Tommy Tune, the Broadway actor, dancer, choreographer and director who won nine Tony Awards for bringing a serious wow factor to musical theatre — he staged and choreographed The Will Rogers Follies, Nine, Grand Hotel, My One and Only, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas and more — never lost his love of performing, even if he has all but disappeared from commercial theatre as a visionary director of musicals.
(Boy, do we need him now! Just look at some of our recent and poorly reviewed shows and you can't help wondering what kind of oomph and sizzle Tune might have offered, possibly improving the commercial legs of those shows, if not the storytelling itself. "What Would Tommy Tune Do?" would be a useful sentence for a choreographer to scrawl in the margin of a script.)
Tune has not staged a Broadway show since 1994's The Best Little Whorehouse Goes Public, although he is credited as "production supervisor" of the 1994-98 hit revival of Grease. He did, however, quietly develop a new disco musical at the University of Miami in Florida in fall 2011, with librettist Mark Saltzman. They're hoping Fifty*Four*Forever (about the founder of Studio 54) will glitter in the future.
At age 73, he has not lost the itch to perform; he's had it since high school in Texas. In recent years he has appeared in New York and regionally with various song-and-dance acts (Tommy Tune Tonite!, Tommy Tune: White Tie and Tails and the autobiographical Steps in Time) and regionally in musicals (Dr. Doolittle on tour, the upcoming Houston Grand Opera revival of Show Boat, in which he'll play Cap'n Andy).
This month (Nov. 18, 25 and 26) he's playing six performances in Manhattan with his longtime musical director Michael Biagi (just them and a piano). The intimate cabaret act is called Taps, Tunes and Tall Tales at Feinstein's at Loews Regency.
We caught up with the 6-foot-6-inch Tune by telephone from Los Angeles, where he is shooting episodes of the newly revived TV comedy "Arrested Development."
Let's talk about the fact that you're dancing on a postage stamp-sized stage this week at Feinstein's at Loews Regency.
Tommy Tune: I'm making my New York, fancy-uptown, nightclub, cabaret, whatever-we-call-it debut. I've never done this before. This is a brand-new horizon for me.
Is this an all-new evening, or are you choosing material from Steps in Time?
TT: Well, it's my story, so there's so many ways to tell it! [Laughs.] I have some Steps in Time in it. I have a lot of new stuff — some tales. I believe in truth in advertising. You're getting taps, you're getting tunes, and you're getting tall tales. There is some Steps in Time involved, but every arrangement is different because I don't have the guys with me, and it's just Michael Biagi and me, and that's it. So, it feels like a new show.
Is there stuff that you never sung before?
TT: Oh, yeah. Michael found something in the bottom of his trunk that was the last thing that [late musical director and pianist] Wally Harper had sketched out for me. I forgot about it, and Michael was going through [material]. We're always searching for the right song, but mostly for the right lyric that pushes my story along, so that you don't have to talk so much — let the lyric do the work. There was this song called "Sand in My Shoes." And, it's not [the more famous] "Sand in my shoes… Sand from Havana." It's another song called "Sand in My Shoes." … "I've got sand in my shoes… The tide's just near me." Do you know that song?
No, I don't. Who wrote it?
TT: I didn't either. We don't know! But this was Wally's last gift for me. Wally would choose songs for me and put them in the right key and make little sketches, and this one got misplaced I guess, and so it's really — I think he's sending it to me from above, and it's just my favorite number that I do in the show.
Does it allow you to do soft-shoe?
TT: I use some of the rhythm taps that Charles "Honi" Coles left behind for me — that he taught me. It all sort of comes together with this song and my life. So, what else? "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head." I've never sung that before. It just fits in really, really nice. I'm using a new opener: "I've Got Them Feelin' Too Good Today Blues," Leiber and Stoller. I'm using that to open with. I can't trace through the show right now. It's very early out here [in California]. I worked until, like, midnight on the set last night. I'm out here doing "Arrested Development." I think it's a secret, but I'm telling you. We're working on four episodes at once. We keep cross-cutting between them. I don't know how they keep it together. They don't tell us anything. We just drive on the set. They give us the script, we look it over, and we shoot. It's the most fascinating way of working. And, this guy who runs it — his name is Mitchell Hurwitz — he is just amazing. I think he's one of the best directors I've ever worked with. He just is so great.
Without giving too much away, what's the character?
TT: I play Liza Minnelli's brother — her baby brother! [Laughs.] It's crazy! It is a wacko show. It is. And, none of us knows what's happening. It's all in his head, and he's piecing it together. It's really something. We're having a ball.
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