Taps and Tall Tales with Tommy Tune

by Kevin Scott Hall

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Thursday November 15, 2012

"Legend" is a word that is perhaps tossed around too liberally these days, but in the case of Tommy Tune, the moniker fits.

In his career spanning more than fifty years, the performer has won nine Tony Awards in four categories (Featured Actor, Actor, Director, Choreographer), and is the only person to win in the same two categories (Choreographer and Director) in two consecutive years, 1990 and 1991 ("Grand Hotel" and "The Will Rogers Follies"). His first was for "Seesaw" in 1974 (Best Featured Actor), in which he played one of the first openly gay characters in a musical. Tune has also won eight Drama Desk Awards, the National Medal of Arts, and the Fred & Adele Astaire Lifetime Achievement Award.

This week, Tune conquers yet another stage, the small and intimate cabaret stage, for a few shows at Feinstein's at Loews Regency.

Currently, Tune is on location in Hollywood filming an upcoming episode of "Arrested Development," in which he'll play Liza's brother. EDGE caught up with Tommy Tune by phone.

What’s in a name?

EDGE: I think some people would be surprised to learn that Tommy Tune is not a stage name but your actual name.

Tommy Tune: Someone just asked me the other day, "How did you arrive at that name?" My parents must have known something.'Tune' is an English name. My actual name is Thomas James Tune, but I've always been called Tommy.

EDGE: A few months ago, I interviewed Andre DeShields and he has had that rare good fortune of having always supported himself in his chosen profession. I would certainly say that about you as well. Did you ever wonder, say, what it would be like to wait on tables or go to a temp job?

Tommy Tune: I had one job that lasted for two weeks at Christmas after the 'Irma La Douce' tour. It had always been instilled in me that I must work. I was a concept coder at Young & Rubicam. They put out these fake magazines and my job was to go through each magazine and decide what would appeal to a particular type of person. You know, 'Did you read that? Would you buy this?' They liked actors in that job. Well, it ended on Christmas Eve and I got the only bonus check I've ever received. In showbiz, of course, the bonus is that you're in showbiz!

9 rungs = 9 Tonys

EDGE: I think a lot of mere mortals have a hard time wrapping their heads around the idea of nine Tony Awards, not to mention the Drama Desk Awards and the National Medal of Arts. If you had to name your greatest career achievement, what would it be?

Tommy Tune: Hmm. Nobody's ever asked me that. I think my greatest achievement was that I arrived on St. Patrick's Day in 1962 and auditioned the first day and got a job in the chorus of 'Irma La Douce,' the touring company. It gave me confidence right from the start.

EDGE: Where do you keep the Tony Awards?

Tommy Tune: [Laughs] I just moved into the apartment-I mean, I've lived all over Manhattan. This is in a tall eccentric tower on top of a building overlooking the East River. Because it has such high ceilings, I had a bookcase built with a ladder so I could reach everything. Well, at first I put the Tonys on the mantel over the fireplace. There they were, lined up like a chorus line, but it looked too braggadocious. So I put one on the bottom rung of the ladder, then put one on each rung. There are nine rungs! It wasn't planned that way, but there it is! They are lined up vertically on the ladder!

Changing times

EDGE: I found it so ironic that you seemed to have no issues with your family, growing up in Texas, about being a dancer, and yet when your career was taking off on Broadway, in musical theater no less, there was a certain amount of homophobia about how actors were perceived in their private lives.

Tommy Tune: Isn't it wonderful how it has gone away? For the talented young people today, it's not a taboo, scary thing. The world was homophobic then, that's the way it was. [Overcome with emotion.] Today, they can live their youth without the stigma of being homosexual. I always felt I was bad, and now I don't. It was late for me, but I've gotten there. Homophobia is now unpopular. Homophobes have switched places with the homosexuals-now they have to couch their secrets.

EDGE: Let's switch gears here. In the last ten years or so, there has been a bit of a comeback with the movie musical. Were you ever approached about, or did you have any interest in, being a part of that revival?

Tommy Tune: That's not my medium. I was dancing in a chorus and discovered and flown out to Hollywood to do 'Hello Dolly.' That was never my dream, but I went with it because that was how success was supposed to work. My energy system is not compatible with the making of movies. You go in at 6 a.m., get into costume and wait and wait. I like preparing for the show at night, I'm always leading toward the performance. It's like flying, being on the highwire. I'm always on until it's time to hit the pillow.

Those reality shows...

EDGE: What do you think of the state of Broadway musicals today?

Tommy Tune: We're not in our highest... it's not a golden age. It could come back. There are far too many revivals, not enough originals. The new ones are so pumped up with lots of energy. I'm a big fan of 'Once,' I've seen it five times. It's built with nuance, it allows the actors' hearts to beat. The value system has been amped up so high. Like that singing show, 'American Idol?' That steroid-voice thing, it's good in small doses.

I worked with Charles Honi Coles and he taught me that it's not only the tap sounds that are important, but the negative sounds between each tap. You discover your heart in those spaces.

EDGE: Speaking of reality TV, have you seen talent shows like 'Dancing With the Stars' or 'So You Think You Can Dance?'

Tommy Tune: I've watched 'Dancing With The Stars' a couple of times. They are hurting themselves. They are throwing themselves into things that I trained my whole life for. I receive it viscerally, it hurts me to watch them. I know what their pain is going to be. They are not trained and they are dancing to capacity beyond themselves.

Fearing intimacy?

EDGE: I was wondering if things have changed since you wrote your memoir fifteen years ago. Do you still fear intimacy?

Tommy Tune: Did I say that? The fear of it is if you truly experience it and lose it. We just have to give and give and give. Fear is the great stopper. Michael Bennett once told me he thought I'd be a big star. And I said, 'But I'm afraid-' I never finished the sentence. He said, 'Never fear! Never fear!' I've probably changed my mind about a few things since the memoir, your perspective changes. I was crippled at the time and didn't know if I'd ever dance again. My emotions were close to the surface.

EDGE: Have you come to a quiet satisfaction about your life and legacy, or are you still hungry and restless for the next big thing?

Tommy Tune: [Laughs] This quieting thing will have to come later, if at all. I'm more quiet and reflective now, but I'm always about 'Now what?' This will be my first foray into cabaret. I've never worked alone.

EDGE: Really? The title, 'Taps, Tunes and Tall Tales,' sounds exactly what it should be: dancing, singing, and stories.

Tommy Tune: I believe in truth in advertising and that's what you get.

EDGE: How do you put a showbiz career spanning more than 50 years into an hour-long show?

Tommy Tune: Well, the hardest part is what to leave out. I've been working on this show all year. People will say, "But I want to hear more of this." But then we'd be there all night!

Tommy Tune appears at Feinstein's at Loews Regency on Sunday, Nov. 18; Sunday, Nov. 25; and Monday, Nov. 26. Shows are at 8:00 and 10:30.

Kevin Scott Hall is the author of Off the Charts! (2010, iUniverse) and the memoir, A Quarter Inch from My Heart (2014, Wisdom Moon).