PLAYBILL ON-LINE'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with Tommy Tune

PLAYBILL ON-LINE'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with Tommy Tune The Las Vegas Strip has some impressive landmarks, all of them towering. At one end, there's the Stratosphere Casino and Hotel tower, where on a clear day you can see forever. The middle is dominated by Paris Casino's 50-story Eiffel Tower replica. At the end, stand Luxor's pyramid and sandstone obelisk. And, across the boulevard, at the MGM Grand, there's a towering theatrical treasure: 6'6" Texan Tommy Tune, the nine-time Tony Award winner, who has found a new (hopefully, temporary) home there. Tune arrived in New York from Houston on St. Patrick's Day, 1964. That day, armed with casting notices, he auditioned for a stock tour of Irma La Douce and got the job. He made his Broadway debut in 1965 in the chorus of Baker Street (also in the line: Christopher Walken). Tune's been perennially onstage since 1947, when he appeared in a dance recital performing "The Cow Cow Boogie." (He says he copied the faux cowhide bodysuits with longhorns and rope tails for his last directorial success, The Will Rogers Follies). Tune has been described as "long on talent as on legs" and being responsible for reshuffling "the elements of old-style musicals into state-of-the-art." In December, 1995, a week prior to New York previews of Busker Alley, Tune slipped onstage in Tampa in the final moments of the show and broke his right foot (two years earlier he broke his left one). Amid nasty rumors, the troubled show closed. Worse, Tune, then 55, was told he might never dance again. But he did. Dressed in top hat and tails and surrounded by $45-million in special effects in the MGM Grand's extravaganza EFX, Tune brings his brand of youthful vigor, seemingly effortless talent and a bit of Broadway to 1,700 patrons -- and is rumored to earn in excess of $100,000 a week. After a year in the show, Tune has made it such a hit that the MGM has just "reupped" him with a considerable raise.
Joel Grey and Tommy Tune in June, 1999.
Joel Grey and Tommy Tune in June, 1999. (Photo by Photo by Aubrey Reuben)

The Las Vegas Strip has some impressive landmarks, all of them towering. At one end, there's the Stratosphere Casino and Hotel tower, where on a clear day you can see forever. The middle is dominated by Paris Casino's 50-story Eiffel Tower replica. At the end, stand Luxor's pyramid and sandstone obelisk. And, across the boulevard, at the MGM Grand, there's a towering theatrical treasure: 6'6" Texan Tommy Tune, the nine-time Tony Award winner, who has found a new (hopefully, temporary) home there. Tune arrived in New York from Houston on St. Patrick's Day, 1964. That day, armed with casting notices, he auditioned for a stock tour of Irma La Douce and got the job. He made his Broadway debut in 1965 in the chorus of Baker Street (also in the line: Christopher Walken). Tune's been perennially onstage since 1947, when he appeared in a dance recital performing "The Cow Cow Boogie." (He says he copied the faux cowhide bodysuits with longhorns and rope tails for his last directorial success, The Will Rogers Follies). Tune has been described as "long on talent as on legs" and being responsible for reshuffling "the elements of old-style musicals into state-of-the-art." In December, 1995, a week prior to New York previews of Busker Alley, Tune slipped onstage in Tampa in the final moments of the show and broke his right foot (two years earlier he broke his left one). Amid nasty rumors, the troubled show closed. Worse, Tune, then 55, was told he might never dance again. But he did. Dressed in top hat and tails and surrounded by $45-million in special effects in the MGM Grand's extravaganza EFX, Tune brings his brand of youthful vigor, seemingly effortless talent and a bit of Broadway to 1,700 patrons -- and is rumored to earn in excess of $100,000 a week. After a year in the show, Tune has made it such a hit that the MGM has just "reupped" him with a considerable raise.

PBOL: Tommy Tune in Las Vegas and not on Broadway. It doesn't seem right. There's been great talk you're returning to theatre with the new Jerry Herman project, Miss Spectacular.
TT: It certainly seemed that way. Steve Wynn [the entrepreneur behind Mirage, Inc., which included Vegas casinos Bellagio, Mirage and Treasure Island] was very passionate about it. Jerry's score certainly lives up to the title and I was very excited about directing it. Then something unexpected happened. MGM-Grand, the corporation for whom I work, last month suddenly ate the entire Mirage empire, and I haven't heard anymore about it. Technically, MGM-Grand owns Miss Spectacular, but it was Steve's dream and Jerry's genius and, hopefully, my know-how that was to propel the production forward. I'd love to see the show realized. Jerry's score is simply sensational. It would be a spectacular winner!

PBOL: So this new Vegas stardom doesn't mean you've given up theatre?
TT: God, no! Theatre's my first love. When I'm approached about a new show, I immediately want to read the script, because 'i'm so easily seduced by the music. And, no matter how great the score is, if there's no strong book -- no story -- there's no musical. There've been discussions of interesting projects, but EFX was a great opportunity and they'll have to wait.

PBOL: Like Easter Parade, which you and Sandy Duncan did in Texas?
TT: EFX wanted at least a year's commitment here, so it had to be put on hold.

PBOL: You're quite a veteran of Broadway. What have you learned?
TT: That it's never easy. Track record or no track record. Success or failure. Broadway's going through some amazing changes. Revivals! And, finding new ways to do an old musical, wouldn't do anything for me. There's a certain safety net in revivals because you know you've got something before you start. I prefer the unknown. I'd rather struggle to create a new show, with all the accompanying problems and fights, than reinterpret an old one. I want to do new, exciting shows. I want to find people to write them. I'm not a writer. I wrote a book ("Footnotes," 1997), but I'm not a librettist. PBOL: The Busker Alley accident had to have been traumatic.
TT: It's a shock to be dancing to the extent of one's capacity on one beat of music and then not able to dance on the next. My whole body went into trauma. I was born to dance. It's in my blood. I had to dance again. I spent two hours every day on machines and was driven by a therapist. Then I did dance exercises, but instead of doing them vertically I did them horizontally. It was torture, but I had a goal. And I got lots of pep talks from Chita [Rivera]. They said she'd never dance again and look at her kick her heels!

PBOL: How did Vegas happen?
TT: They called out of nowhere. Michael Crawford opened the show and left after being injured. David Cassidy took over. The producers invited me to see it and I loved it. They made me an offer I couldn't refuse. I almost played Vegas years ago. I auditioned for Jule Styne's revue that was to open Caesar's Palace. I sang "You Gotta Have Heart" and was heading for the door when Jule yelled, "No, sing some more!" But I didn't have any more music. I asked the pianist, "Do you know `Time After Time'?" He didn't. Then Jule said, "I know it." He played it for me, and I said "That was great!" He replied, "It ought to be. I wrote it!" I honestly didn't know, but I scored some points. He even talked of putting an act together for me. I even thought of changing my name.

PBOL: But it's your real name, and so perfect for someone in theatre.
TT: True, but I'd always been embarrassed by it. On the way to the audition for Jule, this guy got in the elevator and looked up at me and said, `Hello. Who are you?' I imagine he was impressed or surprised by my height. I introduced myself and asked him, a total stranger, if I should change my name. He responded, `Not if you want to go around being who you are.' That was good advice, since I didn't want to be anyone else. He was Michael Bennett. He'd just received his first Broadway assignment as choreographer. When he found out I was a dancer, he suggested I audition for A Joyful Noise. So Vegas had to wait. Michael's choreography was dazzling, but the show closed after two weeks. That meeting changed my entire life, and Michael and I had a personal and professional alliance that lasted many years. And, now, all these years later, here I am at the MGM Grand in this fabulous dressing room suite they've totally redesigned [all white and quite chic] for me and my height.

PBOL: As a director-choreographer, you must have had ideas.
TT: Of course. The show was set, but they let me play around a bit to tailor it to my strengths. I wanted to open it differently. I kept asking, "How should I come on?" In shows, I'd entered through the audience, from stage right, stage left. I'd even flown in [My One and Only]. But I'd always dreamed of making this one particular splashy entrance and I said, "Do it." And they designed it. It's fabulous. [The entrance has parallels in magic shows.]

PBOL: You're onstage almost the entire 90 minutes.
TT: Once I enter I don't stop. So when I tell you I come back to the dressing room to rest, I mean it! But, as busy as I am onstage, I'm as busy off. I have fifteen quick changes and they're all so incredibly quick. I don't even know it. I don't have a moment! I step into the darkness, and we do them in a flash. Once I enter the show, there's not an opening I'm not involved in.

PBOL: Do you like Vegas?
TT: I like everything about it. The people. The excitement. I have the best of both worlds. I live atop a mountain, where we even have snow. The air's fantastic. So fresh. It's better than New York air.

PBOL: What about the air down here?
TT: We're in the desert and it's very dry, but it's amazing how the body acclimates. Iive learned how to maneuver myself and adjust. The difference between down here and up where I live is like night and day. It's an hour's drive to the Grand Theatre. I enter through the back and never see the casino. I'm not a gambler. Even if I was, I wouldn't have time. We do two shows a night, Tuesday through Saturday. I take a little nap between shows and grab a bite [on his special organic diet]. There is no down side. On my days off, I paint. I have time for that because there isn't the social life here. It's so calm where I live, and the vistas are magnificent. I'm finding lots of inspiration. I've done a huge series of paintings, my first really serious period.

PBOL: What about theatre?
TT: Theatre? There is no theatre! That's the one down side. Well, there's Chicago, which I saw. There were dancers I had worked with on Broadway. Because various shows have different dark nights, Iive managed to see a few things. I love the spectacles and magicians. I especially adore Siegfried & Roy and all those gorgeous animals.

PBOL: What about the audiences?
TT: For the most part, they are not theatre audiences, but that means I'm being discovered by people who've never seen me before.

PBOL: With billboards everywhere, and that huge sign outside, they can't miss you.
TT: It's wonderful, isn't it? The audiences love what we do. I have this little personal moment where I go downstage and talk with them. They ask interesting, intriguing questions because not everyone knows what we know.

PBOL: What will you do on your time off?
TT: We get an occasional week. There's one week, when this particular group comes and takes over the city. Almost everyone's in combat boots and they don't go to the shows. I don't know who they are. They only eat and go to strip bars. Almost every show closes. I go to New York, or L.A. or Seattle. Last month, with a lot of Chorus Line veterans, including Donna [McKechnie], I participated in a Los Angeles benefit honoring Michael Bennett.

PBOL: Do you miss Broadway?
TT: Oh, yes, I miss the shows and seeing friends, but many have been out to visit. Vegas is great, but it's not New York. Give my regards to Broadway and tell them I'll soon be there!

-- Ellis Nassour