A couple of years ago, when Broadway favorite Tommy Tune got his first gig at the Raleigh Hotel in the Borscht Belt, he called his friend Betty Comden. “Betty,” he said, “the most wonderful thing has happened. I got a booking in the Catskills. And it’s not a benefit, either. I get paid. Whoopee!”
“Tommy, darling, you’ve got it all wrong,” replied the Broadway veteran and co-author of “The Will Rogers Follies,” which Tune directed and choreographed. “You’re supposed to start in the Catskills and work your way up to Broadway. You’ve started on Broadway and worked your way down to the Catskills. What’s so wonderful?”
For the most celebrated choreographer-director-dancer on Broadway these days, the nights in the Catskills turned out to be one more step in the 10-year evolution of a song-and-dance act that will culminate in “Tommy Tune Tonite!,” a limited engagement of 13 performances opening Christmas night. The hour-and-a-half revue features singer-dancers Robert Fowler and Frantz Hall, a 26-piece orchestra, a repertory of George Gershwin, Cole Porter and Irving Berlin standards, and the elegant and innovative dancing of Tune, all 6 feet, 6 inches of him, in white tie and tails. The show--at the Gershwin Theater through Jan. 3--represents Tune’s return to Broadway as a performer for the first time since his Tony-winning stint opposite Twiggy in “My One and Only” in 1983.
Though he recently spent a year and a half on the road touring in a revival of “Bye Bye Birdie,” for most of the past decade Tune has worked as director and choreographer to keep alive an old-fashioned vision of the American musical on Broadway. Now the once-and-forever hoofer has turned his touch on another endangered species, the song-and-dance man.
“I’ve always arrived at the end of an era,” says Tune, 53, sitting in the chintz-draped apartment of the show’s producer, Pierre Cossette (“Will Rogers”), adjacent to the Museum of Modern Art. “When I came here they said Broadway was dead, and so I went to Hollywood, and they said the movie musical is dead, and so I put an act together, and all the nightclubs--like the Persian Room, the Venetian Room and the Maisonette--closed. So here I am again tempting fate. But I’ve trained all my life to do this. What else would I do?”
Tune dismisses films, television and recordings as the “false mediums,” adding that his film career--in Ken Russell’s “The Boyfriend” and Gene Kelly’s “Hello, Dolly!"--was “agony.” “It was so boring,” he says. “It demands a certain coolness, a certain detachment. It can’t come from here,” he adds, pounding his heart, “and every time you perform onstage, live, it comes from here. It can’t come from any place else.”
That’s classic Tommy Tune: charming, highly entertaining, touching at times and seemingly spontaneous. This is not to say Tune is insincere, but his interviews, like his shows, appear to be calculated to tell a story, and it’s a show-business fable he’s been polishing for quite some time, fed by a string of successes including “Nine,” “Grand Hotel” and “Will Rogers.” It’s the story of a kid who got lucky, worked hard and apparently kept his ego in control. But it’s also the story of a grown man who still says “whoopee,” a man with a cotton-candy name who longs to play Richard III, a man whose public persona appears to be missing an id.
The nine-time Tony winner says: “I’ve been asked about power and about control, and I don’t think it’s a theme with me. Things have just come to me, and I’ve taken and done them. I did not set out to become a director-choreographer on Broadway. I came here to dance in the chorus of a Broadway show. That was my big dream. Everything else just evolved.”
What evolved has left its progenitor glowing with well-being, his features still youthful, his long legs poured into tight jeans and expensive cowboy boots. Some cynics have dismissed his “aw shucks, I’m just a little boy from Wichita Falls” mantle as disingenuous--and indeed it is. No one accomplishes as much as Tune without being tough-minded, disciplined and demanding.
Tune sees the eternal child within himself as the font of his creativity.
“Lately, I’ve been hearing ‘in the course of your long career’ a lot,” he says, “and it sounds so weird to me, because I honestly feel that I’m just getting started. I don’t feel any different than I did when I was doing those ‘patio revues’ with the neighborhood kids in Houston. It’s the same thing. And if you get into this business thinking that it’s going to be any different, then you’ve lost the child within you. It’s called a ‘play,’ so there’s got to be a sense of play about it.”
There’s also a sense of hamminess, Tune enthusiastically admits. “I’d say my ham ratio is pretty high! I’ve learned as a performer that unless you luxuriate in the essence of the performance and want to stay on longer than you’re required to stay on, then you don’t belong up there doing it.”
The idea for the new show began brewing when Tune was asked to perform for some AIDS benefits. Starting with “The Continental,” his repertoire grew, and he eventually collected almost an entire evening of numbers, leading to his Borscht Belt debut, which, as it turned out, was a disaster.
“They are the toughest audiences in the world,” Tune says. “You know, in the Catskills people don’t pay to see you. You’re included in the price of the room. You’re dessert, and if you’re no good, they start walking out in droves. There are four exit doors in the back of those rooms. I was what they called ‘a four-door walkout.’ ”
Tune says that when he was booked again at another Catskills hotel, he registered only a “two-door” walkout. By the third booking, no one was ankling the show.
“I learned the medium,” he explains. “In the theater, we rehearse everything to death, every gesture, every move so it tells the story. But the essence of a song-and-dance man is the ability just to let yourself be. Your scene partner is the audience itself. It’s just you and them.”
Indeed, “Tommy Tune Tonite,” which he describes as semi-autobiographical, may well reveal a personal side the public has yet to see. (The show is scheduled for several Southern California stops next Summer.) Between musical numbers, Tune tells stories about his life, about arriving in New York to pursue his dream of being a chorus boy. Variety Arts on 46th Street, now demolished, was a mecca for chorus dancers, choreographers and directors. It was there the young man watched Gower Champion, Bob Fosse and Carol Channing rehearse, there in the elevator that Michael Bennett first took measure of a tall, lanky guy with a dance bag and Texas drawl and asked, “So, who the hell are you?”
Tune and Bennett came to have a fiercely competitive and volatile relationship, which reached something of a climax in 1982 when Tune’s musical “Nine” beat Bennett’s “Dreamgirls” for the major Tonys. How does he cope with some of the potentially ugly emotions engendered in the business?
“Competition is inevitable in the business,” Tune says with a shrug. “I learned a lot from Michael and Bob. They were constantly trying to make it better. Because if you’re not getting better, you’re getting worse.”
Although success has given Tune many opportunities to pursue that growth, it has also burdened him with expectations he says he tries to ignore.
“Rehearsing under a ‘what do they expect?’ cloud is a very bad way to work,” he says. “It almost always gets me in trouble if I start worrying that I’ll be tarred and feathered if I don’t put in a tap number. I hope audiences will find the new show familiar but that it will also take surprising detours and twists.”
When he demurs from revealing any of those surprises, one idly wonders what’s the sexiest number in the repertoire.
“Sexy?” Tommy Tune shrieks. “Did you say sexy? Me?”
Well, if this is semi-autobiographical, doesn’t he think of its sexual appeal?
“Gee, I don’t know,” he says with Victorian modesty. “I suppose I think I cut a fairly attractive figure on stage. There’s an underpinning of sexuality in a number like ‘In the Still of the Night.’ But . . . I guess it’s what Mike Nichols once told me about casting: that, on some level, you should want to go to bed with everyone you choose to be in your play. With me, I sort of cast along the lines of wanting to have dinner or spend an evening with this or that person. That’s as far as I go.”
Tune acknowledges he does have one professional regret: that he’s never been given the opportunity to play an “archvillain.”
“That would be really good for me,” he says. “I’d really have to dig down for that one, because I’m basically a happy person. I badly wanted to play ‘Dracula’ when they were casting the road company of the Frank Langella production some years back, and they wouldn’t even consider me. And I’ve always wanted to play Richard III. But just imagine the marquee--'Tommy Tune Is Richard III.’ Talk about expectations.”