from the feet up
by Richard Dodds
Tommy Tune has nine Tony Awards for his work on Broadway as a director, choreographer, and performer; he was in two big-screen movie musicals, including Hello, Dolly!; he has been on television dozens of times; and he has toured extensively with his theatrical revues featuring backup dancers and an orchestra. What he has never done, but will do in San Francisco for the first time, is appear as a solo performer on a cabaret stage.
"It's going to be a really different experience for me," Tune, 73, said about his Nov. 11 appearance at the Fairmont Hotel's Venetian Room that is part of the Bay Area Cabaret season. "In a theater, I am here and you are there, and we have footlights between us, and I'm reaching across the footlights hoping to pull you to me. Now it will be an intimate dance between the performer and the audience, because we're all in the same place."
With a lingering hint of a drawl, he likened the experience, or at least his expectations of it, to his childhood in Texas. "This is like entertaining in the living room, like when I was a little boy and my parents' friends would come over and my father would always want me to get up and dance," Tune said from his Manhattan home. "I just hated it, but I had to do it because he was paying for my dance lessons. Now it's by choice."
His life back in Texas will be a part of Taps, Tunes, and Tall Tales, the title of his autobiographical solo show premiering at the Venetian Room. "I'm telling intimate stories about my life and career, and the songs that I've chosen are not necessarily from the shows I've been involved in, but ones that will help me create the arc of my story." And there will be tap dancing. "Oh, sure. That's the first thing I did, and my career grew from my feet up."
And grew and grew, both creatively and vertically. The 6-foot-7 Tune won his first Tony Award in 1974 for his kick-starting performance in the musical Seesaw, and more Tonys flowed his way for his direction and choreography of such musical hits as Nine, Grand Hotel, and The Will Rogers Follies. The final new show that he helped create to reach Broadway, the sequel The Best Little Whorehouse Goes Public, had a brief run in 1994, but one of the songs from Carol Hall's score is included in Taps, Tunes, and Tall Tales.
"I do the song 'I'm Leaving Texas,' which fits me to a T," he said. Other selections include songs by Carol King, Leiber and Stoller, and Lerner and Loewe. "I sing some Gershwin, of course, because I am a Gershwin tune," he said, "and I reenact my first New York audition, which was 'You Gotta Have Heart.' It's interesting that I chose that song for my audition, but you really do need heart to be in the theater."
After the short run of the new Whorehouse, and a broken foot that waylaid the Broadway-bound Busker Alley that starred Tune, he has absented himself from Broadway despite the critical and popular acclaim that greeted most of his work. "A lot of things happened, a lot of deaths," Tune said, mentioning the names of numerous collaborators who have died. "And there have not been the people who do what I don't know how to do who have come to me with material worthy of doing."
AIDS played part of the role in the accumulating losses, including the death of a long-term partner in 1994. AIDS slammed Tune in a different way when Lucie Arnaz, his co-star in the touring edition of My One and Only, told him in 1986 that she would no longer kiss him onstage. "I just talked to her yesterday, and we're friends, and it really wasn't about her, it was the times," he said. "But when that entered the sacred space which is the theater and messed that up, that's when it was, like, too much for me. It was very bad because it made me feel contaminated."
Tune has "tested the waters," he said, of new relationships since 1994, but nothing long-term has emerged. "Don't forget we lived through the coming of AIDS, and that can really fuck you up," he said. "I'm sure it affected our psyche. And then came the Internet and hooking up, and that doesn't interest me. It's like getting a mail-order bride."
Tune has had intense relationships with both men and women, which, he said, "has given me a broader view, a higher point I can look from, that has helped me in my creations and interpretations. In this show," referring to Taps, Tunes, and Tall Tales, "I hope I'm creating something original."
After his San Francisco performance, Tune and pianist Michael Biagi will take the show to Feinstein's at Loews Regency not long before New York's premier nitery is set to close. "That's why I'm finally doing it, because through the years they've asked, but I never saw myself doing it because of the intimate scale." Tune's upcoming touring calendar then has him alternating between the new cabaret act and his theatrical show Steps in Time.
Asked if he is enjoying life as he pushes toward the middle of his seventh decade, Tune took a moment to reflect. "I am hugely grateful for my life, and there are bruises and hurts and wounds, and some of them are healed and some are not. I think as you age you realize that life is not all a fabulous performance. If it were, we wouldn't need to seek out the entertainment and enlightenment that comes with a nice evening in the theater."
Tommy Tune will perform Taps, Tunes, and Tall Tales at 5 p.m., Nov. 11 in the Fairmont Hotel's Venetian Room. Tickets are $47. Call 392-4400 or go to www.bayareacabaret.org.