Tommy Tune: Steps in Time
Cast: Tommy Tune and the Manhattan Rhythm Kings
Performances: April 19 at 2 and 7 p.m., April 20 at 2 p.m., Robinson Theatre, 617 Lexington Street, Waltham, MA
Box Office: 781-891-5600 or www.reagleplayers.com
Say the name "Tommy Tune" and a kaleidoscope of images flash through the brain. A long and lanky Ambrose Kemper nimbly high-stepping his way through the park in the movie Hello, Dolly! An elegant and energetic gentleman in top hat, white tie and tails leading a statuesque Twiggy and company in the exuberant "Kickin' the Clouds Away" from My One and Only. The precisely synchronized clapping and tapping of "Favorite Son" and the trick lariat dancing of "Give a Man Enough Rope" from The Will Rogers Follies. Michael Jeter and Brent Barrett immortalizing "We'll Take a Glass Together" on the Tony Awards telecast with their show-stopping Charleston from Grand Hotel.
These and countless other iconic memories serve as artistic milestones in the luminous 50-year career of performer/director/choreographer and Theatre Hall of Fame member Tommy Tune. With nine Tony Awards, eight Drama Desk Awards, two Obie Awards, two Astaire Awards, the American Dance Award, the Drama League Award, the George Abbott Award for Lifetime Achievement, the National Medal of Arts, and the upcoming Fred and Adele Astaire Lifetime Achievement Award and Actor's Fund Julie Harris Award for Lifetime Achievement, Tune is the most honored star in Broadway history.
Oh, and he was also named Entertainer of the Year by Boys' Towns of Italy on April 12. Liza Minnelli was named Woman of the Year along side him.
"I'm at that age now when these honors come along, and it's a little scary," says the 69-year-old Tune during a recent morning telephone interview. "I mean, 'Lifetime Achievement?' What does that mean? I'll take it, though! It's like a parental pat on the head. We all still have that child inside, so these awards are flattering. Even at this stage in a career, we still need encouragement for growth. The same process and energy goes into making a hit as it does making a flop. So there is no slacking. My father was a Texas farmer, and he used to say, 'When you go to sleep at night, if you're not dog tired, then you have cheated.' So I still work hard."
That ethic is evident when you consider the significant projects Tune, a painter as well as theatrical artist, is currently juggling. He recently moved his fine art studio and gallery from the Bronx to Midtown and launched a companion virtual gallery (www.TommyTuneGallery.com) where people can buy reproductions of his original work for just $20. This summer he directs the new, possibly Broadway-bound Marshall Brickman-Rick Elice musical Turn of the Century which debuts at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago from September 19 through October 26. On April 19-20 he holds "the world premiere" of his own new musical show Steps in Time: A Broadway Biography in Song and Dance at the Reagle Players' Robinson Theatre in Waltham, Mass. At an age when most people are playing golf in retirement communities, Tune seems busier than ever.
"I don't understand that whole retirement thing at all," Tune demurs. "What would you do, eat bonbons?"
Considering Tune's six-foot-six-inch frame is still dancer trim and athlete toned, it's doubtful that bonbons creep into his diet very often. A regimen of daily exercise, healthy eating, and meditation is more likely. On the morning of this 9:30 BroadwayWorld.com interview, in fact, Tune had already fielded one reporter's phone call at 9, was scheduled to work with his trainer at 10:30, and would begin rehearsing at 11:30. Later, he would find time to paint. With energy and enthusiasm to spare, he discussed what motivated him to develop Steps in Time.
"Since this is my 50th year in show business, I felt it was appropriate to recall some of the milestones of my career in a show," he says. "I have borrowed the title from two of my idols, Sir Noel Coward and Fred Astaire. Coward gave that title to Astaire's biography, so I have purloined it.
"The show is really a biography in song, dance and story," Tune continues. "It's not a literal chronological review because that gets boring. It's more an intimate, pure recollection that touches on the shows and musical numbers I've done but doesn't recreate them. I share stories, memories and life experiences, as well. Sondheim says, 'Old plus old equals new.' That's what I hope I have created – a souvenir and a reminder, but one that lives in our time."
According to Tune, the Reagle Players debut of Steps in Time is somewhat of an out-of-town tryout. He is prepping it for a possible New York run. "I was looking for a place to test it where there wouldn't be a lot of critical exposure," he confides. "I don't want to be beaten down when it's a work in progress. I may still be reshaping it while I'm here."
Waltham was a friendly environment for Tune when he launched the Reagle Players celebrity concert series five years ago. Boston was less so in 1983 when his Broadway-bound My One and Only met with devastating tryout reviews.
"Mike Nichols' advice and Peter Stone's new book saved that show," Tune recalls. "Boston was a disaster, but look how it all turned out?" My One and Only went on to run for 767 performances and earned Tony Award nominations for Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical, and Best Direction of a Musical. Tune himself won Tony Awards for Best Actor in a Musical and Best Choreography. A poster child for the merits of reworking a show outside the glare of Broadway's bright lights, My One and Only became the first in what is now a steady stream of hit juke box musicals.
"We didn't know it was a 'juke box' musical back then," Tune says. "We simply called it 'the new Gershwin musical.' That was followed by Crazy for You, and now I understand there are a couple more Gershwin musicals in the works. Who knew that we'd be setting a trend?"
A major new project in which Tune is involved will actually contribute to the continuation of that trend. He is directing a new musical written by Jersey Boys collaborators Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice called Turn of the Century. Borrowing from some of the most popular music of the 20th century, the show will have its world premiere at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago on September 19.
"The premise of the show sounds like the Twilight Zone, but it's really not," Tune explains. "It's 1999, 11:51 p.m. right before the turn of the 21st century. Something cosmic happens, and as the year turns, the central couple is sent back in time to 1900, the turn of the 20th century. In trying to support themselves, they sing the songs they know – great songs by Gershwin, Kern, Berlin, etc. They realize that these songs have never been written, so they decide to 'write' them themselves. They become very successful because they are bringing wildly popular 'modern' songs back to the 1900s. But there are consequences. They are also trying to work out their relationship."
Tune says the challenge of developing a new musical today is to create something worthwhile without overspending. Gone are the big casts, big orchestras, and big song and dance numbers. Shows aren't called "musical comedies" anymore. Now they are simply "musicals."
"Years ago, shows would put music in your heart and a spring in your step," Tune muses. "You felt that you could dance down the street. With Turn of the Century I'm hoping to recapture some of that optimism, and maybe even patriotism. It's all about the music. Hopefully it will be uplifting.
"I think it's possible to both entertain and enlighten," he concludes. "Wouldn't that be great, to move back in the direction of having a sense of hope?"
Tommy Tune and the Manhattan Rhythm Kings perform Steps in Time: A Broadway Biography in Song and Dance at the Robinson Theatre, 617 Lexington Street, Waltham, Mass., on Saturday, April 19 at 2 and 7 p.m. and Sunday, April 20 at 2 p.m. Tickets range from $35 to $48 with a $1 senior discount available and $25 for children. Group discounts are available for parties of 10 or more. Tickets may be purchased through the Reagle Players box office at 781-891-5600 or online at www.reagleplayers.com.
PHOTOS: Tommy Tune