BWW Interview: Tony Danza, Now in 'Residence' at 54 Below
Tony Danza makes his solo debut at Feinstein's/54 Below this week, kicking off what he calls a "residency," with dates scheduled in July, August and September. The first performance of Danza's 54 Below act, "Standards & Stories," is at 7 p.m. Tuesday, July 26, with subsequent shows on July 27, August 9 and 10, and September 8 and 9.
Danza has been working some other New York stages this summer as well. He appeared in Celebrity Autobiography at the Triad last Monday, and will perform White Rabbit Red Rabbit on August 8. The boxer-turned-TV star-turned-theater and cabaret artist spoke with me by phone last week. After greeting me with a Rocky-esque "Adrienne!" Danza said, "How many times have you heard that? Almost as much as I've heard 'Who's the boss?'" Which leads to our first question...
Speaking of Who's the Boss?, do you miss it?
Do I miss it? I did a pilot for NBC this year--with Sebastian Maniscalco, a terrific comic--and it portended the going-back to series television if it got picked up. But it didn't get picked up, and I'm not sure how I feel. I'm sad that I didn't get the job--I miss the job--but on the other hand, I have so many other things that I want to do, so it gives me a chance to do that. I don't know. Do I miss it? I don't know. I miss them. I miss that feeling... I remember at the wrap party I made my speech and I said, "For eight years I'd been in a cocoon where everything I said was right." [Laughs] It was going to be tough to be out there without that. To be on a show where you don't even have to check the ratings; you just know it was going to be in the top 10. And it was like that for years. That feeling is so...rarefied. I don't know how else to put it. So there's that. I haven't had that kind of success where you could feel that way in quite some time. So yeah, I guess I do miss it, in that respect.
When you started performing as a singer and dancer after being on TV series, people thought you were doing something new, but it wasn't really new for you, right?
I've been tap dancing for over 35 years, something like that. And I've been singing all my life. I was a kid singing, I sang in a doo-wop group, I sang in college. What happened was, I had a bad accident in 1993, right at the end of the year, in December. I was skiing, and I hit a tree. And when I didn't die or wasn't paralyzed, or all this stuff that could have happened to me didn't, I said to myself when I was recovering--which took about a year, a year and a half--"What haven't I done that I want to do?" I'm getting this second chance, so I started to self-reflect, and I said, "I want to be a song-and-dance man." I always wanted to be a song-and-dance man. I used to watch the Rat Pack, and it seemed like, wow, that's the kind of thing I'd like to do.
What's different now that you are an established song-and-dance man?
What I've been trying to do for years is get myself in a position where not only is it accepted by people--because people like to put you in a slot and keep you there--but also that I deserve to be accepted. That's what I've been diligently working on. And I think I'm there.
It's been a quest. But there's nothing like doing it. I tell kids all the time, "You just gotta do it." You can't learn unless you go out there and do it. What I'm trying to do for 70 minutes or so is have an arc, a narrative, a story that people buy into and watch, and what they're going to see is somebody who really relies on and accentuates the lyrics. I think that's the biggest change. I used to depend so much on shtick and on personality. Yeah, you have to have laughs, you have to have some kind of connection, but we're talking about some of the greatest music ever written, from some of the greatest composers and lyricists ever, and now I try to make the songs be the center of the act.
You first performed this show, "Standards & Stories," at Café Carlyle last year. How has it evolved?
They'll hear a better presentation of it, that's for sure, of whatever I do. I'm not making excuses, don't get me wrong, but I got that job [because] somebody dropped out. They called me, like, three weeks before. So I wrote the act and went in there and did it--and I think I was really good the second week. That was very high-pressure; you know, the Carlyle is one of the great cabaret rooms in the world. But like I said, you gotta keep doing it. Do it, do it--till you get to the point where you feel very comfortable up there. And then when you feel comfortable, you really can connect with the audience. 'Cause that's what cabaret is all about: connecting.
Have you had new collaborators on this act?
One of the things about doing live shows is you come into contact with so many great musicians and great influences. My biggest influence recently has been Jason Robert Brown from Honeymoon in Vegas. I just love his music, and I do some of the stuff from the show. I even sing a song that I didn't sing in the show, "I Love Betsy."
I should mention this. I got a big break. When I got the job at the Carlyle, I didn't have a piano player. So I was calling around, and my drummer, Eddie Caccavale, said that John Oddo--who played for Rosemary Clooney--might be somebody to call. Luckily he was free, and I've been working with him ever since. Our combination has raised my level to a great degree. His arrangements are magnificent, but there's just something about singing with him that really makes it easy for me.
Does this show have a lot of new material for you, or do you stick with what might be considered your signature--or "go-to"--songs?
I'm a big fan of the American songbook, so they're all my go-to songs, just about. I have an eclectic mix, I try to stay off the beaten path for the most part, but I like to find something I'm comfortable with. I was just talking to John the other day--I want him to do an arrangement of "A Day in the Life of a Fool," which is a song you don't hear that much. And I want to do a song from a Frank Sinatra album by Rod McKuen, A Man Alone. I try to find stuff, like I said, that's off the beaten path, and I think that's where the real beauty of the act is now.
Do you do any special preparation as your performance dates near?
I stay in shape. I think the most important thing is physical fitness. Helps you sing, helps you perform, it's good for you. I train every day. I take care of myself--I try not to be so crazy about it. I was on Broadway--people are nuts about it. You know, I was sitting with Sinatra once, and he was smoking Camels and drinking Jack Daniel's neat at 2 o'clock in the morning. I said, "Frank, that smoking and drinking--it ever bother your voice?" And he said, "I never met a singer worth his shit didn't smoke four packs a day."
Is meeting Sinatra still a highlight of your life?
Meeting Sinatra and introducing my mother. That's the highlight.
Playing clubs in New York is a pinnacle for any performer. Is it extra-special for you as a native New Yorker?
It's the joy of having a job in New York City. That's all anybody's looking for.
Do you still go back to Brooklyn?
My family moved to Long Island, so I go to see my uncles and aunts, my cousins out there. I go to Brooklyn every once in a while. Last year my brother came into town, and he said, "I want to go see Daddy's grave." My father is buried in Cypress Hills, on the corner of Crescent and Jamaica Avenue. We took the train, got on the el and went down to Euclid Avenue and Fulton Street in East New York, where we're from, and we walked around the old neighborhood, went to our old schools--171 and Blessed Sacrament--and we went to the house. The person that bought my mother's house--the family still owns it. They bought it from us in 1965, and it is as if they were determined to make a museum out of it. It is exactly the way it was--the linoleum floors and everything. It is the craziest thing...a little weird to walk in there. But I don't get back there that much. You know when I go? With the Police Athletic League. I'm involved with the Police Athletic League, on the board of directors. In fact, we're starting a program that I've been pitching to them. Maybe they'll take it citywide. It's called PAL Acting. Because when you teach a kid how to act, you teach a kid how to act.
Broadway by the Year photo by Genevieve Rafter Keddy