A "Tune"-ful Turn of the Century

Special Features   A "Tune"-ful Turn of the Century
 
Tommy Tune explains the fantastical plot twist of the new musical Turn of the Century.
Tommy Tune in Turn of the Century rehearsal.
Tommy Tune in Turn of the Century rehearsal. Photo by Michael Brosilow

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Tommy Tune doesn't want to give too much away about his new musical. "But," he says, "there are nine little things I can tell you that are in it: millennium intrigue, a girl on a swing, sparkling dialogue, opium seductions, a giant castle, hit songs, broken hearts, fireworks and a dancing horse."

The self-described five-foot-18-inch-tall Tune, the winner of nine Tony Awards, is talking about Turn of the Century, which he is directing at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago. It plays to Nov. 2. The stars are Jeff Daniels and Rachel York. The book is by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, the writers of Jersey Boys. "We started working on this show before they did Jersey Boys," Tune says.

The words and music are by Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart, Rodgers and Hammerstein and the Beatles, among others. But, Tune says, this is not your typical jukebox musical. He'll explain, he says — but it's complicated.

"When I tell people that the title is Turn of the Century, they immediately think of 1900. So I say, 'What about the one we've just gone through — 1999 into 2000?' And they say, 'Oh, yeah.' Well, this musical involves both those turns. You get two turns for the price of one." This means that it takes place during the era when the American popular song was invented and rose to its greatest heights. "It starts in 1999, at a New Year's Eve party on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. A producer and his wife are giving the party and they've hired a terrific pianist. The producer's wife has asked a girlfriend of hers to sing."

Rachel York and Jeff Daniels in Turn of the Century
photo by Liz Lauren

It turns out that she and the pianist had "one evening of romance" a few weeks earlier "and he never called her back. There's oil and water involved." She starts to sing, and "now it's nearing midnight. Fireworks are starting and the guests go on the terrace. When it's midnight, the guests sing 'Auld Lang Syne.'" And then something strange happens. "When the people return they're not the same people. They're people from the turn of the century 1900. The pianist and singer go on the terrace and look down. They see that certain buildings from 1999 aren't there. There are horses and buggies and no taxis. They realize this means they have no money. What are they going to do? The only thing he can do is play piano, and she can sing."

So they go back and finish the set. "They choose Irving Berlin's 'Alexander's Ragtime Band,' which hadn't been written in 1900, and nobody had ever heard it. There's a music publisher there, and he says he loves the song — do you have any more like it? The pianist says to the singer, 'Look what's fallen into our lap.' They start releasing all the great songs not written yet — Gershwin, Porter, Berlin. They become very successful, overnight stars."

Tune emphasizes again that it's not a typical jukebox musical. "The songs they release are influenced by the situation," he says, "and by their relationship. The music comes from their subconscious. It's not a parade of hits. It's a study of a relationship. [It's] a 'what-if' musical. It's quite impossible — unless it could really happen. It couldn't happen — but who knows?"

Might it move to Broadway? "My hope is that it's a wonderful show in Chicago, and that will lead us to the next step. We're still finding out what it is. That's the exciting part — to make this trip through the unexplored."

<i>Turn of the Century</i>'s Jeff Daniels, Rick Elice, Marshall Brickman and Tommy Tune.
Turn of the Century's Jeff Daniels, Rick Elice, Marshall Brickman and Tommy Tune. Photo by Michael Brosilow
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