We're in Tommy Tune's duplex penthouse apartment, looking down on a panoramic afternoon view of midtown Manhattan through wraparound windows. Behind us, we hear Tune's distinctive tenor laughing with someone on the floor above. We turn.
Dressed in different textures of black, Tune makes his entrance down a spiral staircase: first those feet that have given him so much trouble in the last two years, then the legs that made his fortune, then the parts that figure so prominently in his newly published memoirs, then the mid section he keeps trim at age 56, then the vocal equipment showcased in his new solo album, then, finally, the Texas-broad Tune Smile.
In fall 1995, while on a tryout tour with Busker Alley, the Broadway icon Tommy Tune landed wrong during a routine dance step, and broke his foot. The musical closed, Tune was confined to bed in this room for months. The restless nine-time Tony winning director, choreographer and actor used the time to produce "Footnotes: A Memoir" from Simon and Schuster. and "Slow Dancin" a CD from RCA Victor. Both released Oct. 28, 1997. Since his recovery he workshopped a stage adaptation of the Irving Berlin film musical Easter Parade on the West Coast, now headed for Broadway via Australia in 1998.
-- By Robert Viagas
VIAGAS: Why at this point in your career are you writing your memoirs?
TUNE: I broke my foot on Oct. 1, 1995 [during the final tryout performance of Busker Alley in Florida]. I was in bed with my foot up, and I'm not a very good invalid, I'm afraid. I couldn't get up to walk across the room and get a Diet Coke. I couldn't do anything. I had to stay off of my foot. I couldn't sleep and was feeling guilty because the whole show [Busker Alley] had been canceled because of my fall. One night I heard this voice in my head. It kept saying "I never had a grandfather. I never had a grandfather. I never had a grandfather. . ." So I rolled over and wrote it down, and I finally went to sleep. The next morning I woke up and looked at it and said, "What's this?" One of my grandfathers was killed by a coal mine collapse when Mom was four. The other got killed by a local farmhand who shot grandma, then himself. Wow! I never really put all that together.
So I kept writing. I didn't know I was writing a book. I was just writing some thoughts. After a few months it got to a place where it looked like it was solid, I took it to my agent and said, "Would you mind reading this this weekend?" He took it on Friday. He called me Saturday and said "I read it straight through. You have a book. I'll take to the literary department on Monday." On Tuesday they called and said Michael Korda of Simon & Schuster wants to publish your book. So it sold in 24 hours.
VIAGAS: How far along was it?
TUNE: It was essentially done. He asked me to write more on certain things. But not much. I always knew if I wrote a book, it would be called "Footnotes," but I didn't know it would be the double meaning of being off my foot! VIAGAS: Did the CD come out of that injury as well?
TUNE: I think I had graduated from crutches to cane at the time I did the CD. But they both came out of not being able to dance. Your creativity bottles up and it just creates . . . gas. [Laughs.] It had to come out. I had to find some avenue to channel my energy.
VIAGAS: Had you ever considered a recording career before that?
TUNE: A long time ago, but really I wasn't ready. Now, I was.
VIAGAS: Is there a story behind your choice of songs? What, for instance, made you pick Dave Frishberg's "Sweet Kentucky Ham"?
TUNE: It's lonely. It's a real treatise on loneliness. I think anybody that tours understands that. I also wrote about it in the book.
VIAGAS: You write about the lonely sound of hotel keys dropped on a coffee table in an empty hotel room.
TUNE: Yeah, that. That's where "Sweet Kentucky Ham" came from. I've just gotten back from another performance tour, "Tommy Tune and the Rhythm Kings: Everything Old Is New Again." We've been working together for 12 years. Little by little we keep fixing and trimming and adding. Now it's in the best shape that it's ever been in.
VIAGAS: Are the CD songs from that tour?
TUNE: No. I've learned that records are a very different medium. The way we sing on Broadway does not work well in your living room, where I'm singing right in your ear. I love to entertain here. I love to cook. And when the time comes that you've got all the food ready and the champagne out and the candles lit. With all that, you want the right music. So you put one [a show album] on and it's soft for a couple of numbers AND THEN A REAL LOUD ONE COMES ON. So you have to keep saying to your dinner partner, "Excuse me" and turning it down. What I wanted with my CD was something that I could trust, that the listener could trust. If they put this on there's not going to be that jar. It's just going to be nice. It's going to be romantic and it will fit with the dinner right here, looking out at the city [demonstrates a reverie] . . . Just like that. It's for your intimate time. And its not something you are supposed to sit down and listen to. You put it on and you go about your evening -- and I'm there for you!
VIAGAS: Have you tried it out?
TUNE: Yeah. [Laughs.] It went very well. You have to test these things! I did have a preview. I said, "This is a little embarrassing but I made an album. May I play if for you?" It made for a nice evening. You have to test it. I rearranged some of the songs as the result of it. This is a show. This is a dance. You do a dry run. I added a song. "Dance in the Old Fashion Way." You should put it on and dance to it with your wife. It's been tested!
VIAGAS: Did you include "It Only Happens When I Dance With You" as a preview of Easter Parade?
TUNE: I've loved that song forever. I didn't know I was going to do Easter Parade when I recorded it.
VIAGAS: Did did the song lead you to the show?
TUNE: No. Easter Parade came to me. The Berlin sisters came to me. They're represented by Rodgers and Hammerstein and the two Rodgers and Hammerstein leads took me to lunch. And I had no idea what they wanted to talk about. They said, "We handle the Berlin estate and the Berlin sisters want you to make a show of their father's music like you did with My One and Only [which used Gershwin songs]." I couldn't believe it. I said, "Let me get this straight. The Berlin catalogue you are offering to me to make a show?" He withdrew all of his music from Mr. President on because he was so hurt by the critics .
VIAGAS: In "Footnotes" you tell the story of the Broadway production of Stepping Out being delayed because it was built around an Irving Berlin song, and he wouldn't give you permission to use it in the show
TUNE: Isn't that ironic? And now I have any song I want! It's so odd. Because without "Stepping Out with My Baby" that ruined that show. So it's odd isn't it? Life is so corny.
VIAGAS: Easter Parade will be the second time that you are approaching a role that was originated by Fred Astaire.
TUNE: What was the other one?
VIAGAS: My One and Only, which is based on Funny Face, which starred Fred and Adele Astaire.
TUNE: But Funny Face and My One and Only bear no resemblance except for the score. The story was totally, totally different. Funny Face has nothing to do with a flyer and a swimmer or anything.
VIAGAS: In "Footnotes" you mention a meeting you had with Fred Astaire. Did he ever give you pointers beyond the praise you quote in the book?
TUNE: I met him that one time after My One and Only when he came backstage. Nothing beyond that.
VIAGAS: Do you find it a special challenge, then, to take on an Astaire role?
TUNE: It's so different. We're so different. I don't see any sort of similarity except that he is my idol. But I don't try to emulate him. I can't ! I can't dance like that. I'm twice his height! I'm much more like falling water and he was, like, this firecracker [snaps fingers]. I always said his body was so thin and so wiry he was like Jiminy Cricket. I'm much more legato.
VIAGAS: How has Easter Parade changed? You mentioned that you had access to the entire songbook. What songs have you added, and why?
TUNE: Higher energy songs are better for the stage and lower energy songs are better for movies. And higher energy means higher stakes. You have to raise the stakes when you adapt film to the stage. That's why they had trouble with Gigi. They were so honest to the movie. Gigi is one of my favorite movie musicals. To bring it to the stage you have to raise the stakes so the tension is compressed, so that it travels further.
[Gets out a script and consults it.] We're using "Midnight Choo-Choo," "Snookie-Ookums" -- those were both in it. "Alexander's Ragtime Band" - that wasn't in it. "Grizzly Bear," "Everybody's Doing It," "It's Over." We made a lot more of the breakup between the Ann Miller character and the Fred Astaire character. They just sort of sketched in the movie because that because Ann Miller wasn't supposed to play that part. It was Cyd Charisse and she broke her leg or something. No, no. She hurt her back. The truth of it is that Gene Kelly was supposed to do Easter Parade and he broke his leg. So that's all an odd thing too. If I hadn't broken my foot I would probably be doing Busker Alley and not this. It's so odd. "Blue Skies," "Easy to Dance With," "You Would be Surprised," "Play a Simple Melody," "I Love a Piano." We had to be careful not to be too greedy. When we did the first workshop we used too many. We had to thin it out There is such a wealth. You have to be careful.
VIAGAS: Why are you taking it to Australia?
TUNE: More bang for the buck. And they've never done a new musical before. They've only done versions of our shows. . . South Pacific, Hello Dolly, etc. They are very, very gung-ho to create a new musical. We go down Nov. 12, do a six-week workshop and then we take a break. If all goes well we'll go back and do it in our summer , which is their winter. We'll do it in Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and Adelaide.
VIAGAS: Why are there comparatively few show tunes on the CD?
TUNE: It's not a show album. It's an intimate album. Most show tunes have a little too much punch.
VIAGAS: What do you listen to, around the house?
TUNE: Right now I'm loving John Michael Montgomery, he's Country & Western. Clint Black. Carly Simon's latest album, I love. James Taylor. Tony Bennett.
VIAGAS: Do you aspire to have a recording career like theirs?
TUNE: This is the beginning. We'll see if there is any interest. I learned a lot on this album. It [recording] is a whole other world. These are two very new things for me -- to make a debut album and to make a debut as an author. It brings me great excitement and joy and makes me feel younger than my years. Cary Grant told me that one should do something that you are afraid of every year, something new that you have never done before that you are afraid of. I don't work with fear, but I know what he meant: Do something new that you have never done before every year and this has come out.
VIAGAS: Do you have plans like that for the future in other media?
TUNE: I don't dream of movies or TV. They're not my dreams. My true thing is performing live. That's what I've dedicated my life to.
VIAGAS: Has your foot healed?
TUNE: It's well, but it was a long haul. I had to re-teach myself to dance.
VIAGAS: Exactly which bone did you break? There was some controversy over that. One writer said you closed the show because you broke your little toe.
TUNE: It's the fifth metatarsal, right here. [Points to side of foot, then points to photograph of his bare feet on the book's dust jacket. There is a bump on the side of the foot.] That's it right there. I have a bigger foot than I had before!
VIAGAS: What step were you doing when it broke?
TUNE: It was very simple. It doesn't even have a name. I've done it a thousand times. I had to pull on that lamppost and turn around. [Get's up and demonstrates.] I came down and my foot went like that.
VIAGAS: In fall 1995 the front of the St. James Theatre was painted with a scene from the show where you're swinging on a lamppost, and the part you could see best was the feet, because they were closest to street level. I remember looking at your foot balanced on the pediment of that lamppost and thinking, "That's how he broke, it right there."
TUNE: And it really happened in the last 30 seconds of the performance.I finished the show but I couldn't dance the finale. So I took my bow.and then we had a big dance off and I grabbed Darcie [Roberts] -- we played opposite each other -- and she said "Oh Tuuuune!" and she helped me off. Then they took my shoe off [winces]. My attitude toward pain is: Dancing Hurts. But nothing has ever hurt that bad.
VIAGAS: A lot of people didn't think you had actually been hurt. You deal with that in the book. How was that at the time? You never had a press conference to say that all the things people were saying were false.
TUNE: I was broken in spirit and in body and the last thing that I wanted to do was hobble into some press conference and defend my truth. So I just let people say what they say. It doesn't matter. I was in no mood to see anybody. I was in that bed [points] feeling really bad. This is a very bad time for me. I was trying to ponder it out. Now that I am through it I really think that it was God's way of saying "Take a break." I really believe that. I am a different person having had that happen, and having created this book and this album. I'm different. My talent has shifted. My perception of the world is different. And I'm better.
VIAGAS: There was a period of time where we didn't see you, and people, frankly, were concerned about your health.
TUNE: I was on the road. That's a misperception about me: People think that I'm not working because I'm not working on Broadway. I did a tour of Bye Bye Birdie with Susan Egan, who's great. And "Tommy Tune Tonight."
VIAGAS: So you're healthy.
VIAGAS: Will we ever see Busker Alley, or see you in it?
TUNE: I don't know. I am insured by Lloyd's of London and they are in litigation with the producers of Busker Alley. Lloyd's doesn't want to pay. I don't know what the loophole is. They don't tell me. And I don't bug them with "Well, are we or aren't we?" I did that for a while. I'd say "I'm feeling a lot better." They'd say, "We're working on it." I finally just stopped asking.
VIAGAS: So it's possible but it's. . .
TUNE: It's improbable. And it's too bad, because we had finally got that show good -- because that show was not good. For a few months that show was not good. And starting with our Baltimore engagement we found the show. In Baltimore and Tampa and we had our show. They even brought Frank Rich down to see it. He's a good friend. He was no longer the critic at the Times but they said "What do you think?" And he said, "This is a show. It's a wonderful musical. Fix that and that -- but do it." So the St. James was painted. We were coming in. I don't know why there was so much written about me, except that it made it interesting copy.
VIAGAS: Your mass-media image has sometimes made you the butt of jokes. FOX-TV's "Mad TV" recently did a skit, Tommy Tune's Batman, The Musical.
TUNE: That's funny.
VIAGAS: They were definitely making fun of you.
TUNE: I don't mind that. I hear about these things, but I don't always see them. My favorite thing was in Paul Rudnick's Jeffrey. The priest that loved show business and thought that I should be pope: "I want Tommy Tune for Pope!" [Laughs.] I loved that. That was great.
VIAGAS:Would you say there are other misperceptions about you? Things you would like to correct?
TUNE: I made a joke in The New York Times in one of my very first interviews. They wanted to know what was my real name and I said, "Tune is not my real name my real name is Tunesmith, but shortened it to make it more theatrical." It was a joke, but they didn't take it that way. It is my real name. Now I say, "Who would choose a name like that?" Especially being my height. It's such a joke name. And it sounds so short and -- look at me!" I think that's the biggest misperception. And all the others. . . I can't get into it. It's like: If you believe your best review then you have to believe your worst review. In reality, you're not as good as your best review and not as bad as your worst. And people's misperceptions of me -- I guess that's all just part of the myth. And that's why I wanted to just walk in truth with this book. I didn't want to tap dance around issues that came up, because I was not writing a book, I was just reviewing with my life, channel surfing through my life as I lay there with my foot up. I was. My physicality , which is my roots, was compromised so I let my vulnerability carry me.
VIAGAS: Is your choice of songs on the CD work reflect that, too?
TUNE: These are songs that I love. The most contemporary, except for "Kentucky Ham," are from the 50s and were popular when I was in high school. "You Belong to Me" and "Wish You were Here" -- those are songs from my coming of age time, from back in the days when our pop songs came from Broadway and then they would show up on "The Hit Parade" on television. My pipeline to Broadway was "The Hit Parade." It was on Saturdays. It was 30 minutes and they did the top 10 songs and two extras.
VIAGAS: Why do you think dance, as such, has disappeared from mass culture?
TUNE: It hasn't disappeared. It's on MTV. It's too expensive to do the variety television shows every week.
VIAGAS: Why don't we have film musicals as we once did?
TUNE: That I don't know. I guess we've forgotten how to do it. Like the lost prescription for mummification: they lost the formula. When the studio system died and the stars started driving the movies instead of the studios, that heralded the end of golden age of the movie musicals. Because a star can't do that. A star can say "Give me this many millions and I will do this action film for you." But a star can't put together a musical. A star is part of a musical. Judy Garland, couldn't demand that. Or Fred Astaire or anybody. There was the Arthur Fried unit. There were these people that knew how to do it. With the death of the studios and their stables of talent, it's the tail wagging the dog.
VIAGAS: In the book you talk about how you always feel you are coming in at the end of an era. Do you really feel that way about Broadway with all the musicals that are lined up to open?
TUNE: I did. When I wrote that and when it came time to turn it in, I did have to make an amendment because I had gone to see Ragtime in Toronto and of course I just think it's great. I think it's cyclical. Like before A Chorus Line, there were so many empty theaters. And then Michael did A Chorus Line, and suddenly the theaters started filling up. That one show revitalized the street. Then more shows started coming again, but then they started to die off. Now there are some new musicals being done. A friend of mine, Alan Burns, has written a book called Gypsy Tales telling of his life in the theater. He asked me to write an introduction to it. And I was reminded of what it used to be and what it is. And how it didn't have to be a mega-hit to be a success. A show could open and be good and run for a couple of seasons, pay back and make a modest profit and then vacate the premises and there would be room for another show to move in. How long has it been since you've been to the Winter Garden? We used to see a different show in the Winter Garden each season or every other season we'd go to the new musical at the Winter Garden. Cats - that's it. I haven't been in the Winter Garden for years. So it's changed. The megahit has taken over. The designer musical. The scenery is the dance now, not the choreography as much. The scenery dances. Dance is very underused in Phantom of the Opera -- though the whole show moves great and I love Phantom of the Opera. But there's no dance. The film musical. . . I don't know if it will ever come back.
VIAGAS: What is the purpose of dance in musicals?
TUNE: To further the story. If it's not taking the story further, it's just killing time. But it's not being used that way a lot today. And yet, it is. What Graciela Daniele has done in Ragtime is magnificent. I adore Graciela, I really do. I write her fan letters all the time. She's my favorite because she really understands how to use the element of dance to tell the story. And that's what appeals to me.
VIAGAS: You wrote in the book how much your success is owed to your agent, Eric Shepard, who has since died. What was his special quality? Have you now found another way to get that kind of motivation?
TUNE: No. There is only one Eric and he really created my career. He danced in the chorus on Broadway and he worked his way up. When I came on the scene he was, like, the agent. Especially if you were a guy who sang and danced. He never allowed me to choreograph a Broadway show. I would say, "They want me to choreograph." He'd say, "You do not choreograph Broadway shows. You direct and choreograph Broadway shows. If you choreograph a Broadway show you will never be a director." And you know, that what's almost killed Michael Bennett. He could not get a job directing a Broadway show. He could only get a job choreographing a Broadway show. For a long time they would not give it to him. It was odd. He had to do it himself. I thought Eric was kidding me. But he said no. Because there's no future to it.
VIAGAS: There are several startlingly sexually explicit sections in the book. Was that a deliberate choice?
TUNE: I don't think it's any more important or any less important than anything else I discuss in the book. But I want to walk in the truth. I want to live in my time. I'm a dancer and my whole body goes into my work. So I couldn't write this book without a penis. That would be coy and I'm too old to be coy and we are heading into the millennium . . . I'm doing a lot of these interviews and for some reason, everybody tends to ask about that.
VIAGAS: It does kind of jump out.
TUNE: It doesn't jump out to me. I guess this is the kind of thing that people usually do not tell on themselves but other people tell on them. I suppose that's the difference. I just think that sexuality is part of life and it certainly is a part of my creativity. I think sexuality . . . it puzzles me. Like the fact that men walk around with their shirts off and women don't -- that puzzles me. I don't understand that. I have always just liked people. Since I was little I didn't get the difference. She was beautiful. He was beautiful. . .
VIAGAS: Speaking of which, are you still staying mum on the identity of the mysterious woman you say in "Footnotes" was the love of your life?
TUNE: [Laughter] Well of course. That's why I wrote it that way.
VIAGAS: At least one newspaper did bring out a photo of you at a Halloween party with Twiggy that fits your description in the book.
TUNE: I don't want to talk about that.
VIAGAS: You write in the book about the unhappy end of your relationship with Michel Stuart (of A Chorus Line). Since the book went to press, Mr. Stuart was killed in a car accident--
TUNE: How about that? I had written to Michel and told him that I had written a book and I said, "You'll love some of it." And he wrote back and said "What parts?" And I said "You'll see. You'll see," thinking that life goes on forever. My last letter from Michael Stuart was a very very touching letter, saying, "There were two ways I could have done it [ended the relationship] and I did it the wrong way." The last words that Michael Stuart wrote was, "I do believe that I found my soul mate in this life -- and I lost him. Who knows? God knows. Maybe in the next." The next thing I knew, like five days later, I got a call in the middle of the night telling me that Michael is dead. I think that we know [when we're going to die]. I think, not our brains know, but our bodies know. I think dancers' bodies know more than we know. And I think -- somewhere - Michel knew. "Not in this life. Maybe the next." He sent me a book called "Care of the Soul." In it he wrote, look: [It says, "Tommy. There are no accidents. Love, Michael"] Accidents! And that's how he died. It's just unbelievable. He didn't know -- and yet he knew.
VIAGAS: You talk about these windows in Footnotes, and how you get the urge to jump out of them nearly them every day from loneliness. Has someone new come into your life since you wrote that?
VIAGAS: You say in the book that you pray. Do you consider yourself a religious person?
TUNE: Yes. But not in any one organized religion. I long ago. It happened in Sunday school. The teacher was talking to us about God, and I looked out the window and in the clouds I saw God! And I called to the teacher and said "Look! Look! Look! I can see God in the clouds! There he is!" And the teacher said, "Tsk! Oh no. God is not in the clouds." I was so put down by that! I know I saw God in the clouds. Of course you can see God in the clouds. You can see God anywhere you look. I didn't like being told I couldn't see God when I knew very well that I had.
VIAGAS: Ever seen Him again?
TUNE: [Laughs.] Well, not in the clouds -- she put an end to that!
VIAGAS: Did you discover anything else about yourself during your recuperation?
TUNE: Recently I've begun to paint. I love to paint. I'm working on a series on famous stars --impressions of their careers. I guess I'm an Impressionist.
VIAGAS: Have you ever been displayed?
TUNE: No. But I've been asked to. I've been offered a show. It's just that there's so many hours in a day and you have to decide how you wish to spend them. Right now we're working every day from 10 to 2 on getting Easter Parade ready . . . Getting it together so that when we hit Australia we'll know where we're at.
VIAGAS: If you knew a young dancer was going to revive My One and Only what kind of advice would you give him?
TUNE: Oh, find it for yourself. Find your own dance. You have to do your own dance in life.