PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Tommy Tune

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29 Apr 2008

Tommy Tune
Tommy Tune
Photo by Aubrey Reuben
The Fred & Adele Astaire Awards have found a nice way to honor Tommy Tune's 50th year in show business.

On June 2, Tune will receive the organization's Douglas Watt Lifetime Achievement Award. Tune is already the owner of two Astaire Awards, as well as nine Tony Awards, honoring the many shows he directed and choreographed, including Nine, My One and Only, Grand Hotel, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas and The Will Rogers Follies. Tune has not been represented on Broadway in more than a decade, but this year he is returning to the stage with two projects: in the fall, at the Goodman Theatre, he will direct the world premiere of Turn of the Century, a new musical from the Jersey Boys writers; and he recently premiered an autobiographical show called Steps in Time. He spoke to Playbill.com about his dancing life past and present.

Playbill.com: You are being given this new honor, the Douglas Watt Lifetime Achievement Award at the Fred Astaire Awards this year.
Tommy Tune: Yes, I'm just nuts about it. I've been given the Fred Astaire Award twice before, but the third time's the charm. (Laughs)

Playbill.com: I imagine every dancer has his or her own special relationship to Fred Astaire, whether they met him or not. Was he always an idol of yours?
TT: I initially wanted to be a ballerino. That was my introduction to dance. I was really good, but I just kept growing taller and taller. And I remember the summer I returned after I got a big spurt of growth and I was really skinny. I looked at myself in the mirror in my tights and said, "Tommy Tune, you're going to have to be some other kind of prince." I was really in a quandary, and my mother took me to see "Easter Parade." And there was this guy, Fred Astaire, who looked real tall and skinny to me, because on the screen everyone looks tall, and he was dancing around in his pants! And I went, "Well, OK! Then, that's what I want to do!" It was at that moment I put all my energies into tapping, instead of ballet. And I'd had all that good ballet training, which has served me so well.

Playbill.com: Did you ever get a chance to meet Fred Astaire?
TT: I did. I met him once. We were doing My One and Only in Los Angeles. I love to know who's in the audience. I'd done about 1,000 performances of the show by then, so I needed new challenges. One night they said, "Esther Williams is coming." Great! We dance in the water in one number, so I'm going to pay special attention to that number, because she's going to love that. Then this person would come and that person would come. It's a trick I learned from Carol Channing, my theatrical godmother. She always needed to know one person in the audience. It helps you focus. You bring the show to life in a new way. You can color things differently to freshen them up.



Playbill.com: So one night someone came and told you Fred Astaire was in the audience?
TT: Well, I said to the stage manager, "Do not tell me if Fred Astaire is in the audience." Now, I never peek out at the audience through the curtain. But I looked out of the peek-place this one night, and right smack-dab in the middle of the whole audience, there was sitting Fred Astaire! Well, I'm telling you that in that performance someone else in my body did the dancing, somebody else in my body sang the songs. It was all completely virgin territory — I'd never done the show before in my life. I had the extreme sensation that my hands were growing larger every time I moved them. By the end of the show they were reaching down to the floor. It was just an out-of-body experience. And I'm told that was one of my best performances. And he came backstage, looking exactly like Fred Astaire. There was no difference between Fred Astaire on screen and Fred Astaire in life. He was one perfect thing. He looked up at me and said, "You're a tall son of a bitch." And he cracked himself up. He doubled over in laughter. He couldn't believe he'd said that. And when he left, he exited down the hallway. And all the kids had waited to get a glimpse of him, but they knew he was shy and didn't want to impose. So they were all peeking out the doors of their dressing rooms. And he felt them there. He got to the end of the hall, and he ripped out a little tap turn and disappeared! And we just went "Wow!" A day later, I received a note from him that I cherish. And I think I might read that note when I receive this award.

Playbill.com: When you get an award like this, does it cause you to reflect on your career?
TT: Well, this comes at a very special time. This is my 50th year in show business. And I have just put together a new show that I just previewed. There is this theatre company ten minutes out of Boston called the Reagle Players. I just did three performances, the world premiere. I'm just trying it out. It's a sort of "time-stepping through time," if you will, in which I step through periods of my life. I'm very much in that mode right now. I borrowed the title from Fred Astaire. Noel Coward gave Fred Astaire the title of his 1959 autobiography, "Steps in Time." I purloined it. Let me tell you, my agency is ICM, and Fred Astaire was with ICM, and my agent had brought him to that show of My One and Only. Afterwards, the agent called me and said, "Let me tell you what he said through the show. One thing he said was 'Watch him, watch him! He's going to make her look good right now. See! I told you! He made her look good!'" It was all about giving and partnering.

Playbill.com: Is it your intention to bring this new show other places?
TT: Well, I just got started. I have to say, it worked like a charm. I will be reviewing the tapes, so I can see where to improve it.

Playbill.com: And it's all about your career.
TT: Yeah. I go back, I talk about my parents. They were wonderful ballroom dancers together. When you saw them on the floor, it looked like they were skating.

Playbill.com: Looking back over your shows, are there shows you consider your best achievements? Or is that a difficult choice to make?
TT: Difficult, because every show you do is flawed. As hard as you try to make perfection, there's always a crack somewhere. I should celebrate the whole arc, but I always delve into the crack. "I didn't solve that, and I didn't solve that."

Playbill.com: Do you mind when people revive shows that you originally put your stamp on on Broadway? Do you get a proprietary feeling? For instance, when they recently revived Nine.
TT: Well, Nine I didn't want to see, because Raul Julia died, [producer] Michel Stuart died, Anita Morris died. I just didn't want to be reminded of that. That's hard. Those people are younger than me. And to imagine that they are gone and I'm still here… They were so much a part of it. I finally did see it. Maury Yeston called me and said, "David Leveaux would like to invite you to it." I thought it would be very rude of me to say no. And it started and I was a goner. He did not do one thing that I did with that show. I was astounded. It was totally original. But, then the reviews came out and said "It was wonderful, but Tommy Tune's production…." I got the best reviews of my life for people's memories of Nine!