Although he's the celebrated director-choreographer of such Broadway musicals as The Will Rogers Follies, Nine, Grand Hotel and My One and Only, Tune never lost his interest in his showman roots. At age 63, the youthful 6-foot-6 Tune sings and dances to genuine theatre music (Irving Berlin, the Gershwins) in the new Off-Broadway show, a welcome break from his two years performing in the Las Vegas spectacular, EFX, which he regarded as a money job to pay the rent.
Prior to his Dec. 18 opening at the brand new 499-seat Little Shubert Theatre on West 42nd Street, Tune talked with Playbill On-Line about audiences today, amplified tap and his wish to direct again.
Playbill On-Line: There's a great vaudeville quality to your show, as if it's a glance back to a time when a hoofer would stand in front of a curtain and sell a song.
Tommy Tune: That's what I call it. I say "it's vaudeville and verisimilitude!" It was before my time, too, but I did a lot of research. People used to make their entire careers doing one routine in front of a painted drop. They could have a whole career traveling the country performing for a thousand people per performance — it's an amazing thing.
PBOL: And that kind of turn would make its way into narrative musical theatre, like when Ray Bolger came out in Where's Charley? and sang in a spotlight and encouraged the audience to sing along...
TT: That was like an accident. They clapped so much on opening night of Where's Charley? — the "Once in Love With Amy" number. He finished it, and the show couldn't go on, so he came out. He didn't know what to do so he did it again, and did it again and then said, "OK, everybody sing!"
PBOL: I kind of love that idea, though.
TT: Yeah, well, me too, because that lets the audience know it's happening live. It hasn't been filmed and edited. it's not on television in a delayed performance. PBOL: I assume some of White Tie and Tails includes some of the favorite stuff you and The Manhattan Rhythm Kings have performed in the past.
TT: We have a very large repertoire because we've been working together for 18 years. We went back and pulled out some of the old stuff that we hadn't done in a few years and brushed it off and looked at it. Of course, I've rechoreographed everything. Nothing is what it was at the beginning because, y'know, tastes change. My tastes change. My interest level has to be constantly piqued — we have to keep being fresh for the audience. I added a slew of new numbers for this engagement because we're in New York City, and New York deserves it. A lot of the show is brand new: The dance that we do to the Chopin prelude, my opening is new, the Kings' two numbers are brand new, the "New York at Christmas" is brand new and perishable — that's only good 'til January first. The last song, "This Time Around," is totally new because that's for now, post-September 11th.
PBOL: What about "When I'm 64"?
TT: Yeah, that's new. [Laughs.]
PBOL: You weren't doing that 10 years ago.
TT: [Laughs.] No, I wasn't, you got me there.
PBOL: You intend to create new stuff for this show as it runs?
TT: Absolutely. That's the nature of a show that's not trapped in a book. I love doing the show. Every night it's its own event. It's always different.
PBOL: Has your stuff with the Kings always included a 16-piece orchestra?
TT: We always have 16 pieces, no matter where we play. The orchestrations, and they are mostly by Peter Matz, are all done for 16 pieces. That is the one place where we do not scrimp, even if we are playing one night in the Catskills, we have a 16-piece orchestra. That's on the contract. If they don't wanna do that, then I don't play. It's different when you're just a singer — you can sing with a smaller group, as Liza does and people do, and it's cool. But when you stop singing and you go into your dance, the orchestra must replace the vocal energy and send you further up — so you have something to dance on, a musical platform to dance on.
PBOL: In the age of Noise/Funk and Stomp, tap dance seems more amplified — more miked — than ever. Has it changed in the past 10 years?
TT: I've been miking my taps for 10 years. I miked them in My One and Only. As the technology is more refined, the sound is more refined. I've always worn tap mikes, always. Even in Seesaw, I wore tap mikes.
PBOL: Does that literally mean there's a mike in your shoe?
TT: To be very technical, I wear a battery pack around my waist, in the back. The line from the battery pack goes down the back of my legs all the way into my socks and out the tongue of the shoe. Right at the base of the laces there's a tiny mike.
PBOL: Does an audience want more sound these days?
TT: I don't like to acknowledge the fact that people don't listen like they used to listen. But it's the truth. Everybody's ears are blown out. It started with discotheques in the '70s. If you turned off the sound, the modern-day audiences wouldn't hear it. They'd say, "Huh? Speak up!" We are bludgeoned with such sound levels in this life that we live nowadays. One has to compete in the real world, not in the dream world where we used to sit quietly, lean forward in our seats, hang on every word the performer said. Now, we expect to sit back and "Pump up da volume."
PBOL: I would guess you have a pile scripts on your nightstand that you're reading.
TT: Nothing good yet. I'm going through 'em. I don't have a lot of time right now, but I have a lot of scripts. I'd love to find something that's substantial: A new musical that entertains and enlightens and takes us to a higher place, something that would inspire me to do more. I get a lot of offers to do revivals. I'm interested in creating, not recreating. How boring! I think my calling is to find a new property of our time, otherwise there will be nothing to revive in the future. We're feeding off the past a little too much, I fear.
PBOL: But Tommy Tune the director is going to emerge again?
TT: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah.
PBOL: Does being in a Broadway show still interest you?
TT: Listen, my talent is like a buffet. There are desserts on it and main courses on it, and side dishes. Whatever comes up, however I can make the best plate for the audience, then that's what I'll scoop up.
PBOL: Wasn't there talk that you would stage Jerry Herman's new show, Miss Spectacular, about a Kansas girl who flees to Vegas to compete in a showgirl competition?
TT: Oh, yeah, we're hoping to do that. They're building the theatre first. They have to build the theatre. It's a musical he wrote for Las Vegas —
PBOL: It should not be on Broadway?
TT: Absolutely not, it's a Las Vegas musical. We'll see what happens. They're trying to sew up the deal. It has to do with the building of the theatre first. There are so many cirque-type shows. I'm thinking [it should be] done with brevity, done in an abbreviated form. The attention span in Las Vegas is much less than the attention span on the East Coast. Y'know, the audience has been drinking, they've been at the tables all day, they've been dazzled by the lights of the city. They want their entertainment and they want it fast. Jerry and I are working on it an we'll see what happens.