“I would just love to do a musical comedy. I think the world needs a wonderful new musical comedy.”
The speaker is Tommy Tune, the 10-time Tony Award-winning performer-director-choreographer who ruled Broadway in the 1980s and 1990s, churning out a succession of original hit musicals like Nine, Grand Hotel and The Will Rogers Follies.
But it has been decades since the 6-foot-6-inch Texan has had a show in New York. At 78, he remains eager to stage a new musical – “I’m trying not to do revivals,” he concedes – but he has yet to find the kernel of an idea worth rolling up his sleeves and putting on his tap shoes for.
“You don’t direct air, you direct material,” he explains. “I don’t know how to write a song, I don’t know how to write a script. I know how to synthesize. Given the bolts of material, I know how to make it into a nice garment. But I have to have the material.”
So he contents himself with concert appearances like the upcoming Tommy Tune Tonite!, a benefit for the Maltz Jupiter Theatre this Saturday. And when he is not doing his solo act, he is performing with Chita Rivera in a new double bill, Chita & Tune: Just in Time, an idea that was hatched at Palm Beach’s Colony Hotel.
“Yes, in the lobby,” he says with his still-distinctive drawl. “She was leaving, she had just done her show and I was coming in. So it was, ‘How was your show? How was the audience?’ And Chita responded, ‘Good luck, tonight. I wish I could stay and see your show.’
“And then she just looked at me, very deep, and went quiet and she said, ‘We should do a show together.’ Then it took about three or four years for it to happen, because of our schedules. But it’s happening now and we’re having a ball with that.”
Like Rivera, Tune is known primarily for his stage work. Yes, he appears briefly in the movie of Hello, Dolly! and co-starred with Twiggy in The Boy Friend. But by and large, he did not fit in in Hollywood.
“I was under a seven-year contract with 20th Century Fox, but we did ‘Hello, Dolly!’ and then wha? huh? Nothing. So I just went into them one day and said, ‘Listen, you don’t know what to do with me, you’re not making musicals anymore. Could I just go back to Broadway? Would it be OK with you?’ And they let me out.
“I didn’t really love making movies,” he says. “I need the audience and the imagination it takes to take a group of people somewhere, just with yourself.”
Give Tune a stage and a 16-piece orchestra like he will have at the Maltz, and he is in his element. “Usually you have to travel with just your little trio and do your show,” he explains. “That works great in a smaller theater, but to have an orchestra is going to be wonderful.
“Like the performance I’m going to do at Maltz, we’re working on it now, shifting it and changing it. I want it to gleam and it have the arc right. Every theater that you go to, it’s a challenge and you only have one day to get it right,” he says with a slightly nervous sigh. “The floor is different and the sound is different, and you spend the whole day perfecting it with the local musicians, then you do it and then it’s off to the next. It’s an exciting life. You just never know what’s going to happen.
“This is a very unusual booking. You don’t get this often. Most theaters can’t afford to do this anymore,” he says. “It’s going to be really nice to have a nice big orchestra on the stage. It’s for one night only and it will never happen again. What happens at the Maltz Theatre on Nov. 18 will never happen again. That’s the thrill of it and that’s why I wouldn’t want to stop doing it.”
At an age when most people start thinking about taking it easy, Tune shudders at the “r” word – retirement. “ From what? This is what I am, this is what I do. Retirement doesn’t seem to compute. You look at Chita, who is my senior [she’s 84], she’s just a bundle of life and joy and a force of nature and I go, ‘I want to be like her.’ ”
Nor does he consider graduating from Tommy to Tom or Thomas. “I don’t think so because the rhythm isn’t right. Tom Tune. Thomas Tune. Wrong. No one has ever called me Thomas, not even my parents when they were stern with me,” he chuckles. “The rhythm of ‘Tom Tune’ doesn’t work and ‘Thomas Tune’ is weird, and ‘Thomas James Tune,’ you might as well bury me.
“I never loved my name,” he says. “It’s something I had to come into being. (20th Century) Fox wanted to change my name because it sounded too fake. There were giving me all these names and I would try them out. I would call my friends across the country and say, ‘Hi, this is David Logan.’ That’s a name all right, but I never found one that was righter for a song-and-dance man than Tommy Tune. I understood that it sounded fake, but it is my real name.”
Ask him what is left for him to achieve and Tune responds immediately, “Just get better. You’re constantly refining.” And no, as much as he would like to be directing a new show, he says he does not crave an 11th Tony Award.
“Oh, no. Enough, enough,” he laughs. “I was so happy with nine, because that’s my number. From ‘Cloud 9’ and ‘Nine the Musical,’ it’s been a very lucky number for me. But someone said to me, ‘Oh, you’ve got to win one more so you can be “10-time Tony Award-winning tall tapping Texan Tommy Tune.” I went ‘OK, but I don’t think that’s gonna happen,’ and then whoosh, out of nowhere, it happened.” Two years ago, he received a special Tony for lifetime achievement – lucky number 10.
So what is Tommy Tune’s best reason for everyone to go see him at the Maltz? “To forget about what’s happening on CNN. I don’t go there,” he says. “This is escapist entertainment. This is champagne.
“It would be wonderful to be working on a new musical. Until that comes along, this is exciting me.”
TOMMY TUNE TONITE!, Maltz Jupiter Theatre, 1001 E. Indiantown Road, Jupiter. Saturday, Nov. 18, at 8 p.m. From $50 up. 561-575-2223.