Tommy Tune: Towering Above Broadway

By D. Mark Schumann

For the 16th year, Mark Schumann welcomes audiences to the Music Hall with his observations of our shows. A former resident of Dallas and member of the Summer Musicals Board, Mark is the film critic for the Hersam-­Acorn newspapers in New England where he educates audiences about the “nutritional value of film” as The Reel Dad®. His views of how to create balanced movie menus can be found at

He watches, above the crowd, physically and artistically, as if constantly surveying how he stands out in the Broadway community he so deeply loves. And, since he first stepped on a New York stage in the musical Baker Street in 1965, he has made it clear there is only one Tommy Tune. As hungry as musical comedy audiences are for the original, he delivers at every moment, both in front of and behind the footlights. Tommy Tune is the master director and choreography and, for all he has achieved, he is still a Broadway gypsy at heart, a song-­‐and-­‐dance man of the first order. How fabulous to see him once again grace a Texas stage.

The Lone Star State is his home and inspiration. Tommy Tune grew up in Texas, graduated from Lamar High School in Houston and the University of Texas. He could dance anyone off the stage but there was one small problem. He was tall. Very tall. Six feet, six-­‐and-­‐one-­‐half inches tall. So as he headed to New York, to find his fame on Broadway, he knew it would be a stretch – no pun intended – to fit that giant frame into Broadway’s expectations for a musical comedy star.

He quickly found work, performing in big Broadway musicals from Baker Street to A Joyful Noise to How Now, Dow Jones before getting a big break at the movies. In 1969, choreographer Michael Kidd and director Gene Kelly cast him as Ambrose Kemper – the artist who learns how to dance – in the mega musical movie Hello, Dolly! starring Barbra Streisand. And while the film – despite being nominated for seven Academy Awards including Best Picture – was a box office disappointment, Tune made such a strong impression as an actor and a dancer that he was cast, in 1971, in the film version of another famed musical, The Boy Friend.

But Broadway was his love and within a couple of years – when cast as a choreographer in the musical Seesaw – Tune would discover the role that would enable audiences to fully discover him.

With his engaging grin, shoulder-­‐length curly hair and legs that could stretch for miles, he gave the role an endearing enthusiasm and the show-­‐stopping number, It’s Not Where You Start, a distinctly memorable glow. For his performance he won his first of nine Tony Awards, this one as Best Featured Actor in a Musical.

Tune wanted to do more. He wanted to direct as well as stage musical numbers. And so he headed off Broadway to prove himself as an imaginative, versatile director with the hit comedy The Club. Critics and audiences were astounded that this song-­‐and-­‐dance man had the vision and discipline to pull such a show together.

They continued to be stunned when, in 1978, he teamed with fellow Texan Peter Masterson to create a legendary Broadway musical hit, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. No, he did not play a leading character; in fact he didn’t appear on stage at all. But his musical comedy sensibility would shine through the production to give it a natural warmth and broad appeal. Not surprisingly, the show was a huge hit, and he was well on his way to a striking career as a director/choreographer. A couple of years later he followed with another delightful musical, A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine, for which he won a Tony for Best Choreography, as well as another non-­‐musical success, Cloud Nine.

The winning streak continued with a series of landmark Broadway musicals with the distinct Tune touch in the 1980s and 1990s. In 1982, he won a Tony for directing the highly original musical Nine suggested by the Fellini film 8-­‐1/2. This captivating study of a famed director’s creative turbulence gave Tune the opportunity to stage a remarkable production with a striking fluid quality that perfectly captures the brilliance of the show’s unconventional book and songs.

Still, in his heart, he was also a performer, and each time he danced he prompted natural comparisons to the great musical dancers – Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire. He quickly followed Nine with a big Broadway show, My One and Only, that won him Tony Awards for Best Actor and Best Choreography. Initially the show was intended to be a revival of Astaire’s Funny Face but, when the script for that show proved too dated to effectively stage, Tune worked with writer Peter Stone to create a new story to frame the songs by George and Ira Gershwin. With a magical costar in Twiggy the stylish My One and Only was the runaway hit of the season and Tommy Tune was back on stage doing what few others can.

Director Tune followed performer Tune with two major Broadway musical successes in the early 1990s. Grand Hotel was the musical adaptation of the Vicky Baum novel, later filmed by MGM to win the Academy Award as Best Picture, that tells the story of a collection of eccentrics who cross paths in the lobby of a grand Berlin hotel. Tune’s fluid style of directing – as if creating a film – continued to advance a strong contrast to the traditional approaches to musical comedy. To no one’s surprise, he won the 1990 Tonys for his direction and choreography, an achievement he followed in 1991 for the delightful musical hit The Will Rogers Follies which was also named the season’s best musical.

Through all the success he remains one of the most endearing of stage personalities as well as a most giving Texas performers. Each year in Houston, the Tommy Tune Awards honor excellence among the city’s high school musical theater performers. His inspirational autobiography Footnotes captures the magic and pressures of Broadway performance. And, with Steps in Time, he brings his career full circle to the delight of the Musicals audiences.

How rich we are that, years ago, Tune pointed those towering legs to Broadway, giving us a rich career of fabulous productions. We are richer for his remaining true to the tune he sings to himself, and to us.