Name That Tommy Tune
At the Colonial August 11
By: Charles Giuliano - Jul 18, 2011
In 1965, Tommy Tune made his Broadway debut as a performer in Baker Street. His first Broadway directing and choreography credits were for the original production of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas in 1978. He has gone on to direct or choreograph, or both, some eight Broadway musicals.
Tune is the only person to win Tony Awards in the same categories (Best Choreography and Best Direction of a Musical) in consecutive years (1990 and 1991), and the first to win in four different categories. He has won nine Tony Awards.
His film credits include Hello, Dolly! (1969) and The Boy Friend with Twiggy (1971). Tune released his first record album, Slow Dancing, in 1997 on the RCA label, featuring a collection of his favorite romantic ballads.
He has been performing in his musical revue, Steps in Time: A Broadway Biography in Song and Dance, since April 2008. Some 300 performances later that production comes to the Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield, on Thursday, August 11.
With song and dance sprinkled with anecdotes Tune will present the story of fifty years of musical theatre. Recently we connected to discuss poignant and often hysterical highlights. For insightful personal reasons he was forty minutes late for our appointment.
Tommy Tune I’m making a huge new secret step in my Tommy Tune world. I’m not at liberty to talk about it now.
Charles Giuliano Come on now. You owe me one. Spill the beans.
TT I really can’t. When I can should I call you back?
CG Let’s talk now. You’re slightly older than me I was born in 1940.
TT You’re a chicken. 1939 is a great year to be born because it means that you lived in the ‘30s. You didn’t make it. You only lived in the ‘40s. Oh, did you miss the ‘30s.
CG Do you remember anything about the War?
TT My parents didn’t like to talk about it in front of us. It was discussed at dinner every evening. All the Tunes around the table. With the dinner that we cooked. It was distant drums. They didn’t want to weigh us down with the idea of war. But I do remember when Roosevelt died. I was playing in the back yard. My mother came out crying and I asked what’s the matter? what’s the matter? I remember that. It was a big deal.
CG You grew up in Texas.
TT Yeah, Houston.
CG How do you get from Texas to Broadway. That’s a big leap.
TT That’s a long trip. I had a friend. I talk about it in my show. He was Philip Osterman. He was the only other boy in dance class. He’s wasn’t a terribly good dancer. He loved it and was braver than me. He would go out and find things and go see shows. He had actually been to New York and seen a real live Broadway show. He drove up in our driveway back home in Houston and he said, “I’ve been thinking. Here in Houston if you dance and are talented it’s extremely unusual. They call you a sissy or a weirdo. In New York they call you a star." So he packed me up and drove me to New York.
The day that I arrived, which was Saint Patrick’s Day, and I’m not sure of the year, maybe it was 1962. I went to an audition and I got the job. Irma la Douce. Do you remember that show? They never revive it because they can never find somebody’s that’s French to play the part. That sweet little part. The hooker with the heart of gold. That’s how it started.
CG Is there any overlap between you and Billy Elliott?
TT Every boy dancer has an overlap with Billy Elliott. Luckily my father, who was a real Texas Dad, Dad. One aspect of my father that saved me was he loved to go dancing with my mother. Not show off dancing. Just ballroom dancing. He was really good at it. My father was a very large man. Not skinny like me. He was a mountain of a man. My mother, I’m built like her, skinny. He would take her and fox trot across the floor and they would look like they were on roller skates. It was so beautiful. You can’t believe how beautiful was this great big man who would dance with this thin little Olive Oil of a woman. It was just heaven. People would back up.
They did like Oscar de la Renta with his former wife. They were famous for their dancing. People backed up and cleared the floor and watched them. They would watch Mom and Dad dance and then they would applaud. I was appalled. I thought why aren’t they just dancing like everybody else? Why is this happening. Then when everybody clapped I realized it wasn’t because they were doing it different than everybody else. They were doing it better.
So he loved my dancing. That’s what saved me. Because everything else about me was questionable. He loved my dancing. So he didn’t put up a fuss when I wanted to split. He did say “Why would you want to leave Texas? We got everything here.” I said “You’re right dad. Except for one thing. Broadway.” He said “Well you got me there. Here’s a road map and a sandwich.”
CG How old were you?
TT Well, I was out of college. But very shy and very timid and very naïve. Cause those were the days, you know, where you didn’t know where babies came from and all of that. It was all hush hush. Like everybody knows everything now.
CG You’re openly gay so may I ask when you came out?
TT I just sort of was there. I guess I was literally outed in Vanity Fair. I answered the questions honestly. So that came out. I’m not sure when that was. But it was earlier than when it was fashionable. It didn’t have any affect on me because I was always who I was. But to live this long and see that it is ok for two guys or two girls to get married. In this state, spins my head around. It touches me deeply. It was never anything I aspired to because it didn’t exist. It would be nice to be married to some nice man and be settled in. You just don’t think about that. It just didn’t exist. I lived an invisible life. My straight friends didn’t discuss my homosexuality. Even up here in New York. You lived an invisible life. And now it’s not and just an amazing turnaround. At this point it’s amazing to me but kind of a shrug. You go, well, that’s what happens with time. We eventually catch up.
CG How tough was it in Texas?
TT It didn’t exist.
CG How tough was it for you?
TT It was scary for me. There was nobody to talk to. And was I the only one in the world? I was. The only one in the world. Certainly the only one in my world. I was the only one. I was invisible. It was a secret. I wouldn’t even write about it. I wouldn’t write it down. It was something I had to ponder in my head and what is wrong with me. There was nothing. There was no literature. There was no Will and Grace. There was nothing. There was nothing. It didn’t exist in church. There was no one to go to. It didn’t exist. I was alone. With my horror.
But, because of dancing, somehow it didn’t matter. Dancing was my guru. The art of dancing. And that’s what got me through.
CG How did you see dance? What were you looking at?
TT Not a lot. This is pre television. But in the movies. Fred Astaire. In Houston, in person, there would be a split week. Around Christmas the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo would pass through. For Houston then planes no railroads yes. There wasn’t a good line geographically for touring companies to come all the way down to Houston. But the Ballet Russe would do it. Somebody in Houston paid them. They would do a split week in Houston before Dallas and on out west.
CG What was left of the Ballet Russe at that time. It was the first ballet I saw in the 1950s at the old Boston Opera House on Huntington Avenue before it was torn down (now Northeastern University). I saw them do Swan Lake. Was Serge Lifar (1905-1986) with them at that time?
TT It was Frederic Franklin, Igor Youskevitch. And then Ballet Theatre came, what is now The American Ballet.
(The company was founded in 1937 as the Mordkin Ballet, and then reorganized in 1940 with a new name as the Ballet Theatre. For 40 years Lucia Chase directed it, working with many choreographers and ballet masters. In 1956, it was renamed the American Ballet Theatre, and has kept that name ever since. American Ballet Theatre performs at the Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center in New York.)
That started to come a little bit. So what I wanted to become was a ballet dancer. But I had to change that dream when I got too tall.
CG How tall are you?
TT Six, six and a half. Too tall for ballet.
CG Can you still touch your toes?
TT Excuse me?
CG Touch your toes?
TT (Laughing) Yes, I can touch my toes. I’m doing it right now.
CG Do you know where they are? Can you see them? Do you need binoculars?
TT (Laughing) Yes, I can actually see my toes.
CG That’s amazing. So you still have good eyesight.
TT (Laughing) You’re funny.
CG Can you see them without your glasses?
TT Just this year. Just recently, I’ve had trouble reading the New York Times. Now I have the first level, what is it? Plus one? When you get these reading glasses. I’m on my first and that’s as of this year.
CG How is your health overall?
TT Damned good. I think dancing is really helpful to keep you going. Keeps your spine limber.
CG Marge Champion lives in the Berkshires. There was a movie about her last year at the film festival. She must be 90 (born 1919) and she is still dancing. Amazing.
TT Oh my God. We did a movie together years ago called Hollywood Boulevard. I played the guy who cleaned the stars on Hollywood Boulevard. And she was my fairy godmother. We danced in it. It’s a sweet little film. (1980, ten minutes.) Now I have my own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
CG Dance is an art form that is difficult to sustain with time.
TT Ballet is a very short career. Around 30 they are questioning you. Show dancing goes a bit longer with Chita (Rivera) and Gwen (Verdon). I can do all of that but my true root is tap dancing. Tap dancing can go on and on. Tap dancing is a lifetime sport. It’s like tennis. You can keep doing that.
CG We saw Mark Morris recently on stage and it’s embarrassing.
TT What does he look like?
TT What do you look like?
CG Mark Morris.
TT Well he’s a hedonist and doesn’t pull himself together. Are you?
CG Drugs, sex and rock and roll.
TT Ok. Well, that will do it. You have to be stringent if you want to last.
CG It sounds like you have a disciplined lifestyle.
TT Pretty disciplined. I love my champagne. That would be the worst thing that I do. And coffee. Coffee I think is not a good thing but I need a nice cup of coffee in the morning to get going.
CG It must be demanding to keep in condition to perform.
TT It’s a discipline but you know what I try to do is turn my discipline into an addiction. We’re all addicted. So I try to be addicted to yoga. I’m addicted to performing. I try to choose an addiction that doesn’t do you in. You can be addicted to anything so why not choose to be addicted to something that’s gonnah serve you? Rather than something that destroys you. That’s my philosophy.
CG Tell us what you are going to do at the Colonial.
TT Charles, this is my 50th year in show business. So I have put together a show that arcs those 50 years. Sort of starting in Texas but from that first day, that I already told you about, arriving in New York. I reproduce that first audition because I know exactly what I did. I know exactly who preceded me. I sing and dance my way through my career. I’ve done five acts in my career and this is the most successful because it is so incredibly personal. I found that people really relate to that and that’s the big difference. I still give them the songs and the dances and the flash but it’s gone higher and deeper by telling poignant stories from my life.
My story. Like you were asking me is my story the Billy Elliott story. Billy Elliott is everybody’s story because we all have a dream. Sometimes they come true and sometimes they don’t. People relate to that aspect of it. It’s a touching story but also thrilling. They always stand up and clap a lot.
CG Are we talking about Steps in Time? Is that what you’re doing?
CG This show has been running since about 2008?
TT No, let me see, we’re in eleven? No, since about 2009. That’s when I started the beginnings of it and now it has really come to fruition. I’ve got about 300 performances of it so far.
CG I see. So how many a year does that break down to?
TT Oh, I don’t know.
CG Are you on tour now?
TT Yeah, I’m in the Catskills. Oh, the Colonial is next (August 11). Then I head out west I think. I don’t have the itinerary in front of me.
CG How long are you on the road?
TT This tour is not solid it’s in and out and in and out. Which is great because my little doggie doesn’t like to tour. So I can leave him with his Nanny.
CG Tell me about your paintings. I’m really an art critic. That’s my main gig.
TT I’ve always painted. When it started serving me well was when I was directing shows. You have to give all the departments- scenic designer, costumes, lights- an idea of what you want. I found it was much easier to paint and draw the show. It helped me by story boarding the whole show. Then I would give it to them and say “This is what I want” but now make it better. So that’s how I kept my hand in. I have a studio and now I just paint all the time.
CG What training do you have?
TT Just what you get in school. There used to be art programs in our high school. Even in elementary school they would send and art teacher around two or three times a week. I just started doing it.
CG You have your own gallery.
TT It’s a virtual gallery.
CG What does that mean?
TT On the web.
CG I thought you had an actual gallery in Chelsea.
TT I had one. For awhile. We were a popup gallery. It’s too hard to keep that going. That’s a whole career. That’s no adjacent career. It’s a full career.
CG Do you have collectors?
TT I do. I hang in a lot of homes across the country. Mike Nichols has bought paintings from me. I would say he’s my most famous collector.
CG What do you paint?
TT It depends. In Florida I have an apartment and a studio which is attached to it. In Florida the light is so gorgeous. I tend to paint palm trees. I am obsessed with painting palm trees in Florida. But I don’t paint palm trees in New York. It helps to have them around. Buildings. Tall buildings. Oh, and giraffes. They are a part of my addiction.
CG They must be a totem for you. Tall and thin.
TT Yeah. I relate to them.
CG I would imagine. When you go to the zoo they must look out and say “Hey it’s one of us.”
TT They struggle to stand up when they are born. When they fall they have so far from their mommies because they have such bg legs. They take a big fall. With a big slap. Like the slap that the doctor gives to us when we get born humans. Give them a spank to get them going. I don’t know if they still do that or not. The earth is the giraffe’s wakeup call when he hits. They immediately start trying to stand. Immediately. Their instinct is I’ve got to stand up. I’ve got to stand up. They try and collapse and they just keep going. It’s just amazing.
CG What happens when you take a fall?
TT It’s a long way down. I’ve taken a few. I’ve broken my foot on stage twice. It’s a long fall. But, you know.
CG Every dancer has injuries.
TT You’re dancing on the edge every time you step out on stage.
CG Doesn’t every dancer have injuries?
TT Absolutely. I’ve been really lucky. I’ve had injuries but they haven’t sidelined me for too long. Like I’ll miss a season. Like a sports figure will miss a season. But I’ve been able to bounce back. I better knock some wood on that one.
CG What keeps you going?
TT Interest. It’s one of my addictions. Theatre is on my list as one of my addictions.
CG Are you doing it for the fame, money, the fans?
TT I’m doing it for the love. I love it. If you asked me that ten years ago I wouldn’t have an answer because I wouldn’t have figured it out. I figured it out recently when I said “Tommy, you’re 72-years-old. Why?” Because it makes me feel like this. Because it makes me feel like that. Oh, you’re talking about love. You found something that you love to do. That makes people happy and I love to make people happy. And I love to entertain in my home by having people over. So it is just an extension of what I do naturally Charles.
CG Do you know anything yet?
TT The more I know the less I know. The longer I live the less I know. That’s just bringing it to basics.
CG The young people think they know everything and don’t want to listen to us.
TT Oh, I don’t know anything. But I do know these people who have it all figured out. Do you know what? They don’t. They’re fooling themselves. There’s no answers.
CG A life in theatre is pretty damned tough.
TT I think it is. But I’ve ridden it out and I’m still here. It used to be that the whole purpose of life was to survive. But I think there’s more than that. More is in finding your vision of God. Part of that, theatre is a part of my religion.
CG Are you at peace?
TT (Huge sigh and long pause) Right now I am. Peace is a hot commodity. It melts you sometimes. It slips away. You have to work on it. I just finished this long meeting today and the reason I didn’t get home until 11:40 (our appointment was for 11) was because I spent ten minutes in church. I passed St. Mary’s and I just went in and prayed. That brought me back. You can get so much information and get so head up with the madness of the world. The speed of it all and we can forget what’s important. I’m glad you asked me about peace because that reminds me. That’s a good question. That’s an interesting question. It’s so important to find some peace in your life. I feel that I’m not getting it but I’m getting it more than I did twenty years ago.
Each day is the student of yesterday.
CG That’s a great thought.
TT I can say it in Japanese (does). The reason I know that is because I was asked to make a graduation speech in Japan at a school that teaches art and musical theatre. They say I could speak in English and they would provide me with a translator. I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to tell them that each day is the student of yesterday. So I learned it and I learned my whole speech in Japanese. That’s all I remember. (Repeats line in Japanese.)
CG That’s such a great thought and we’ll end on that.
TT Thanks it was great talking with you. It was a wonderful interview and I congratulate you.
Review of Steps in Time at the Colonial Theatre