By Meredith Ganzman
Tommy Tune sits atop a high chair, at least four feet tall, in his East Side penthouse, his long legs nearly reaching the floor.
Black and white paintings of dancing men in top hats and tails line the wall. Tune is clad in black and white, too, and his hot pink-rimmed glasses and long feathered gray hair pop in contrast to his surroundings.
Diagonally across the room, are Tune’s nine TONY Awards. To hold them all, he built a mantle in the living room. But he didn’t like how they looked. So the 6’ 6” actor, dancer, director and choreographer changed the scenery. He placed a ladder with nine rungs, about a foot apart, against a the side of bookshelf, coming out catty corner from the wall, and set one trophy on each rung to represent nine special steps in his life.
The book shelf and the ladder of TONY Awards are one of the few parts of the room, used mostly now as office and artistic space, taller than Tune himself.
The number nine has always had a special meaning for the 76-year-old Tune. He made his directorial debut off-Broadway with Cloud Nine (1982). That year he also directed the Broadway musical Nine. Nine letters spell out Tommy Tune. And this year, the 69th annual TONY Awards will bring a new addition to the ladder– a 10th. Tune is to be honored for lifetime achievement at the June 7 ceremony, though according to the New York Post, CBS hasn’t yet confirmed if they will air his speech during the televised broadcast.
Learn to expect the unexpected, Tune said he was once told, and “this was unexpected.”
“This was not a part of my dream. I did not come here to do this,” he said. His Texan accent, not faded by his long New York residence, brings back his roots.
That dream began in Wichita Falls, Texas, about 70 years ago Tune recalled.
In kindergarten or first grade, about once a month, a dance teacher came to Tune’s school and taught his class a dance such as the Mexican hat dance or a German folk dance. The teacher noticed how Tune took to the steps and encouraged him to take lessons. “’But how much will it cost?’ I asked the teacher. ‘Gratis,’ she replied. ‘But what does gratis mean?’ I thought.” When he learned the definition of “gratis,” he enrolled.
Tune studied ballet until the age of 12, “When I got my height,” he said. “Tommy Tune, you’re going to have to be some other kind of prince,” he thought.
Ballet taught Tune a discipline and an exactitude, which he would later apply to working in the theater. After seeing the movie “Easter Parade,” starring Fred Astaire, he gave jazz and tap a try.
When Tune entered Lamar High School in Houston, he was told to pick a major. He wanted to dance. But the school didn’t offer dance as a major, so he talked to the school’s theater teacher, Ruth Denney, who Tune says was reminiscent of a female Fred Astaire. She wore a dark tan skirt and silk stripe blouse. Her hair was medium length and had a natural silver streak that began at her hairline above her right eye. “She was a stunningly handsome woman,” Tune said.
Denney offered Tune a ticket to see his first play at the Alley Theater in downtown Houston. It was theater in the round, though the actual theater was shaped like a square. He recalls the lights going down and being in total blackness. The play began, and the lights opened in amber hues. It was a production of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, a play about a dysfunctional family, led by the aging Southern belle Amanda Wingfield and her two children, Laura and Tom. Tune’s introduction to theater, he said, “was devastating.”
After the play, Tune was supposed to call his parents for a ride home. He walked all the way home instead. “It was like I had seen God. I was in an altered state,” Tune recalled after seeing the production.
The next day he went back to Denney ready to give theater a try. Denney wanted to produce a musical for a high school. Tune had just seen his first play. A musical was even a more foreign idea. He went with his then girlfriend, who had a car, to see a local production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I. In the musical, which combined dance and story, Tune saw a place for himself.
The first musical in which he performed in high school was Show Boat, followed by Annie Get Your Gun and The Pajama Game, for which Tune created the dance for the musical’s “Steam Heat” number. “I learned that dance needed to mean something in a musical.” He didn’t know it then, but he was choreographing.
Suddenly, his great dream was to go New York and to dance in the chorus of a Broadway show.
These days, Tune honors Houston high school theater with the Tommy Tune Awards, now in its 13th year. Local Houston theater professionals judge 45 participating Houston high school productions in categories such as best leading and supporting actor and actress, and best musical.
At the show last month, Tune opened the show and then the students join him in the opening number. “It was step kick step kick. I thought they would need to reinforce the stage,” he said.
For Tune’s own high school graduation present, his parents gave him his first trip to New York. At his graduation day, Tune also met a lifetime friend and mentor, TONY Award winner Carol Channing. “He said then and there that he wanted to do what I was doing for a living and, by golly, he did and has done a noble job at it, too,” Channing recalled in an interview.
Of Tune’s TONY Awards, Channing says, “This will be his 10th TONY. I only have three.”
On his first night in New York, he stayed at the Algonquin Hotel, which he knew about from the famed Algonquin roundtable. His first Broadway show was Happy Hunting with Ethel Merman and Fernando Lamas. Merman reminded Tune of a female Al Jolson.He saw 10 shows during his short weeklong stay, including New Girl in Town, starring Thelma Ritter and Gwen Verdon, whose name he initially mispronounced Ver-don.
A four-time TONY Award winner, Verdon was once married to famed choreographer/director Bob Fosse and was Fosse’s muse for much of his work. For Tune, she was different. Verdon pulled you in with her performance, instead of spitting you out. She was also a triple threat. Until then, Tune didn’t know performers could do all three.
“I just wanted to be in the chorus of that show,” he said, although he was nervous his height would keep him from fitting into an ensemble.
His first professional audition was on the first day he moved to New York, in 1962. Tune was 23. It was also Saint Patrick’s Day. The audition was for a touring production of Irma la Douce. He was told to sing eight bars of a song. His was “Heart” from the musical Damn Yankees. The last eight bars was a repeat of the refrain, “We’ve got heart.” Tune decided to sing the first eight bars instead. He sung nine bars and booked the job.
Tune made his Broadway debut with 1965’s Baker’s Street. Other credits include Seesaw (1973), Nine (1982), The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1982), Grand Hotel (1989) and The Will Rogers Follies (1993).
Of all 14 Broadway credits, Grand Hotel, he says, is the closest to his masterpiece. In 1990, Tune won the TONY for best director and best choreography for Grand Hotel.
Tune was first introduced to Grand Hotel when he stumbled upon the 1932 movie starring Greta Garbo, during one late-night watching TV. The story of a diverse group of individuals staying in a luxury hotel in Berlin, Germany, struck Tune as the making of good story for a stage musical.
As he began production, Tune did not want to work in an antiseptic rehearsal space. He needed more than white and mirrored walls for inspiration. Instead the production team found a hotel ballroom to inspire his creativity.
“It was a crack hotel,” Tune says.
Walking through the hotel lobby to the second floor ballroom reminded him of one of the musical’s first songs, “Some Have, Some Have Not.” The ballroom was in a state of decay. It had four, shaded and dirty mirrored columns. The columns were a vision Tune had seen before.
For years before the production, Tune recalls having a recurring dream. He was in a similar decrepit ballroom. In his dream, the chandeliers were breaking, and there were the same columns he saw before him in the hotel.
After rehearsals began, Tune’s dreams ended. Following his double TONY win for Grand Hotel, Tune also won in the same categories, the following year, for The Will Rogers Follies. Tune has not worked on Broadway for the last 21 years. He did return to theater last fall with New York City Center’s Encores! production of Lady, Be Good! in which he performed rousing numbers such as “Fascinating Rhythm” and “Little Jazz Bird.” Tune also regularly tours his cabaret act, Taps, Tunes and Tall Tales.
He says he won’t return to the stage without his team. “I’ve sustained a lot of loss,” Tune says. His former collaborators such as librettist Peter Stone, composers and lyricists Cy Coleman and Betty Comden and Adolph Green, choreographer and director Michael Bennett and director Mike Nichols have all died. “I can’t do it alone. I’ve had trouble finding and making a new team,” he says.
But he is willing and ready to work again on Broadway–but not to create a revival. “I want to not know how it’s going to come out at the end,” he says. “Everywhere he goes, he gives the audience a fresh performance,” says Channing. “He makes it new for each show.”
Tune won his first TONY Award in 1974 for Seesaw as featured actor in a musical. In his speech, he promoted the upcoming tour of Seesaw, saying, “It’s not a movie. It’s not a television show. It is not a rock concert. It is a Broadway musical and that is something special.”
With his upcoming 10th TONY, Tune breaks his lucky number nine streak. But that’s just fine because he loves alliteration.
“Ten time TONY Award Winner Tommy Tune Taps Tall Tales,” he muses. “Doesn’t that sound great?”