Today – Saturday, June 2nd at 2 and 8 PM, Broadway legend Tommy Tune returns to The Music Center at Strathmore with Steps in Time: A Broadway Biography in Song and Dance. I spoke with Tommy about the new and improved version of the show we will see on Saturday, the upcoming Tony Awards, and working with Charles ‘Honi’ Coles.
Tommy: It’s so nice talking to you.
Joel: It’s a great honor speaking with you. My site DC Metro Theater Arts covers university and young actors, and I know that you enjoy working with young actors also.
I recently worked with a group of students at The University of Miami. For 10 years I have had this idea of a musical about writing a musical about Studio 54 called Fifty* Four* Forever, and I’ve got it all together and they invited me down and I was able to use 26 of their most talented people, and they gave me a full production in The Jerry Herman Ring Theatre on campus. And I loved working with these young kids. They are so involved. You don’t have to look far these days because it’s incredible how talented these kids are who are coming up and how trained they are.
I am so grateful that people still want to do theatre.
So what is the best advice you can give these kids who are pondering making theatre their career?
If you can do anything else – you should do it – and make theatre a hobby. But, if you are so imbued with the spirit of it and you feel like you are going to implode if you don’t follow that – and it’s so strong within you – then you must do it. If you want to dabble in it then you should do community theatre. Make it an adjunct to your career. If you think it’s going to eat you up and it’s going to burn you out – and you need it to express yourself that way – then that’s the key to do it.
So why haven’t you burned out after all these years?
Well, I guess I was born to dance! I think it’s a calling like going into the priesthood, or becoming a nun, because there a ritual aspect to it, because all theatre is ritual. And you are communicating from your deepest heart and soul to your audience, and you have to have that passion, and so I still have that passion.
But I still like to go to the theatre too. I’m a dream audience because I love it so much.
The Tony Awards are only a week away. Who do you think will win the Tony for Best Musical?
I am in love with Once, and I have seen it three times already. I don’t usually repeat these days because musical are not what they used to be. Once has a wonderful human quality to it. It’s very human and very heartfelt, and the music is beautiful and unusual.
Here’s what I prize the most – I prize the original. And Once is an original night in the theatre. It’s not like any other show you have seen. It’s not cookie-cutter. There’s no typical opening number with the ‘bang, bang, bang.’ This is a SHOW. A piece of musical theatre of the highest quality. So that’s my personal favorite.
You’ve won 9 Tony Awards. Where do you store or display them?
That’s interesting you asked because I am standing right in front of them now. I just moved into my new apartment, which I talk about in the show. On the roof of my apartment building is this big tower, and I waited a long time to get it – but I got in. I just kept plugging away and eventually I got in and I live here now. I had a horizontal ledge built high up on the wall to put my 9 Tonys on, and it just looked so braggadocious – it was just too much. I had a bookcase built – and you have to imagine it – the bookcase comes out from the corner and so I can approach it from both sides – so it comes down into the room from a corner – so it’s a diagonal – and it goes all the way to the ceiling. It’s about a 15 foot ceiling – and it’s great for me because there’s plenty of headroom. So, on both ends of this bookcase I had ladders built and attached. And I looked at this ladder and I took one of the Tonys down from the ledge and I put it on the bottom step of the ladder and it looked so right. And then I kept going – I got the next one sitting on the next step, and lo-and-behold there were nine steps on the ladder. And I didn’t even plan this. They are displayed vertically up this ladder. So I have to use the ladder on the other end to get to my books.I am very happy that you are returning to The Music Center at Strathmore to perform your show Steps in Time: A Broadway Biography in Song and Dance. Why do you enjoy performing at Strathmore?
Well, it’s my lucky place, because 200 performances ago I did my first performance of Steps in Time at The Strathmore.
I was there in June 2009.
That was the first time that I ever did it for an audience. There was just an incredible response that it gave me the courage to take the show and really work on it. It’s greatly changed since you saw it, but the shape is the same because it’s my story, so that’s not going to vary. The stories I chose to tell are my stories, but now I have put in new stories, and other songs and other dances, and a different new opening number. I didn’t want to throw out the baby with the bath water. I thought the shape of it was right but there were places where I wanted to make it better, and I think we have.
Give me an example where what you have put in now really improves the show.
I am using a different opening number. I am starting the same way – with the time step – and I tried to experiment and I tried it one time, and said, “Should I try this…?’ And I said, “No, No, No!” So I felt that was the right opening but I changed the song. I used ‘Hey There, Good Times,” (from I Love My Wife )- a Cy Coleman tune – but now I am using a Lieber/Stoller tune “I’ve Got Them Feelin’ Too Good Today Blues.” It’s a better statement. It’s not quite so Pollyanna. I mean – I mean I’m a grown man, so this has a little sophisticated edge to it. I feel much more comfortable using it.
I love Grand Hotel and it was such a different Tommy Tune musical.
I’m proud of that one! Not long ago at The Kennedy Center they had a Musical Theatre conference with Universities from around the country, and my assistant on that show staged the show with college students from a college in Pittsburgh. You know what I mean?
Yes. It was the American College Theater Festival. And it was in April 2002 that Point Park College did Grand Hotel at The Kennedy Center. I just Googled it for you!
Great. That production of Grand Hotel closed the Festival. So I went to see it, and I hadn’t seen it in years, and Niki Harris was incredible – and it was like she did a replica of what we did on Broadway. I was sitting next to her and when the opening number finished, I turned to her and said, “Niki, we did good this time…Really good!” Because you forget…
I never freeze my shows because I always go back and say, “I know I can do better… How can we make this better?”
I was honestly so proud of it, and there was a lot of emotion for me. When you are a professional you in someway give up the appreciation of the theatre because you are looking at it with a professional eye to see ‘How is it done, and what are they doing?’ – very analytical. But I had to get over that. And when I did, it really touched my heart.
Reflecting on the 9 Tony Awards that you have won in your career, which Tony Awards that you won surprised you when your name was in the envelope? Which win gave you the biggest thrill?
All of them because you never know, because of the kind of shows that I do! The shows that I tend to perform in are more commercial type of shows. The shows that I tend to direct – like Nine and Grand Hotel – are shows that are different, and hopefully they are original.
Of course, the fact that I won my first Tony for Best Featured Actor in Seesaw made it thrilling. And to win for My One and Only – I had won earlier in the evening for Best Choreography with Thommie Walsh – and then when I won for Best Actor – I was really honored.
People forget that when you are in a show you don’t really see your performance – you really don’t know what you are doing. You are feeling it from your point of view and experiencing it looking out through the darkness and you are going through the emotions and all the technique – so you don’t really know.
How would you describe your style of dancing and how has it changed over the years?
I was always working on dancing the dance of the age – to dance age appropriate choreography. I can still kick my leg over my head but I just don’t think that it’s fitting (we both laugh loudly!), so as I study myself in the mirror and watch the videos of me performing – I study it and I look at myself as a director. You know I had a wonderful coach in Charles Honi Coles. And he kept saying, “Less! Less! Less! and more nonchalant!” And do you remember the part of the show where he’d say, “Can you make it a little more nonchalant?”
And I’d do it and he’d say, “Make it more nonchalant. And I would do it again, and he’d say, “You can make it even more nonchalant!” His philosophy was always, “Never let them see you work.” It’s a lot harder than it sounds.
There are a lot of other popular performers who are very popular with audiences that pant and sweat for you –“Look how I’m doing! I’m doing it all for you!” But because of Charles Honi Coles – I don’t like all that desperate push to smack you down. It’s just not appropriate for me. I’ve trimmed off the rough edges off my dancing and it’s become more eloquent hopefully.
The other thing Honi taught me is that the space between tap sounds is as important as the sound. That’s what gives it the rhythm that’s compelling. The little spaces between one foot fall and the next. It’s like using negative space when you are painting. I paint a lot and the actual subject matter is important, but the space between the subject – the negative space – is very important.
Is there anything you haven’t done yet or roles you haven’t played yet that you are longing do and perform?
I have always thought it would be great for me to play an arch villain. There was one point when they were looking for someone to take Dracula on the road after Frank Langella played it in NYC and he didn’t want to tour with it. I really canvassed for that. And my agent said, “Are you crazy? Tommy Tune as Dracula? They’ll think it’s a joke! They’ll think you are doing a musical!” I’m a little bit trapped with my name. It’s very odd that my career is many-sided, and fortunately, I didn’t really wear out any muscle. Dancing, choreographing, acting, directing and singing – it’s many different things. Michael Bennett used to say, “It’s all one talent. It’s how you choose to spend it.” And luckily I have been able to do different things, and I think that’s kept me passionate and interested.
Steps in Time: A Broadway Biography in Song and Dance plays TODAY – Saturday, June 2, 2012 at 2 and 8 PM at The Music Center at Strathmore – 5301 Tuckerman Lane, in North Bethesda, MD. For tickets, order them online.
Tommy Tune’s website.