NEW YORK — A couple of years ago, when Broadway favorite Tommy Tune got his first gig at the Raleigh Hotel in the Borscht Belt, he called his friend Betty Comden. "Betty," he said, "the most wonderful thing has happened. I got a booking in the Catskills. And it's not a benefit, either. I get paid. Whoopee!"
"Tommy, darling, you've got it all wrong," replied the Broadway veteran and co-author of "The Will Rogers Follies," which Tune directed and choreographed. "You're supposed to start in the Catskills and work your way up to Broadway. You've started on Broadway and worked your way down to the Catskills. What's so wonderful?"
For the most celebrated choreographer-director-dancer on Broadway these days, the nights in the Catskills turned out to be one more step in the 10-year evolution of a song-and-dance act that will culminate in "Tommy Tune Tonite!," a limited engagement of 13 performances opening Christmas night. The hour-and-a-half revue features singer-dancers Robert Fowler and Frantz Hall, a 26-piece orchestra, a repertory of George Gershwin, Cole Porter and Irving Berlin standards, and the elegant and innovative dancing of Tune, all 6 feet, 6 inches of him, in white tie and tails. The show--at the Gershwin Theater through Jan. 3--represents Tune's return to Broadway as a performer for the first time since his Tony-winning stint opposite Twiggy in "My One and Only" in 1983.
Though he recently spent a year and a half on the road touring in a revival of "Bye Bye Birdie," for most of the past decade Tune has worked as director and choreographer to keep alive an old-fashioned vision of the American musical on Broadway. Now the once-and-forever hoofer has turned his touch on another endangered species, the song-and-dance man.
"I've always arrived at the end of an era," says Tune, 53, sitting in the chintz-draped apartment of the show's producer, Pierre Cossette ("Will Rogers"), adjacent to the Museum of Modern Art. "When I came here they said Broadway was dead, and so I went to Hollywood, and they said the movie musical is dead, and so I put an act together, and all the nightclubs--like the Persian Room, the Venetian Room and the Maisonette--closed. So here I am again tempting fate. But I've trained all my life to do this. What else would I do?"
Tune dismisses films, television and recordings as the "false mediums," adding that his film career--in Ken Russell's "The Boyfriend" and Gene Kelly's "Hello, Dolly!"--was "agony." "It was so boring," he says. "It demands a certain coolness, a certain detachment. It can't come from here," he adds, pounding his heart, "and every time you perform onstage, live, it comes from here. It can't come from any place else."
That's classic Tommy Tune: charming, highly entertaining, touching at times and seemingly spontaneous. This is not to say Tune is insincere, but his interviews, like his shows, appear to be calculated to tell a story, and it's a show-business fable he's been polishing for quite some time, fed by a string of successes including "Nine," "Grand Hotel" and "Will Rogers." It's the story of a kid who got lucky, worked hard and apparently kept his ego in control. But it's also the story of a grown man who still says "whoopee," a man with a cotton-candy name who longs to play Richard III, a man whose public persona appears to be missing an id.
The nine-time Tony winner says: "I've been asked about power and about control, and I don't think it's a theme with me. Things have just come to me, and I've taken and done them. I did not set out to become a director-choreographer on Broadway. I came here to dance in the chorus of a Broadway show. That was my big dream. Everything else just evolved."
What evolved has left its progenitor glowing with well-being, his features still youthful, his long legs poured into tight jeans and expensive cowboy boots. Some cynics have dismissed his "aw shucks, I'm just a little boy from Wichita Falls" mantle as disingenuous--and indeed it is. No one accomplishes as much as Tune without being tough-minded, disciplined and demanding.
Tune sees the eternal child within himself as the font of his creativity.
"Lately, I've been hearing 'in the course of your long career' a lot," he says, "and it sounds so weird to me, because I honestly feel that I'm just getting started. I don't feel any different than I did when I was doing those 'patio revues' with the neighborhood kids in Houston. It's the same thing. And if you get into this business thinking that it's going to be any different, then you've lost the child within you. It's called a 'play,' so there's got to be a sense of play about it."
There's also a sense of hamminess, Tune enthusiastically admits. "I'd say my ham ratio is pretty high! I've learned as a performer that unless you luxuriate in the essence of the performance and want to stay on longer than you're required to stay on, then you don't belong up there doing it."