Arts & Culture

May 20, 2014

Tommy Tune talks ‘Taps, Tunes and Tall Tales’

The Tony-winning Broadway performer brings his new show to Fort Worth on Friday.

Tommy Tune recalls growing up in Houston and, when his parents told him they were going to have a baby, requesting a little sister. He was 9 years old.

He got his wish.

“I wanted to have a sister so we could be like Fred and Adele Astaire,” he says. “I want us to be Gracey and Tommy Tune.”

At a young age, he was well aware of his love and talent for dancing — he originally wanted to be a ballet dancer but grew too tall (he’s 6 foot 6), and tap dancing became a passion.

He also had a gift for interpreting songs. This combo would eventually lead him to an illustrious Broadway career, earning him nine Tony Awards for acting, choreography and directing (he was nominated four other times), not to mention a slew of other awards, including having the Houston area’s high school musicals awards named for him.

And all the while, he stayed close to his 10-years-younger sister, Gracey, who parlayed her passion for tap dancing, performance and teaching into what has remained a Fort Worth arts institution for more than a decade, Arts Fifth Avenue. (The still youthful Tommy proudly announces he’s 75, a rare case of age honesty in the showbiz world.)

This weekend, to celebrate the 25th anniversary of National Tap Dance Day on May 25 — established by president George H.W. Bush — brother, sister and a bunch of their friends will be reunited. The festivities begin Friday, when Tommy Tune performs the Texas premiere of his show Taps, Tunes and Tall Tales at the Scott Theatre. Then, on Sunday, on the outdoor stage at Arts Fifth Avenue, Gracey and Tommy will be joined by other tap dancers in the community for a free celebration and performance.

“Gracey is the best; she’s so artful,” her brother says. “I love Arts Fifth Avenue and the vision behind it, and the fact that she has stuck with it in thick and thin.”

Decorated career

Tommy Tune began performing in musicals as a teenager, and when he was 17, earned his Actors’ Equity card as a chorus member in a production of West Side Story at Dallas Summer Musicals. Not long after, it was off to New York where, like another Texas-born Broadway legend, Betty Buckley, he was cast upon his first audition in 1964. (Buckley’s break was about five years later.)

The role was as an ensemble member for the road company of the musical Irma la Douce, which had been on Broadway a few years earlier. Soon after, he made his Great White Way debut in the ensemble of Baker Street and quickly became a go-to triple threat. He spent much of the rest of the ’60s on Broadway, in shows like A Joyful Noise and How Now, Dow Jones.

He won his first Tony, for best featured actor in a musical, for Seesaw in 1974. That track would continue with Broadway shows such as The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, which he choreographed and co-directed with Peter Masterson (1978); A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine (1980), director and choreographer; directing the original production of Maury Yeston’s Nine (1982); My One and Only (1983), for which he won Tonys for lead actor and choreographer; Grand Hotel (1989), directing and choreography; and directing the influential play Cloud Nine by beloved British playwright Caryl Churchill, for which he won a Drama Desk Award. His eighth and ninth Tonys came for directing and choreographing The Will Rogers Follies in 1991.

His career has given him enough experience and stories to cull into several one-man shows, including Tommy Tune Tonite! on Broadway in 1992, and Steps in Time, which he toured around the country several years ago, including a stop in Dallas with his longtime band, Manhattan Rhythm Kings.

Storytelling is another gift that has served him well and garnered him even more praise from colleagues.

Jim Caruso, who runs the highly popular open-mike cabaret Cast Party in New York, at which Liza Minnelli or any Broadway star or newcomer is likely to show up at any given performance, adores Tune for his vocal and interpretative skills.

“Crooning is my favorite thing anyway, more so than the big belty diva,” says Caruso, who just happens to be bringing Cast Party to Dallas for two performances at the Kitchen Café on Thursday and Friday. “Tommy sings exactly like I love — he tells a story in tune. The emphasis is on the story and not on ‘look what I can do.’ ”

About his new show

In Taps, Tunes and Tall Tales, Tune tells a few stories he hasn’t told before, along with some he has. He won’t divulge what they are (“You’ll have to see it yourself,” he says), but you might expect him to mention his longtime friend Carol Channing, who does the voice recording on his home answering machine. Tune doesn’t have a cellphone, which he considers a distraction from time when he could be working — “I had one for two weeks and it drove me crazy.”

He met Channing during his teenage years at Dallas Summer Musicals, as she was coming through in a tour of Redhead. “She is my spiritual mother,” Tune says. “She’s no longer just my theatrical godmother, which she had been since I was 17. Any show-business question I had I would talk to her, and she would give me incredibly good advice.”

Or he might bring up the time he had lunch with Salvador Dali.

“One thing I don’t tell is what he served for lunch. He served what looked like an angel food cake, with a huge uncracked lobster on top of it,” Tune says. “I was young and I wasn’t sure what to do with it, so finally I picked it up and talked into it like a telephone to get a laugh out of him.”

Or he might even mention a recent incident that had him in the New York gossip rags, when he invited the cast of the current Tony-nominated musical After Midnight, a show he has seen five times, to his home on 57th Street on the day the Tonys were announced. The police showed up.

“[The cast was] making music from the soul,” Tune says. “Nobody was rowdy, but we were making beautiful music, and the police came. I was congratulating them on their nominations.”

Whatever you hear in Tall Tales, know that he has plenty of material to choose from.

“The hardest part of writing this show is what to leave out,” he says.

One thing he won’t leave out, you can bet, is a mention of Gracey Tune, whom he considers a role model. For him, it makes perfect sense that she has made Fort Worth her home, a city he fondly remembers because their family visited frequently, as their father had friends here.

They likely practiced their dancing here.

“When she was very little, I held her up by her armpits to teach her to dance,” he says. “She eventually discovered it on her own; my sister knows how she wants to do things.”

Like brother, like sister.

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