus and all of the scenery. It's a heavy show. I love it. It's epic. And, it's a history of America at the same time.
What's the status of the Studio 54-set musical Fifty*Four*Forever that you tested in Miami in 2011?
TT: It's so hard to find a place. It's not a proscenium show. It takes place on a 43-foot fashion runway, and there's banked seats on both sides. The reason [it's that shape] is because that was the Jerry Herman Ring Theatre plan that we had at the University of Miami. I liked it so much that way that I don't want to not do it that way. I want to improve it and expand it, but that plan — that ground plan — is what makes it possible. And, I can't find a place to do it. I found a place downtown, and then Hurricane Sandy [arrived] and just absolutely flooded this place, so that's gone. It's Mold City now.
You wanted an environmental, immersive space — a warehouse-like, big space, right?
TT: Yeah, it needs to be kind of big to support the cast. I used a cast of 26, and that's considered big, so I have to be able to seat a lot of people in order to make it make [economic] sense, you know? I have a lead on a place out here [in L.A.] that I'm going to go see tomorrow. It's called the Avalon, and it sounds very promising, and they're very interested. So we'll have to see. I may have to do it out here first and then hope for a place in New York. You know New York real estate: Really hard!
But your goal is a non-traditional, club-like space, correct?
TT: I just need a big space that I can put this 43-foot runway and bank seats on both sides of it. It doesn't have to have any particular quality to it because the show takes care of that. It's really about square feet.
In the meantime, are you and Fifty*Four*Forever librettist Mark Saltzman in touch and discussing elements of the show?
TT: Oh, yeah. What a great guy! Oh, I just love working with him. He's just splendid to work with. He's a great collaborator, and there aren't really those around anymore.
Tune in Tommy Tune: White Tie and Tails.
Photo by Howard Schatz
Why haven't you directed musicals on Broadway in recent years? Is it about the tough economics of new shows? Is there no material out there that attracts you?
TT: Well, I'd like to think that I don't pick up my paintbrush on any canvas and just start splashing away. When I read the script, if it activates my imagination, then I want to do it, and if it doesn't, then I don't want to do it. At this point in my career, how many more shows do I have left in me? I don't know. I'm in very, very good health, and I have lots of energy, but I don't want to waste a moment. The longer that you live, the more you realize that every moment — every moment — is precious, and you just don't want to waste your time. You want to extend what your God-given talent is in whatever way comes up.
I used to get confused about what I was doing, and I asked Michael Bennett. He said, "Tommy, it's all one talent." And, as he said that, I thought, "Okay. It's a big river of talent that's flowing, and then there are tributaries, and you can go off on that tributary and complete that and then come back to the main flow and ride a little bit further in the river. And, oh! There's another tributary — I'll try that." So, you just kind of [keep] looking. With this thing of 50 years in show business — [my] 50th year — I thought, "Well, it's time to kind of review this and put it together." We performed Steps in Time, but it's considered an expensive show to do now. This is where we've devolved because of the new economy: It's seven people — which I think is a tiny, little show — but many, many places can't afford that, so I just cut back and cut back and cut back, and now it's a piano, my music director of 37 years, Michael Biagi, a two-by-four stage — a tap stage — and me. Taps, Tunes and Tales, that's it!
But I'm guessing that you're sent scripts and sent scores all the time, right?
TT: Yes, but good scripts and good lyrics are few and far between. There are ideas for shows that I've found intriguing and then… You know, I've lived long enough that I've lost my "team." Wally Harper is gone, Peter Stone's gone, Cy Coleman, Dorothy Fields, Comden and Green — they're gone. Maury [Yeston]'s still here, thank God.
When I was in elementary school, they used to grade you on other things besides reading and writing and arithmetic. There was this one thing that says, "Use this time and materials wisely." And, I got an A-plus for that. [Laughs.] So, I'm still trying to, wanting to, do that — use my time and materials wisely. So if someone sent me a great script and I started reading it, and it started activating the empty stage upstairs in my brain, and I started knowing what to do with it, you know, oh!, I'd be the happiest guy in the world.
American musical theatre needs you. Obviously, the Studio 54 musical is capturing your imagination. I just wish that in addition to that you were in discussions with new writers about new shows.
TT: Yeah, I keep getting a lot of offers to do revivals, and that doesn't interest me. First of all, I've done most musicals because in summer stock — where I learned to direct and choreograph — we did every show. I think I've done three Carousels, so that doesn't hold any interest to me.
You also broke ground over the years. You created new work.
TT: I'm interested in original. I don't want to put something on stage that I've seen before. It's the quest for the original entertainment. It's our job to give people something that we haven't seen before, and so much of it is formulaic. My brain doesn't work that way. If it looks like something I've seen before, and I'm doing it, then I go, "You're wasting what God gave you — your imagination." I'm wasting it by doing something just to be doing it, you know?
But, just to be clear, if the economics and the creative team and the project and the timing were right, there are new musicals in your future.
TT: Is that a statement or a question? [Laughs.] My heart and my arms are open. I'm holding my arms out. My right arm is out, my left arm is holding the phone so I can't put it out, but my gesture — my universal gesture at this moment — is: I'm standing on both feet, I'm opening both arms and my heart is there.
(Kenneth Jones is managing editor of Playbill.com. Follow him on Twitter @PlaybillKenneth.)