Tommy Tune Steps Out!
The nine-time Tony Award winner prepares to tour the country with his
new show Steps in Time.
By Brian Scott Lipton • Jan 19, 2009
Most of us, should we be fortunate to reach the milestone of our 70th birthday, would be content to spend it with family and friends. So would Tommy Tune; but he’s hardly unhappy that he’ll be sharing the big day — February 28 — with thousands of his fans at Palm Springs’ McCallum Theatre, where he’ll be performing his new show Steps in Time. “I didn’t plan it that way, but you don’t turn down a wonderful gig just because it’s your birthday,” says the multi-talented entertainer. “I imagine some of the people will be planning a surprise for me, but it won’t work. I’ll find out and honestly I’m not that good an actor. But it will be great whatever it is.”
While plenty of other entertainers would be content to literally sit at home on their laurels — which include nine Tony Awards — at Tune’s age, he is just not one of those people. “I just have to do something creative every day or I can’t go to sleep,” he says. “When I’m not performing or directing, I paint a lot, or sometimes I just write in my journal or work on my book or make a great meal; but whatever it is, it’s always an expression of love and love of life. I also try to go to the gym or to take a yoga class or do work on the ballet barre. When I was young, I would just take a class, but at this point, that’s not enough. And now I’m in better shape than I’ve ever been.”
Tune says the idea for the show — which makes its first tour stop on January 23 and 24 at the Strathmore Center for the Arts in Bethesda, Maryland — came about last summer, shortly before he began directing the Goodman Theatre production of the new musical Turn of the Century, which involves a time-traveling pair of entertainers. “The show made me think about time, and all of sudden, I realized that this January would mark my 50th year in show business and I started to take stock of my career,” he says. “And then I realized I also needed to put together a new show, and so I decided to base it on the time step, which is the square root of all tap dancing. I’ve done a lot of time steps and personal steps over the past 50 years, which led to the title; although I admit I borrowed it from Fred Astaire’s autobiography.”
The show will be a mix of career highlights and new material. “It’s been hard to figure out what to leave out, because other than spending two weeks at Young & Rubicam as a concept coder, I’ve been in show business my whole life,” he says. “But for practical reasons, there are ‘hits’ I can’t recreate — like my duets with Twiggy from My One and Only — but I will do some of the choreography that the late Honi Coles passed on to me. A whole portion of the show is dedicated to him.”
The show will also explore Tune’s fascination with his life on the road. Right now, the show is also scheduled to play such diverse destinations as Key West, Wabash, Indiana, and Malibu. (Those New Yorkers who want to see Tune in person will have to attend the 2009 Nightlife Awards at Town Hall, where he’ll be a special guest.) “I actually love one-night stops, where you have to go out there and give them everything you’ve got and it all feels new. It’s really good for a performer; it makes you fire on all cylinders,” he said. “Plus, after I did My One and Only, Carol Channing told me to take the show all across the country, because if you went to the audience’s towns, they would come to New York to see you, and I took that advice to heart.”
Tune won’t be alone on the tour; as usual, he’ll be accompanied by his old friends, The Manhattan Rhythm Kings. “I found them on the corner by the Winter Garden Theatre, around 1980,” he recalls. “I saw them when I came out of the subway, singing all my favorite songs from the 1920s and 1930s, so I dropped my card in the hat and told them to call me. And they did. So we got together, and we put together this act of songs that were written by Fred Astaire that we were going to do at Michael’s Pub — until the Philly Pops asked us to premiere there with a symphony orchestra. And the rest, as they say, is history.”
As the Kings, well know by now, the show that they and Tune perform in Strathmore may be very different by the time it gets to Palm Springs a month later. “I never stop tinkering with my shows. I don’t believe in that word ‘frozen.’ I think it means icy and cold,” says Tune. “I learn from each audience, and the more time I spend on center stage, the more I learn to feel what they feel. The idea is to lift their spirits and bring them to higher ground.”
Naturally, Tune and his Turn of the Century writers — Tony winners Rick Elice and Marshall Brickman (of Jersey Boys fame) — are still tinkering with that show in the hopes of getting it ready for another go, preferably on Broadway, with Jeff Daniels and Rachel York reprising their starring roles. “I think it’s about 80 percent right, and we’ll get it where we need to,” he says. “The bigger problem right now is economics. But as much as I think Broadway is wonderful, times have changed. I don’t know how to take an animated film and make it into a stage musical, and I am very suspicious of technology. It’s wonderful, but you’ll just never see a chandelier drop in a Tommy Tune show. I’d rather move people.”