Not The Who’s Tommy, but Tommy Tune By Peter Filichia
It wasn’t the greatest Broadway resume.
In fact, only a quick glance would reveal how far down the theatrical food chain it would rank.
Take a look. The role by which he made his Broadway debut was “One of the Killers.” More than a year later, he was billed twice, although “Ensemble Dancer” and “Saw Mill Boy” don’t seem to be the parts on which dreams and awards are made.
At least the first musical, BAKER STREET, survived 311 performances in 1965. The next one, A JOYFUL NOISE – not until late 1966 – ran 299 fewer.
And yet this month Texas-born Tommy Tune celebrated the forty-ninth anniversary of Broadway knowing his name. It started with his Tony-winning stint in SEESAW, in which he sang, “It’s not where you start, it’s where you finish.”
Well, yes and no, as we can see from Kevin Winkler’s marvelous EVERYTHING IS CHOREOGRAPHY, subtitled “The Musical Theater of Tommy Tune.” For it seems that Tune finished his work on Broadway after supervising the first successful revival of GREASE in 1994. Since then, he’s had no Broadway credits (although he would have if BUSKER ALLEY hadn’t closed on the road after he’d broken his foot).
That there’s been no Tune on Broadway certainly isn’t because he’s not been able to find work. Even now as an octogenarian, Tune could get a Broadway show tomorrow if he were willing to appear in it, and/or stage it and/or choreograph it. He apparently doesn’t.
Winkler’s here to remind us of when Tune was flying high, winning nine Tony Awards in seventeen years: two for acting, three for directing and four for choreographing. The author details his triumphs, especially with NINE, GRAND HOTEL and THE WILL ROGERS FOLLIES.
NINE was newcomer Maury Yeston’s musical version of Federico Fellini’s masterpiece 8½. How much did Fellini believe in the show? Winkler tells us that he “required that neither his name nor the title of his film appear anywhere in NINE’S credits.”
Tune saw merit where Fellini didn’t, although, as Winkler reveals, Tune didn’t like “Be Italian.” Yeston saved it from being scrapped by writing “Ti Voglio Bene” to introduce it.
Who did like “Be Italian” was CBS’ Standards and Practices Committee. When the network was planning the 1981-1982 Tony broadcast, it chose the number to represent NINE, which wasn’t Tune and Company’s choice; they wanted Anita Morris’ sinewy and sexy “A Call to the Vatican.” The committee deemed it “not acceptable.” As Winkler wittily points out, “CBS was seemingly unaware that ‘Be Italian’ was performed by a prostitute instructing prepubescent boys.”
Winkler tells us that over the years, Tune had a recurring dream of “a parquet floor and these chandeliers … columns with mirrors … ballroom chairs.” One night when he couldn’t sleep, he turned on the TV and there was the Oscar-winning film GRAND HOTEL. Greta Garbo’s performance and character reminded him of Liliane Montevecchi, who’d been so memorable in NINE, where she’d won a Tony for singing “Folies Bergere.”
Conductor Jack Lee would be very glad that he gave Tune a copy of Vicki Baum’s novel on which the film was based, for when Tune made it his next show, Lee was hired as musical director.
Lee also jump-started the project in another way, for he told Tune about AT THE GRAND, the 1958 Wright and Forrest musical version of GRAND HOTEL that had reset the novel from Berlin to Rome. It had starred Paul Muni as Kringelein, the dying bookkeeper who came to the grand hotel for one last, expensive fling.
Because Muni was the star – only the third person to have won both an Oscar and a Best Actor in a Play Tony – Wright and Forrest concentrated on him. If you know the GRAND HOTEL cast album (and if you don’t, you should, for it’s terrific), you’ll be surprised that two songs you hear sung by other characters were originally Kringelein’s: “A Table with a View” and “I Waltz Alone.” And yet, when you think of it, each song was very right for him; Kringelein would love to rate such a table and, in the company of so-called beautiful people, would be forced to dance alone, should he care to dance at all.
Alas, AT THE GRAND closed in San Francisco, and wouldn’t much resemble GRAND HOTEL on Broadway twenty-one long years later. There Kringelein certainly danced and not alone, with Michael Jeter bouncing all over the place, brassily rolling around a brass bar in “We’ll Take a Glass Together,” one of the greatest showstoppers in Broadway history.
Before that, though, Tune felt he had to find the right place to develop the show for, as Winker reports, he doesn’t like “sterile rehearsal studios.” Although the reputation of the Hotel Diplomat was hardly grand, Tune went to inspect it. When he saw how distressed it was, he said “This is it.”
I was invited to the GRAND HOTEL workshop, as were Mike Nichols and Diane Sawyer, who sat in the first row while I was in the third. (Don’t be impressed; the room held only three rows.) I was surprised to see that the room was interrupted by two poles, which I feared would be literal barriers and nuisances. As it turned out, they were assets that would influence how the set would look.
What I didn’t see in that low-ceilinged room was the orchestra placed above the action, as it was during the Broadway run. (Winkler tells us that set designer Tony Walton was the one who made that suggestion.) And who gave Tune the idea that the song “H-A-P-P-Y” should be done as a Charleston? His mother!
Tune, though, made the suggestion (no – demand) that Maury Yeston buttress the score. Winkler has a smart description of his title song: “as much as a sinister dare as an invitation.” More than a thousand audiences dared to accept the invitation.
EVERYTHING IS CHOREOGRAPHY is one of those books where even the footnotes are worth detailed reading. The best one tells when THE WILL ROGERS FOLLIES was panned by Columbia University’s student drama critic in the school’s paper.
The nineteen-year-old’s review was headlined “Parents Coming? Here’s What (Not) to See.” He wrote that the women in WILL ROGERS’ ensemble were “perma-smile actresses whose only qualifications seem to be their phenomenally large breasts and tight buttocks.” He criticized the “ostentatious Ziegfeld tradition” that was “little more than one boring, pointless, song and dance number after another.”
He missed that there was a point: to homage an era when this type of entertainment was a Broadway tradition. That “little more” turned out to be a good deal more when Will spoke to us; by the end of the night, we felt that he’d revealed enough about himself – and had done it so charmingly – that we mourned his death in a way that we hadn’t before we’d entered the Palace.
As for the songs being “boring”? The terrific polka that composer Cy Coleman and lyricists Betty Comden and Adolph Green concocted for “Favorite Son” is delicious enough on the cast album, but a visit to YouTube shows that it was a detailed, difficult number in which dozens or participants slapped their hands, shoulders and other body parts in great precision. How many times the cast must have rehearsed this one to get every move right.
Winkler tells us that the critic was one Robert O’ Rourke, who’s today better known as Beto O’Rourke. When running for the Texas Senate in 2018, he apologized to one and all about his review. One could wonder if he did it to woo voters who might have held it against him for knocking one of their most successful fellow Texans.
Is that what made him change his tune about Tune?
Peter Filichia is a contributor to the new magazine Encore Monthly, a columnist at www.broadwayselect.com and a commentator on www.broadwayradio.com.