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Tommy Tune, 1997


A Broadway Tune: A Halloween Visit with Tommy Tune
 

By Owen Keehnen

 
In 1965 Tommy Tune arrived in New York City from his native Texas. On his first day in town he landed a chorus job in Baker Street, and he has been working steadily ever since. He has performed in, choreographed, and/or directed some of the finest shows in recent memory: Nine, My One and Only, The Will Rogers Follies, A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine, Grand Hotel, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, etc. He has won nine Tony Awards and was the first person to have won in four different categories, as well as the only person to win in the same two categories two years in a row. He's been the recipient of eight Drama Desk Awards, two Obie Awards, and countless other awards and honors. His film credits include Hello Dolly! and Ken Russell's The Boyfriend. He's danced before three U.S. Presidents, the Queen of England, and even Fred Astaire.

In 1995 the 6'6" Tune broke his foot on tour for the Broadway-bound Busker Alley. As a result of the injury he was finally still long enough to write his memoir, Footnotes. The book is a frank, chatty, and fun look at both Tune's career and his personal life. In Footnotes Tune is also very straightforward about being gay and in discussing sex as well as his loves and losses. Coinciding with the release of the book was Tune's first solo CD, Slow Dancin', a lush celebration of sixteen romantic standards with a 30-piece orchestral accompaniment.
 

Keehnen: How is the foot therapy going?

Tune: It's healed, finally healed. It was the longest haul of my life. I've just started dancing again. I'm all right, but I really had to re-educate myself to dance. When you go from crutches to cane to limping you overcompensate for the bad side and end up not trusting it, but now I'm okay.

Keehnen: Would you ever have sat down and written a memoir or recorded an album if it wasn't for that break?

Tune: Never! When I was in elementary school I got a plus on my report card that said "Uses time and materials wisely," and that's what I hope I did. I was going crazy lying in bed with my foot up in a cast. I don't take to that very well. The trepidation of wondering if I'd ever dance again informed the whole memoir. I suppose it might have just been God's way of saying "Take a Break"--literally.

Keehnen: Your career has been so noteworthy. Your role in Seesaw (1973), for which you won your first Tony Award, is widely recognized as the first openly gay role in a mainstream Broadway musical. As a gay man did you have any qualms or reservations about playing a gay character?

Tune: I never thought about it, it never entered my mind. I so trusted Michael Bennett, my director, and it was such an excellent opportunity. Perhaps I should have given it some thought, but no, I never did.

Keehnen: And when you won that Tony you even brought your then lover, Michael Stuart, to the awards show.

Tune: I didn't think of that as a political statement or anything, I just did it. We were together and he should be with me, we should share the moment. It was that simple in my mind. For the time I suppose it was radical behavior.

Keehnen: Along with stories about Michael Bennett, Footnotes contains great anecdotes about many geniuses of theater and dance--Martha Graham, Fred Astaire, Agnes DeMille, Gene Kelly, Jule Styne, Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin, Carol Channing, etc. What's the best bit of advice any of them ever gave to you?

Tune: I think probably Gene Kelly gave me the best direction I've ever been given. On the set of Hello, Dolly! he came up to me between takes and said, "Tommy, dance better." That just says it all.

Keehnen: You've been involved in so many great shows as a performer, choreographer, director, or some combination. Do you have a favorite?

Tune: The next. When I go to see the shows I've done, I'm never satisfied with them. I always see the flaws and the problems I haven't been able to solve. But that does give me the energy to move towards some sort of perfection.

Keehnen: You gained notoriety as the director of the 1976 feminist musical The Club, which featured women in drag as "the men" of the club competing in a drag show and were therefore women impersonating men impersonating women. As a gay man did the gender-play theme attract you?

Tune: Mostly I needed a job. It came, I took it, and I understood it. And I suppose exploring sexuality also intrigued me. My view of it is so different from what most people in America think. I don't get the difference between the sexes much--people are people. I never thought I can't love you this way because you're a man or a woman; I've always just gone for the human being and then we work out what the sexuality should be.

Keehnen: In Footnotes you write about several of your gay relationships, but you also say your most complete, passionate, and romantic relationship was with a woman, a famous woman whom you don't name. Does that make you consider yourself a bisexual?

Tune: It's hard to label what I am, but I'd say I'm pansexual. I have never understood why we need to limit ourselves.

Keehnen: Of those nine Tony Awards you've won, which is your favorite?

Tune: I suppose the first, just like the first time you fall in love.

Keehnen: Do you prefer performing, choreographing, or directing?

Tune: It's really what I'm doing at any given moment. If I'm directing and suddenly I see the play improving, I know I'm doing the right thing. If I'm with some dancers and see a few steps we've been working on done perfectly, I'll think "Yes, this is what I should be doing!" When I'm on stage acting or dancing or singing and it comes so naturally that I know I'm succeeding, I'm sure I shouldn't be doing anything else. Even this memoir felt that way; it felt good sharing some secrets. Recording the CD was the same.

Keehnen: Slow Dancin' is your first solo CD. Why have you waited so long?

Tune: I've been busy doing shows--simple as that. It was a way of expressing myself in a time of physical limitation. I think if that creative force didn't come out of me I would implode . . . or at least have a lot of gas.

Keehnen: The CD is beautiful. You sing sixteen romantic standards and are backed by that great 30-piece orchestra. What did you want the album to achieve?

Tune: I worked with Wally Harper and Peter Matz, and we wanted to make an album you could trust. One of the things I love to do is cook; my dad taught me and he was a great cook. I like to cook dinner and light the candles, ice the champagne, and get the lights right. Then inevitably the doorbell will be ringing and I'll grab a CD and slip it in, and it'll start and there will be a couple nice ballads, and then some loud number will come on and you have to jump up and adjust the volume. We wanted to do an album that was consistent, that you could put on and trust. Wally kept saying, "Let's give them the feeling without the noise."

Keehnen: Along with Michael Bennett and Bob Fosse, you're considered one of Broadway's three great dancers-turned-choreographers/directors. As the surviving member of that trio, do you feel an obligation to pass on what you have learned?

Tune: I do think there's a responsibility to give back what you've been given, but that's true for everyone.

Keehnen: Though you've conquered Broadway, you've made relatively few films (Hello, Dolly!, The Boyfriend, Mimi Bluette); but your big film opportunity was sabotaged by inaccurate press reports about your dancing in drag with Josephine Baker.

Tune: And it's fine. I don't care for the fragmentary quality of the medium and making films. It's all a little shot here and a little shot there. I really do love entertaining live anyway.

Keehnen: At the time of the previously mentioned incident, did you resent the press?

Tune: I didn't realize it was such a big thing and it wasn't a big thing. It was so true of those times and the way things were done. Nothing was said, but little by little the film project just slowly evaporated.

Keehnen: But you did make Hello, Dolly!

Tune: It was so exciting because that really was the last big Hollywood musical, made and shot on the back lot at Fox. It was exciting as a prospect, but boring as a process.

Keehnen: You also made Ken Russell's The Boyfriend. It doesn't seem like working with Ken Russell could be boring.

Tune: No, it wasn't. That was different because he's a madman. Every morning the script of a new scene we were shooting would be slipped under my door and it was always based on something that happened the night before. One night at dinner a couple of the girls found each other and he saw them dining together away from the group . . . and the next morning we discovered he'd written a whole lesbian scene for the movie. Twiggy and I called him "Sir" and we had to be very careful over how we behaved or we'd end up acting our lives out on screen.

Keehnen: What do you think about Broadway's upcoming season?

Tune: I see it as good right now. I've changed my mind since I wrote the book. The new season just started, and it started off with a bang with Side Show and Triumph of Love. The Lion King is coming, which looks wonderful. I saw the world premiere of Ragtime in Toronto and it's headed for New York and it's great.

Keehnen: I went to high school with Marin Mazzie, who is starring in that.

Tune: Really, well, she is wonderful . . . so charming in her role and such a gorgeous voice. Also Paul Simon and Mark Morris, the choreographer, are cooking up something called Capeman that's opening on Broadway very soon. The real estate in New York is real tight right now--you cannot get a theater. It's the best kind of crunch. I think we're going to have a great season and it's not going to be revivals: it's going to be new shows. I'm hugely in favor of new shows . . . I'm about revived-out.

Keehnen: And you're starting work soon on Irving Berlin's Easter Parade, based on the old MGM musical with Fred Astaire and Judy Garland.

Tune: We're starting in Australia--now that's an out of town tryout! Sandy Duncan and I leave November 12th and go to Sydney where we're doing a 6-week workshop with an Australian cast. If that all goes well, we'll return to Australia in the summer and do the complete production, play it for a while, replace ourselves with Australian stars, and then come to New York and begin with an American company. These Berlin songs have not been heard on Broadway since the 1950s when he withdrew his music. But now his daughters want his music to live on.

Keehnen: I know Halloween has always been your favorite holiday, so aren't you excited? What are you going to wear tonight?

Tune: I'm so excited. My sister is with me and later on today we're flying to Austin. My sister brought these black and white prison uniforms from the penitentiary and those are going to be our costumes tonight.

Keehnen: Since Tommy Tune is your real name, did you always feel destined for musical theater stardom?

Tune: I reckon.

Keehnen: Thanks, Tommy, all the best with everything--Footnotes, the CD, and Easter Parade--and above all Happy Halloween!

Tune: Thanks, Owen.

 
About Owen Keehnen
 
Owen Keehnen has worked as a journalist, book reviewer, and interviewer for a number of years. Currently, the Chicago based author is completing a trilogy of interview books on gay XXX stars, finishing a horror novel, and supporting himself as a massage therapist. He is also launching a website which celebrates independent horror films, www.racksandrazors.com.
 
Related Pages
 

Tune, Tommy

Musical Theater and Film

Dance

Bennett, Michael

Fierstein, Harvey

Jeter, Michael

Wright, Robert, and George "Chet" Forrest

 

 
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