Will Doctor Dolittle Be Tune-Smithed by Tommy?

News   Will Doctor Dolittle Be Tune-Smithed by Tommy? One of theatre's worst-kept recent secrets — discussed on the internet, in talent agencies and in offices of touring houses around the country — is the ongoing negotiations for Tony Award-winning director-choreographer Tommy Tune to re-stage and star in a remount of the recently sidetracked national tour of Doctor Dolittle.
Tommy Tune
Tommy Tune Photo by Aubrey Reuben

As of Oct. 12, the prospect of Tune resuscitating the slow-to-sell musical, which closed Oct. 2 in Hershey, PA, after only nine weeks on tour, was, officially, just rumor. Spokespeople for the producing team (which includes Nederlander Presentations) would not comment about a Tune-filled future for the project, despite indications that Doctor Dolittle was far from dead.

For example, tickets for its Nov. 29-Dec. 18 Seattle engagement have remained on sale, and "are selling well," according to a spokesperson for The 5th Avenue Theatre. Some venues, like 5th Avenue, have promised Dolittle to their large subscriberships and would have to scramble to replace the title if it didn't come in.

Historically, producers are reluctant to announce a project's details before its T's — or two T's, in this case — are crossed. Negotiations with numerous parties — including Actors' Equity Association — are part of the complicated process of reinventing a show after its first life is prematurely cut short.

The rumors of the Tune-smithing of Doctor Dolittle were supported by the fact that Tune was sighted at the late-September Philadelphia and Hershey, PA, engagements of the musical. Tune is easy to spot: The lanky star is 6-foot-6-1/2 inches tall.

Additionally, following the Oct. 2 shutdown of the show, which left almost 30 actors jobless, an article in the Owensboro, KY, Messenger-Inquirer (on Oct. 5) cited the show's general manager Randy Buck announcing "we're not dead yet" and that Tune was interested in starring in and re-staging the show. (Owensboro is where the production was teched prior to its Aug. 2 launch in Pittsburgh.) Performers from the shuttered production told Playbill.com they learned the producers were hoping to get special permission from Equity to make the remount happen sooner rather than later, perhaps starting rehearsals in late October. An Equity rule requires producers to wait six weeks before they re-start a shuttered show.

It is thought the show would be recast, either partially or fully, and that it might include more tap and specialty movement — signatures of the showman Tune, who helped turn My One and Only, The Will Rogers Follies, Nine and Grand Hotel the Musical into Broadway gold.

The 66-year-old Texas-bred Tune would take over for Tony Award-nominee Tom Hewitt in the title role of the British veterinarian who can talk to animals. Rex Harrison played the role in the 1967 film version. Drawing on his film, Leslie Bricusse penned book, music and lyrics for this stage version, which is much altered since its recent London and U.K. productions.

Playbill.com learned that auditions for the revived production are ongoing, and that original cast members are auditioning. Dee Hoty (The Will Rogers Follies) has been offered the part of the leading lady, sources close to the production told Playbill.com. Nancy Anderson played the part Aug. 2-Oct. 2.

There is also talk of rewriting and clarifying the script further, perhaps trimming back some of the "puppet" concept seen in the recent staging directed by Glenn Casale. The part of Matthew, played in the film by Anthony Newley, is expected to be reworked for the Seattle bow, as well.

The tour was announced to play dates into summer 2006. When sales were soft, producers pulled the plug and scrambled to see if they could clean up what seemed like a commercial idea: A family-friendly musical with a bouncy score, quirky talking animals and colorful settings that include a circus and an exotic far-off island.

If Doctor Dolittle had any hopes for an eventual New York run (which was not necessarily the goal of the project), that wish would seem to be rekindled with the entrance of Tune, whose razzle-dazzle has delighted Broadway audiences. He's a nine-time Tony Award winner.

The show's original price tag was $3 million, Variety reported. It is thought that the re-fashioning of the musical would cost another $1 million.

As for the recasting issue, an internal letter from Equity obtained by the trade paper Variety stated, "We are still in negotiations with the producer about the possible reopening of Doctor Dolittle. Equity's current position includes a four-week buyout for anyone not offered a role in the revised staging and unemployment insurance, whether the actor receives an offer or not."

As previously reported by Playbill.com, this version of the tale is markedly different from a staging of the property that emerged in London in recent years. Rob Ashford was the choreographer of the production that ended Oct. 2. Pittsburgh CLO's Van Kaplan was the lead producer of the staging, partnering with Nederlander Presentations and others.

The stage show is based on the 1967 Academy Award-nominated film of the same name, which had Rex Harrison as the distracted, misanthropic physician who got along better with animals than people. He changed disciplines and became a brilliant veterinarian, with the help of his parrot, Polynesia, who taught him all the animal languages. The song "(If We Could) Talk to the Animals" won an Oscar for Best Song.