Makin’ Up Dances – An Interview with Tommy Tune
Written by: David Edward Hughes
Tommy Tune is arguably the last remaining great director/choreographer of his era. One of the most prolific directors/choreographers to grace the stage, Tommy began his career as a dancer on Broadway, quickly stepping out of the chorus to principal roles. In his illustrious career, he has won nine Tony Awards, eight Drama Desk Awards, and the Society of Directors and Choreographers George Abbot Award for Lifetime Achievement. In addition to Broadway, he has worked in Las Vegas and in film. Among the shows Tommy directed/choreographed, and in one case starred in, on Broadway are The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, Nine, Grand Hotel, A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine, My One and Only, and The Will Rogers Follies. The 72-year-old legend is now in Seattle to direct Bonsoir Liliane!, a Teatro ZinZanni spectacular, made all the more spectacular because it is a journey through the amazing life of past Tune collaborator, international star Liliane Montevecchi (Nine and Grand Hotel).
Tommy and I sat down recently, prior to the start of a rehearsal, and he was ingratiating and easygoing an interview subject as one could ever hope for.
David-Edward Hughes: Welcome back to Seattle. I met you here several years back at the 5th Avenue Theatre where you were co-starring with Sandy Duncan.
Tommy Tune: Right! Two for the Show I think it was called.
DEH: We have mutual friends in Shelly (Nine) Burch and her husband Martin Annie Charnin.
TT: And she lives here now. I can’t wait to see them. I’ve known him since … I met him when we were making Hello, Dolly! all those years ago. He came on the set with Jean Simmons. And that’s when we met. And, of course, after that came Annie and all the other success. He’s such a brilliant man.
DEH: We’ve been very fortunate to have both of them in the theatre community here. They’re just great folks, and they share such a history in the theatre.
TT: So you’re a director too?
DEH: I’m directing a production of The Pajama Game right now.
TT: Oh great. Love that show. I played Hinesy in high school, and I did the “Steam Heat” number because I was the best dancer in school. So, instead of Gladys it was “And now Hinesy and a couple of the girls from the cutting room have worked up this little number for you.” And I choreographed the show, except I didn’t know the word choreography was, hadn’t even seen a Broadway show, so I just called it “makin’ up the dances.”
DEH: And you’re still makin’ up the dances and, with Bonsoir Liliane, directing.
TT: It’s high tension time, heading into previews.
DEH: How did this project come about? Beyond you and Liliane having such a long history.
TT: Liliane and the folks at ZinZanni have been after me for a long time to come out and do a show. And I’ve never been available. This time, the stars lined up just right so I stepped from one star to the next, from New York to Seattle. And following, you know, in the trail of Liliane because she wanted me to do this so much. So now I’m getting to do it … so it’s really a labor of love, and respect for her. And a thrill to work at Teatro ZinZanni. Because it is a unique entertainment. I hear that there’s something similar in Europe, but not like ZinZanni. ZinZanni is its own special mix. And they wanted me to bring my spin on it. But I’m certainly … you know, using the elements of Teatro ZinZanni, but … it’s a different scramble. ‘Cause I’m the cook.
DEH: And because you’re the cook, is there more of a storyline than in other Teatro ZinZanni shows?
TT: Everybody says what’s the plot, and I say … well, what’s the plot of any Teatro ZinZanni show? It starts out with something and then you go “What happened here?” Okay, I’m with you, oh now what. You know, it’s like that. But this particular show is more dreamlike. I would say Felliniesque … filtered through all of my Broadway musical theatre experience. I think I’m bringing some musical theatre to it because this is my 50th year in show business. So it’s going to reflect in some way what I’ve done or the tone that I like. I think the tone’s slightly different than other ZinZanni shows. It still has the madness and all of the things that you expect, and the hijinks, but here’s the deal. The conception is that we are all on the ZinZanni train of dreams. And Liliane is recalling, in reality or in her imagination, her lifespan as a performing artist. And it’s really, really interesting because nobody’s had a career like Liliane Montevecchi.
She began as a ballerina, a prima ballerina, and then that brought her to Hollywood, and then she signed on … you know, she had a contract with MGM. And she danced with Fred Astaire, and she acted with Marlon Brando, and she performed with Elvis Presley in the movies. And then Broadway, and then Las Vegas, and then she starred in the Folies Bergere in Paris, and her other film work. It’s a career that’s just splendid. So we just make allusions to it and touch points. And at one point, we recreate a scene from one of the shows she’s done. So we do use the song “Folies Bergere” from Nine ’cause that’s part of the reminiscence. And the whole conception is the audience is on this train of dreams, and we’re making various stops around the world.
DEH: It sounds absolutely wonderful. I’m so excited to see it.
TT: And we end up in India for the festival of the first kiss, which is a big parade, and they all turn into gods and goddesses. (laughs) Why not? And you know, I didn’t cast the show, so everybody was all new to me. We have Diva and the Dixies and we rename them for the show. They’re called the Triplets of Bellevue.
DEH: I love it.
TT: And then we have Les Petites Freres. When we get to France, they become gendarmes and mimes. And of course, there’s this multi-talented Vita [Radionova]. She’s sort of a Gigi character that moves through the Paris sequence and then we find out that under the Gigi school clothes she’s something else! And then we have Kevin Kent …
DEH: Who is just amazing.
TT: He is just out there. He just threw some things in last night and I’m just laughing out loud. He makes me scream. You never know what to expect with him. And then of course Tobias Larsson has just … become the jewel. He’s partnered with me on this. I asked him to choreograph because I felt I had my hands full adapting to the ZinZanni vibe so I needed to drive through it. And he’s done nine shows for ZinZanni. So we clicked. And he’s exactly my height, so we understand these things. We bump our heads at the same time. He’s known as the Swedish Tommy Tune, and I didn’t even know him till … well about a year ago when we met and started work conceiving the show together. He’s an incredible talent. And he’s not only choreographing the show and assisting me as a director, but he is in the show, and he plays the maestro, and he conducts the orchestra. Oh, I shouldn’t tell you this but you decide if you want it to be a surprise or not. We are having an overture, and it’s being played by the company. They have worked so hard on it and it is so sweet. They all practiced on their instruments, and now we’ve put it all together, and last night it really clicked. And that’s what brings on Liliane. I’m so pleased with it. I’m so proud of them.
DEH: So have you done all your rehearsals here? Or did you start working on things with Liliane back in New York?
TT: We did some rehearsal in New York. But then it all got changed once we got here. (laughs) It’s very dreamlike. It doesn’t all connect up except it does. If you see it more than once, you see how it connects up. It is very, very connected but in a dreamlike fashion, where certain sequences repeat themselves but slightly differently. And I think it will be intriguing for the audience … and have a different flavor than the other shows that I’ve seen.
I’ve been to many shows at ZinZanni and I’ve always come out feeling wonderful. But they asked me to do, you know, something else. Something different. I think I’ve maintained the elements, but I’ve rearranged them in hopefully interesting and intriguing ways. Maybe mysterious. One sequence we do on the dock in Marseille that we call “the strange interlude.” (laughter) We don’t go down there too far, but we do. We do. It’s interesting.
DEH: I’m getting goosebumps just hearing about it.
TT: I think it will be sexy. And Ariana … I forgot the most important thing. My muse for this production is Ariana Lallone … I feel so lucky. I’ve never gotten to work with a prima ballerina before. Well, Liliane was, but you know, that was … many years before. Ariana is doing a very strange and wonderful ballet piece on that center disc. And of course I had to figure out how we could see her from head to toe. Most of ZinZanni’s on the flat and you see the performance from the waist up. So I had [to figure it out] with plugs and ramps and things. I think I’ve done that. The problem right now is to get them to flow on and off in an artful way. But the backstage staff here is incredible. They’re just so on top of it. It’s interesting to walk into what is a tradition, a ten-year tradition, and then to marry to their way but still hold onto what they’ve asked me to come here for. So that’s been a very interesting balance. And a real challenge for me. And that’s what I want at this point in my life. I want to do new things, I want to work with new companies.
When I finish here, I’m going directly to the opening of the big Kansas City arts center that’s been many years and many millions in the making. I’m gonna host the opening of that. And then I head to the University of Miami where I did a workshop last year on a new musical that I’ve been working on for a lot of years about Studio 54. Right now it’s titled Forever 54. It’s kind of about the creation of it, but done in a mythical way. We use all the great disco songs of the time, and I’m putting in a couple new songs. And then I go there and I do a full production. I did a ten-day workshop last year. So that’s what I do next. And that’s going to take me a while because the kids go to school all day, so I can only work with them in the evening.
DEH: So, besides of course Grand Hotel and Nine, is this the only other project you and Liliane have worked on together?
TT: I created her own show, which is called On the Boulevard which she’s played all over the world. And she continues to draw numbers from that show, and perform them in different venues in different situations. I think I did that about 15, 20 years ago. And she’s still performing it … it never grows old. ‘Cause she’s eternally … . eternal. (laughs) She’s going to be 80 in just a short while.
DEH: When I last saw her here she was doing a ZinZanni show, it’s just like you look at her and you don’t even think about age.
TT: I know. She works very, very hard, very, very hard, and we’ve been working very, very hard. And, you know, she’s very tortured. Because acting and doing new things in your second language … of course the language situation here is such a trip, because we have Tobias Larsson who is Swedish, and then we have the three French Freres, and Liliane who is n French Italian. And then we have Vita from Ukraine, and then Kevin from … I don’t know the name of the place that he always makes jokes about. He lives in Santa Fe now. So … we’re a Tower of Babel in some ways. (laughter) Liliane has been working so hard to flip everything into English. And then, when I ask her to sing in French, she flips back to that and then back to English … she does it in life. But when you’re doing lines and dialogue and all, it’s not easy. I don’t know. I’m a language cripple. I speak a little Italian, that’s about it. (laughter) Last night everything clicked… and she really is amazing.
DEH: Focusing on you, Tommy, I have to just put it out there that I am a huge fan. I first saw you in 1969, 1970 in the films of Hello, Dolly! and The Boyfriend. And you were a wonderment because I’d never seen anybody that tall dance, first of all. What was it like during that period when you were making movies in what was really a waning time in the cycle of Broadway to Hollywood movie musicals?
TT: Yeah, Hello, Dolly! was really the last really big one, you know.
DEH: And it’s aged well I would say.
TT: It’s gotten better. You know, when it arrived we were in the Vietnam thing, and we were in a different time. And it just didn’t fit very well then. And now I look at when it comes on TV, and I’ll stick with it for a while. And I think … Gene Kelly did a really good job on that movie. And it wasn’t easy working with what he called the dreaded Barbra. (laughter) We would get all ready on the set, and then he would say, “Bring on the dreaded Barbra.” And she’d come from her trailer and change everything.
DEH: And, yet, her performance looks better with time, too. And then the film of The Boyfriend—I know not a lot of people really have ever seen it, and it’s now back out again on DVD and they have the chance.
TT: It’s really a wonderful film. I liked working for Ken Russell. A lot. Oh my god, I really did.
DEH: Ken Russell and Gene Kelly, not bad for your first two movies.
TT: And Michael Bennett. He changed my life. Ken Russell really changed my life. Changed my vision of the world. He’s very artful and very out there. Brave. He made brave choices.
DEH: Cy Coleman gave you one of my favorite optimistic theatre songs to sing in Seesaw: “It’s Not Where You Start, It’s Where You Finish.”
TT: Such a happy song, isn’t it? I really miss Cy. We had such a great time on that show, and of course The Will Rogers Follies. He was amazing. I’ve lost so many people that I worked with. People that are even younger than me who got swept off in that first wave of AIDS. I feel so fortunate to be alive. (laughs) To be here in Seattle. I was prepared for rain. And it’s been splendid ever since I’ve been here. So I think Seattle gets a very bad rap in the world for the rain factor. Because it’s so great.
DEH: Speaking of great, what a great job you did on Grand Hotel. Thank you for that show.
TT: Thank you. I think I’m proudest of Grand Hotel. They have a festival at the Kennedy Center every year, and it’s like a contest with the best college productions across the country. My assistant Nikki Harris is from Pittsburgh and she recreated the original with college kids [at then Point Park College Conservatory of the Performing Arts in 2002]. And I went to see it. And it was chosen to close the festival. I hadn’t seen it in years. And I sat with her and watched the opening finish … and I just said, “Nikki, this is really good.” And it was like … I had forgotten everything. And she recreated it down to every eyelash. I felt proud of it. Usually I remember what I didn’t solve in my shows. And that always gives me I guess the energy to go on to the next project and make it better. But every once in a while it is kind of nice to if you have the chance to see something that you did recreated well, and you can appreciate it.
I think I’ve got to go, because we’re getting ready to put the finale together.
DEH: Can I just ask for you to say a little something to my cast at rehearsal tonight?
TT: Sure. Tell them (singing) “Nothing is the same as The Pajama Game“.
DEH: Perfect. Thank you so much Tommy, for taking the time, and for sharing the gift of your talents.
TT: Bye! Thank you.