When you sit down with Maurice Hines you are schmoozing with the ‘Master of Tap.’ I have interviewed Maurice several times and every time I meet him I feel like I am reminiscing with my best friend. He’s warm, funny, and so full of passion and enthusiasm. A few minutes after arriving from Union Station, we sat in a library last week and talked about his new show Maurice Hines is Tappin’ Thru Life, where he will tap up a storm in The Kreeger Theater alongside a new generation of young and exciting tap stars.
Joel: How did Maurice Hines is Tappin’ Thru Life come about? Where have you performed it, and how did it get to Arena Stage?
I was reading an article about tap in a magazine and they didn’t talk about my brother Gregory in it.
What are you talking about? Are you serious?
So I reread it thinking that maybe I missed something. And I said, “How soon they forget.” And he had recently passed and made his transition and I got upset, so I said, “I have to do something about it.” And here he is one of the greatest tappers that’s ever been. He actually went to DC and he got ‘National Tap Dance Day.’
So in my show, I just started talking more about him and what he did and it evolved. And then I started talking about my mother and father – especially my mother – who noticed our talent, and who is the reason we all started performing – even though she knew nothing about Show Business. She saw something in Gregory and me and told my father about it. She was the visionary.
So that’s how it has evolved. I did it in Florida two summers ago and included pictures in the show – not as many as I have here – but just a few – and the audience loved it and the stories I told. Then I did it in Boston at the Cutler Majestic Theatre last May.
I didn’t see them – it was so dark! And he said they loved the stories and they loved the pictures and he said, “We want more pictures.” My mother saved everything, so I have all these wonderful pictures.
It was that generation.
You’re right! They saved everything. And she saved these wonderful pictures of her and my father on their very first date, so I sing the songs my father used to sing to her.
Like “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” the song he sang to her on their first date – and I have that picture. And it was hard to get through – they are both gone now. It was an emotional journey for me, as opposed to just something to do.
It’s also therapeutic – right?
Yes, it keeps them with me because we started as a family in the business and we were a family all the way through.. Even when Gregory and I went our separate ways we would still call each other to see what each other was doing, and especially my mother and father. So, it keeps me with them and I feel very warm on the stage. And someone said to me, “Maurice, you seem so happy up there.” And I said, “I am happy because I am with my family, and they are all around me because of the pictures.”
How did Jeff Calhoun get involved in the production? What suggestions and decisions has he made that has really improved the show?
Jeff is taking it to a new level. As I told you before, he wanted me to tell more stories. The Boston Globe gave me a rave but they loved the stories. So we added more stories and pictures. And we changed the set – now the screens are all around me, so I am talking to the screen(s). Before it was one screen. Tobin Ost, who created the set for the revival of Jekyll and Hyde did our set. That’s how it evolved, and I can’t wait to do it here. Arena is very important to me. It’s here where I performed in Guys and Dolls where I returned to the theater. It was a big beginning for me – it was my Third Act in my life. And it was so well-received. And then came Sophisticated Ladies here in The Lincoln Theatre – through Arena – so Arena is like home to me.
When I was coming here and I was getting off the train and it was so beautiful. I said, “Naturally it would be beautiful – I am coming home!” And I am bringing my family here. My brother came here to see me in Guys and Dolls, but my mother wasn’t well and couldn’t travel here, and my father was in Las Vegas and he didn’t want to travel at all – so they never came here – but they are here now with me.
My brother called me and asked me to tell you that you made him love theatre after he saw you and Gregory and your Dad in the Catskills doing Hines, Hines, and Dad.
I am so glad he said that. We never thought of ourselves doing a nightclub act, because the big thing we did then – we did a whole medley from Fiddler on the Roof.
Because it was so hot then.
Yes. Because it was so hot then.
There were a lot of Jews at Browns and I’m sure they loved it.
Yes. But it wasn’t that! It was the most perfect musical I ever saw in my life. Between book and music – Jerome Robbins was a genius. But the book, and the acting, and the music all melded perfectly. We had never seen a show like that. We were very young. But that show was so perfect. So we loved doing it. So even then we were doing theatre things. After that we did the whole medley from My Fair Lady – so we were always theatrical. We loved the theater.
The first thing Gregory and I did was The Girl in Pink Tights in 1954. And Agnes De Mille was the choreographer. It starred the great ballerina Zizi Jeanmaire. We were young – we were babies.
How old were you?
I can’t even remember. We were on the stage and Agnes De Mille – we knew about how legendary she was – and my mother didn’t know who she was. It was a funny story. They only wanted one of us to play a newspaper boy, and Gregory and I auditioned together. So Agnes De Mille said, “We only have room for one.” So my mother – not even knowing who Agnes De Mille was – said, “No! I can’t break them up – they’re a set!” Agnes De Mille said, “Don’t you know who I am?” And then she said, “I know Henry LeTang their teacher, and if the little one can learn a soft-shoe in 20 minutes I’ll take them both.” And of course Gregory did, and that’s how we got on Broadway!
How did Henry LeTang change your life?
He saw something in us. I asked him once before he passed away, “What was it about Gregory and me?” And he had a big school on 42nd Street of over 400 kids – only kids – no adults. And he said, “I knew you were good, you were cute, and I knew you were brothers, and you had a little chemistry. But one day I was teaching the full class and you and Gregory were not in the front, and I began to realize that in the middle of the room nobody was dancing, and I went back and I noticed that everyone was looking at you and Gregory, and I said, “They got something!” So he told my mother, “Let me put an act together for them. I think they could be the next Nicholas Brothers, which of course we never were.
He was right and we took right off and we went to Paris and we went everywhere. We took right off! It was like, “BOOM!” We put together a routine. We did The Apollo Theater. Then we started to work with Sammy Davis, Jr.. We worked with Sammy in this town – at The Griffith Stadium – an outdoor show. We were the Hines kids! That’s really what Henry did.
Let’s talk about those talented Manzari Brothers in the show – Leo (18) and John (20) . How do they remind you of you and Gregory when you were their age?
When I first actually saw them dance is when they took my dance class at Duke Ellington and I asked them if they could tap – I didn’t know if they could tap. John said, “We can tap and all of that..’ I said to him, “I will tell you if you can tap or not. You don’t tell me if you can tap…” Well, they came and tapped for me. But what I saw in them when they tapped together was this magic – it was their own magic. It was this thing they had. It wasn’t like Gregory and me – or the Nicholas Brothers – it was just themselves.”
How do you describe that?
It was effortless charisma. They enjoyed dancing with each other. They liked challenging each other. Gregory and I didn’t challenge each other – we just liked dancing together. And Leo is the closest to what Gregory was, but his personality is like mine. He’s really the improvisationalist. John is closer to me. He is very, very effortless – almost balletic, but his personality is more like Gregory. I figured this out during the run of Sophisticated Ladies. I love watching them.
How have they grown as tappers and as men since you introduced them to the DC audiences at Sophisticated Ladies at The Lincoln Theatre?
They have both grown… tall. When we came up to Boston – that was the first time I saw them since Sophisticated Ladies, where their performance level was so high. But now it’s really on another level. They listen to everything that I say. I don’t tell them, ‘You have to do it right now.” They took what I said and made it their own – and that’s greatness. Don’t try to be me, ’cause you’re not going to be me – you are not going to be Savion – you are going to be you! And they found a way to be themselves. They even have more chemistry together now. They laugh with each other. I said, “Have fun out there.” And when they are having fun, it’s like what Gregory and I did – we had fun out there. And they got it! And they will get it. I told them, “Don’t try to fool them because the audience will find you out. Don’t fake it.” I know all the tricks to get an audience excited. I’ve known them since I was five years-old. But I don’t do those tricks. The tricks are gone. I told them, “Be authentic. You don’t tap like me or Gregory – you tap like you, but you do have our style, but you are making it your own.” Fantastic brothers! Fantastic! They are well-mannered and they are classy. It’s a word we don’t heard a lot of anymore – class. And they got it!
Tell me about the other two brothers you found here-The Heimowitz Brothers – Sam and Max? What did they dance at their auditions and what was it about them that made you say, “That’s them. I want them in the show?”
It’s really unbelievable. One of them – Max – tapped for me and Leo said, “I think he has a brother.” I always wanted two other brothers. In Boston I found a little Italian girl who was 12 years-old, who was stunning with one of Savion Glover’s dances. She dances like Savion Glover. It wasn’t fair – a 12 year-old dancing like Savion Glover!! I wanted to get off the stage and kick her in the kneecap!
So I asked Max, “Do you have a brother?’ And he said, “Yes. He’s at a Bar-Mitzvah.” So I said, “Call his mother and get him here.” So, he comes, and dances, and they’re good! Oh, my God! I know I only had one in Boston and I know Arena is expecting to pay for only one, but I gotta have them.
It’s amazing how history repeats itself Maurice. They only want one and they have to take two.
That’s right. Arena was so nice. They said, “If Maurice wants them, we’ll take them.” And they are both fabulous. And I talked to their teachers and I said, “They were really great at the auditions but they have to come even better. And they are following The Manzari Brothers.”
Nice you aren’t putting any pressure on them Maurice.
LOL! They are both adorable. And the teacher said, “I understand.” She knows the Manzari Brothers. Jeff Calhoun said, “Maurice, they have to be a whole lot better.”
And Jeff saw them dance-right?
Yes. He was at the audition and he loved them. He said, “Maurice, I’ll do what you want. I know what you want and they are it – and they can tap!” Most of the teachers of today don’t teach the style that I do. They teach a Busby Berkeley-style and not a Bill Robinson style. Their teachers have taught The Manzaris this style. They don’t have teachers like that in this town-really. The Manzaris’ teacher is in Albany, NY. But Sam and Max tap well enough for the given stuff of the show.
I love those names – Sam and Max Heimowitz!
Now all the shuls will all be coming to see them and the show! (High-fives all around!)
But it’s God that did that. It’s the line in the show -me and Gregory, John and Leo, and now Max and Sam.
So are you feeling confident now that the younger generation will keep tap alive in for generations to come?
Tell us about the 9-member all-female band/orchestra in the show? Where did you find them?
They have been around for 20 years. They are called Diva. Originally it was 15 ladies but because we couldn’t afford 15, we have 9.They became famous playing at The Playboy Jazz Festival almost 18 years ago. So now I use 9 when I do venues like this. When I go to Broadway, I will do 15. And these 9 play like 15. Wait ’til you hear them!
What have you learned about yourself as a dancer putting this show together and performing in it?
I really haven’t learned a thing because I have loved it from the beginning, and that’s why I took other forms. At the beginning I loved tap, and I was really good at it, but I wanted to take ballet and I wanted to take jazz, and I wanted to take Horton, and I did, because it prepared me to become the choreographer that I became. So when I did Hot Feet I did a 20-minute ballet. I just did a ballet with Ballet Met out of Columbus, with all of Stevie Wonder’s music. So, I wanted to be more. I am the happiest when I am with dancers. When I am choreographing – I don’t need nothin’ else!
It’s in your blood Maurice.
It is. And the other thing I learned is about audiences. When I am on the stage people tell me, It’s like we are in your living room and you are just talking to us.” Because I love them so much! It was another school then. You are grateful to be there, and you are grateful that somebody showed up.
They have paid to be there.
It’s not about that. We have played benefits. We are there to please them. How do we make them happy? So when I am on the stage I am really, really happy!
I am really, really happy you are here! I am happy sitting here and schmoozing with you. It’s always fun interviewing you.
I enjoy interviewing with you too. Here, in this show, I represent my family and that’s important, too.
What’s next for you after this gig ends?
I am supposed to direct the life of Ella Fitzgerald at MetroStage: Ella Fitzgerald, First Lady of Song with Freda Payne.
You have done a lot of work there too.
I did direct the Josephine Baker show: Josephine Tonight in January 2012, and choreographed Cool Papa’s Party in 2008, and I won a Helen Hayes Award for my choreography. It was very unexpected and very nice.
And then I do a new show at The Apollo called Apollo Club Harlem with a 20-piece orchestra. They turn the Apollo into a nightclub. It’s really wonderful. I did it with Dee Dee Bridgewater and now it’s with Gladys Knight. And then I go back on tour with Tappin’ Thru Life. I go to Atlanta, then to Beverly Hills, and then I finish in Cleveland, and then I have a new show I am choreographing called The Moulin Rouge, the first integrated hotel in Las Vegas where Gregory and I worked.
How did that come into your brain?
Will Smith and his wife Jada had the rights to do a movie on it. It became legendary and I’ll tell you why: It was only open for six months. It was in the black section of town and The Strip was in the white section when Vegas was segregated. And it was run by what they considered the ‘B Gangsters.’ They gave them this little hotel to open and the ‘A Gangsters’ had the strip.
They divided it up.
Exactly. But they didn’t think of it that way. They just wanted to give this poor guy something to do-to keep him busy. Meanwhile, we are doing three shows a night and Frank Sinatra would come over for the third show because they knew who Dinah Washington was – because they were friends. So when Sinatra came – all the high rollers came to our casino, and it was packed and their casinos were empty, and they said, “Oh no, no, no! This can’t happen.” So they shut it down after six months. It’s legendary. They weren’t going to do a movie because it had gangsters in it. The women who did The Hunger Games movie took it when Will dropped it, and they said, “This looks like this could be a Broadway show.” They called my agent and she said, “Maurice Hines actually worked there with his brother,” and they didn’t know that. They said, ‘Oh my God!” And that’s what they are going to do next year.
But this show – Maurice Hines isTappin’ Thru Life – I want to take to Broadway. They are already talking to me about it.
When I walk on the Kreeger Stage I am just going to feel – I have all these adjectives – HAPPY!
Talk about some of the legends you honor in the show.
We certainly honor Judy Garland because it was the big thing in our lives when we met her. And of course Sammy Davis, Jr. and of course Frank Sinatra. Meeting Frank Sinatra was a very big deal because we didn’t expect it. We were opening for Ella Fitzgerald and closing and Sammy said, “You have to meet Frank and Dean.” It was the ‘Mini-Rat Pack.’ Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop were not there. Sammy said to come to his dressing room before and we thought, “Oh my God! We are meeting Frank Sinatra!” And my father and mother were there. It was so thrilling! We knew Sammy for years and we knew Dean Martin too. When Sinatra walked in the charisma was overwhelming. I can still see him walking through the door. He was so thin and those eyes and he was so charming. He said, “It was so nice to see you guys. You are working with ‘The First Lady of Song’ and Ella’s number one! After Ella then we all come!” And then he said, “We are here to see your show, and then you’ll come and see my show.”
Then Dean came in. You think Steve McQueen was cool? Dean Martin was cool! It was interesting watching the dynamics of the Mini Rat Pack. Sammy was (snapping his fingers) and Frank was Frank, but when Dean talked – they all got quiet.
He really was the boss. There was something about him that was in charge. He was effortless. He didn’t have to say anything. He was just ‘special.’ Very in charge. He didn’t have to talk a lot. He was so nice to us. And Frank was so nice to us. When we saw his show we had front row seats. He was in charge of the Copa Room at the Sands and Copa room. And I play tribute to Frank by singing songs they sang, because they were fabulous. And I have the exact arrangements.
You have the Nelson Riddle/Tommy Newsom ones?
Yes. You can buy them online. You can buy 15-piece arrangements online for $67.00. So when my manager told me that he could get the original arrangement for “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” – I told him to get it.
In Boston at The Berklee College of Music there were all these fabulous kids and they knew it was Nelson Riddle. They were so excited. They couldn’t believe they were playing it – like “Luck Be a Lady”- I do all of that.
I pay a tribute to Lena Horne who was my idol, who I got to know the last twenty years of her life. She was perfection to me. When I saw her in Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music – I had never seen anything like it. Ella was Ella, but the only other person I saw that I could equate with Lena was Josephine Baker. She was a phenomenon! I was young when I saw her. I saw her in 1961, and at the end of the show the audience ran down to the stage to kiss the hem of her dress. To kiss a dress – I have never seen that happen – and I have seen the greats.
What do you think it was?
It was this overwhelming love – she LOVED them. She went out and kissed them. And she would change her gowns and costumes.
They got their money’s worth.
They did! Her first change from her opening pant suit was into an Aqua coat that Christian Dior designed for her. She changed diamonds, eye makeup, facial makeup, a wig, and a complete costume in seven minutes. She had a woman she had met in Cuba – and this is before Velcro – and I asked dancer Geoffrey Holder, who was dancing while she was changing, “How long is your dance? And he said, “Seven minutes!” So she came back on and the place went crazy. In seven minutes she had on a complete new outfit. So Gregory and I would laugh when people would say to us, “Weren’t they great, or wasn’t she or he great?” because we have seen the greats. We have seen Sammy Davis at his peak. No one could do any more because he did everything. He played every instrument. He did every impression – tapped, danced, and sang his heart out. We don’t have the greats today.
Thank God we got you.
People say, “Maurice, you are so fabulous!” And, yes I am so fabulous, because I learned from those giants!
You learned from the best.
Yes, I learned from the best, and I saw the best. And my father taught us one thing: “When you are with those people – you got nothing to say because you don’t know nothing! You listen to them and you learn from them.” And we did! They would bring us onstage – “You walk on the stage this way because your audience is there.”
The other person I wanted meet because she is this way was Tina Turner. When I saw her at Radio City she was just like those greats. She had a camera that focused on the audience. She could see them personally. To thank them. She would see a face and say, “Hey, you’re in the front row!” She wanted the camera to do closeups. You can’t do better than that.
So are you coming to Opening Night?
Of course.. I wouldn’t miss it!
This was good!
No. This was classy!
Maurice Hines is Tappin’ Thru Life plays from November 15th through December 29, 2013 in the Kreeger at Arena Stage at The Mead Center for American Theater – 1101 Sixth Street, SW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 488-3300, or purchase them online.