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Tommy Tune’s Heart Is Still in His Toes

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Some Texans tap oil. Tommy Tune, a Houston export to New York, never wanted to tap anything but his toes. All through his youth he had only one dream--to dance in the chorus of a Broadway show.

“This was my dream,” he told me after winning his second Tony Award, for co-choreographing “A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine,” more than a decade ago. He was recovering from knee surgery at the time, and his gangly 6-foot-6 frame was stretched out next to a 9-foot potted cactus on his plush living-room carpet the color of red Texas earth high above Manhattan’s mid-town streets.

Since then, Tune has become the only person to win Tonys in four categories (choreography, director, actor and featured actor in a musical). He now has a total of nine Tonys, including two for choreographing and directing “Grand Hotel.” It opens tonight at the San Diego Civic Theatre, where it plays through Sunday in a national touring version that he also directed.

But one thing has not changed for this seemingly ageless, 52-year-old Broadway baby. He still insists that the dream of his youth, be it ever so humble, remains as deep a part of him as ever.

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“Just directing and choreographing another show and another show is not a nourishing thing,” Tune said in a recent telephone interview from New York, where his latest hit, “The Will Rogers Follies,” won the 1991 Tony Award for best musical in June, and he again walked off with personal honors for direction and choreography.

“You have to replenish yourself,” he maintained. “I do that by performing. I am a performer. I still have my symphony act and my nightclub show. It helps me be a better director because I know what actors feel like. I think it also explains why actors like to work with me. They know I really understand their problems.

“Besides,” he added, “I’m a director’s dream. I do everything I’m told to do. That’s the fun of it, taking what someone else sees and making it work.”

So, with both “Follies” and “Grand Hotel” running on Broadway, Tune himself is on the road as a featured performer in a revival of “Bye, Bye Birdie,” which began a national tour last May and now is in Houston. He portrays the romantically embattled agent of rock star Conrad Birdie, a role originated by Dick Van Dyke in 1960. Tune is contracted to stay with the “Birdie” tour through the end of May, 1992. Then, unless there is some hitch, he is supposed to begin rehearsals for a starring role in “Busker Alley,” a new Broadway musical by Richard and Robert Sherman with a book by A.J. Carothers about London in the 1920s.

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But is that replenishment? Or is it overwork?

“It actually makes me feel pretty lucky,” said Tune, noting that he has performed “for some of the best directors on the planet,” among them Ken Russell in the early days, Michael Bennett, Mike Nichols, Gene Kelly and Gene Saks.

In the meantime, Tune is keeping tabs on the touring version of “Grand Hotel,” which he sent on the road in November with Liliane Montevecchi and Brent Barrett in the leading roles. Both appeared in the show on Broadway. Montevecchi, who won a Tony in “Nine,” received a Tony nomination for her performance.

The original production of “Grand Hotel” opened in New York 21 months ago. Although it did not win the 1989 Tony for best musical--"City of Angels” did--it earned five Tonys. It has also spawned several offshoot productions. One has played to enthusiastic crowds in Berlin. Another, which was to have opened in London last May but didn’t, is scheduled to go back into rehearsal in January for a production at the Shaftesbury Theatre there, according to a spokeswoman for the show. And the current national tour, said to cost about $5 million to put on the road, is expected to open Dec. 1 in Japan, where it will play for six weeks, before returning for at least another five months of domestic bookings.

What attracted Tune to this musical by the team of Luther Davis (book), Robert Wright and George Forrest (music and lyrics) was not the 1932 MGM movie of “Grand Hotel,” as one might have expected. Nor was it a 1958 musical version of the same material that Davis, Wright and Forrest did under the title “At the Grand” in Los Angeles and San Francisco.

“I was fascinated by something else--the original novel,” Tune said, referring to Vicki Baum’s 1929 German bestseller. “That’s the basis of this show. I’m not a fan of the movie. Her dear sweet novel, which is not even called ‘Grand Hotel,’ is what convinced me this show should be done.

“Her title in German was ‘Menschen im Hotel.’ You know what a mensch is? We don’t have an exact translation in English. Literally, I suppose you could say a real person, or a real human being. So her title would mean something like ‘real people in a hotel.’ There was nothing grand about it.”

Baum’s sympathetic treatment of all sorts of characters living on the edge of desperation--a fading ballerina, a royal cat burglar, a creepy business tycoon, a sexy secretary, a dying bookkeeper-- appealed to Tune partly because of the parallels he felt could be drawn to our time and partly because “their trials and tribulations were simply good fodder” for musical theater.

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“You know how you graze with the television zapper?” Tune asked. “You get bored with one thing, and you use the zapper and go to something else? Then you come back and pick up the story again? Well, most musicals have one main story and maybe one sub-story, but this one has so many I thought I could make the channels jump. If the audience starts to get ahead of me, I could switch the channel and hopscotch among all these characters.”

Although the famous Oscar-winning movie exploited the same idea, it “really distorted Vicki Baum’s stories and missed on her characters,” Tune maintained. MGM was more interested in stacking the screen with glamorous leads (Greta Garbo, John Barrymore, Wallace Beery, Joan Crawford) than in being true to the original, he noted.

“Vicki, in her memoirs, referred to the movie as a star-studded wedding cake, which was not what she wrote at all,” he said. “After we did our show, she even sent me a letter saying we captured the spirit of her novel.”

Far from setting “Grand Hotel” in the elegant trappings of the Plaza, as the movie did, Tune found the atmosphere he wanted in the derelict ballroom of a rundown hotel near Times Square. It all began when he and his creative team went looking for a rehearsal hall to work on the musical.

“Getting a place to rehearse in Manhattan is very hard, and a place that has any sort of character at all is even harder,” Tune explained. “There are a couple of studios left, but they’re sanitized. I need to feel there’s been some life in the room before I’ve walked into it.

“So we searched and searched, and we finally found the Diplomat Hotel. The production man didn’t think it was worth looking at because the ballroom was in such disrepair. He said there were these mirrored columns in the middle of the floor, and that was going to throw our dance numbers off. But my ears pricked up. I said we should see it.”

“As soon as we walked in,” Tune recalled, “I knew it was where we should make our show. At one time it must have been a very grand ballroom. We started working, and I brought in Tony Walton, our designer, and I said, ‘What do you think the set should be?’ And he said, ‘This.’ I agreed. When you see the show, you’ll see there are columns smack-dab in the middle of our set.”

In fact, Walton took more than the columns and the chandeliers to help recreate the decadence of a formerly luxurious Berlin hotel of the late 1920s. He also took the ballroom’s measurements, Tune said, duplicating them for the set in exact proportions right down to the parquet squares of the wood flooring.

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The essence of “Grand Hotel,” however, resides in its constant motion. People are always coming and going. “That is the key to the show,” he added. “I did a lot of lobby-watching in many of the grand hotels of Europe, and it was fascinating to see that something is always going on. Life never stops.”

Despite the production’s complicated mosaic of characters and all its kinetic energy, Tune sees himself as a minimalist who strips down his shows much as he strips down his style of life. He likes self-imposed limits. His philosophy, theatrical or otherwise, is “to do more with less.”

He lived for years in his deluxe mid-town apartment with no furniture at all. Not a chair, not a table, not a picture on the walls, not even a bed. He slept on folding cushions. He used throw pillows and saddle mats to sit on.

“I still don’t like furniture,” said Tune, who now lives on Manhattan’s Upper East Side in somewhat greater luxury. “I like to keep things clean and simple. You know what they say about dancers being graceful on stage and clumsy in life? It’s true. I’m always bumping into things. So I have as few objects around as possible. I like space.”


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