The Washington Post Review: Always in Tune and on his toes

PREVIEW: Always in Tune and on his toes
By Lisa Traiger
Friday, June 1, 2012

The second thing you notice about Tommy Tune? His bright-red cowboy boots. The first? Easy: his height. The leggy tap dancer stands 6-foot-6. Without his boots.

Tune, who made a name for himself in such Broadway hits as the Gershwin song-and-dance fest “My One and Only,” is returning to the area this weekend with “Tommy Tune: Steps in Time, a Broadway Biography in Song and Dance.” It’s a celebration of his 50 years on the Great White Way.

At the Music Center at Strathmore in North Bethesda, Tune, 73, will be joined by a trio of close-harmony singers, the Manhattan Rhythm Kings, his longtime collaborators.

Together, they’ll meander through his eventful life as he shares stories and songs, handpicking numbers from the great American Broadway songbook, including favorites from Irving Berlin, the Gershwin brothers, Cy Coleman, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, John Kander and Fred Ebb, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, and dabbling in pop hits by the likes of Carole King and Green Day.

Growing up in Houston, Tune was fortunate to find dance early, starting in an all-boys tap and tumbling class when he was just 6. He soon graduated to ballet, which he loved because it felt like flying, but when he sprouted head and shoulders above the class, a pro ballet career was out of the question. No matter, Tune wanted to dance in the chorus of a Broadway musical.

At his first New York audition, he looked around, shocked. “I didn’t know that chorus boys were as compact as they were,” he said, his slight Texas twang still evident. “I’d seen them onstage, but everybody looks taller onstage. So I went to my first audition and I was just towering over everybody.”

The casting director finally asked him the one question that mattered: “And I said 5-feet-17-and-¾”, because I thought it sounded shorter.” Apparently it worked. Tune got the gig in “Baker Street,” which opened on Broadway in 1965, and has been singing and dancing professionally ever since.

These are just a few of the stories that find their way into the 90-minute musical autobiography, which is more sing-and-shuffle than kiss-and-tell. There’s plenty of new material, too, Tune said.

“I never freeze a show . . . because a show is a living thing,” he said. “I just keep working on it. I’ll take songs and stories out, put stories in, change choreography.”

One constant, however, is Tune’s heartfelt tribute to tap dance great Charles “Honi” Coles, whom he met during the run of “My One and Only” in 1983.

“He was a big influence on me,” Tune said, “and he was a very big star in vaudeville. But because he was black, when movies came in it was difficult for him to work.” Elegant and likely the smoothest tap dancer who ever trod Broadway boards, Coles became something of a tap guru to Tune.

“When he started to coach me, Honi didn’t delineate steps, he would just sort of scat them: tat a tat tat, va va VA va, choo choo . . . and I had to do that.” Tune came from the more traditional school of tap dance where every step had a name: shuffle-ball-change, flap, Cincinnati. “He didn’t do that,” Tune said, “he just danced it.”

Tune also perfected his effortless grace at the behest of Coles. “He would tell me, ‘Okay, yeah, but can you make it a little more nonchalant?’ That was his word, ‘nonchalant.’ Finally, he said: ‘Tommy, never let them see you work.’” And that, Tune realized, is a lot harder than it sounds. Effortless grace, he learned, is anything but effortless. Tune’s other epiphany in working with Coles came when he understood that “the spaces between the sounds you make with your feet are as important as the sounds you make.”

While Tune has danced his entire life — there’s even a story about how he danced before he walked — he just recently began putting taps on his cowboy boots.

“I’m the Imelda Marcos of boots,” he said. “My tap shoes felt good for the dancing numbers, but when I wanted to tell my stories about that place I’m rooted in, the tap shoes didn’t feel right. For me, every performance begins with your connection to the floor and you dance into the floor if you’re a tap dancer and, if you’re a ballet dancer, you seek to remove yourself from the floor, but it begins with the ground. That’s primal.”

He asked his younger sister, Gracey Tune, a tap teacher in Fort Worth, if she’d ever seen taps on cowboy boots. Of course, she told him, it’s done all the time — in Texas.

Tune, who gets his custom-size boots from the Fort Worth saddlery and leather shop Leddy’s, loves the feel. A true-blue Texan, he said, “I wear boots all the time, but I never danced in them.” The heel is significantly higher, adding two inches to his lanky frame, while also tilting his pelvis slightly forward. “It’s changed my dancing,” he said. “I love it.”

And the red? That comes from his mom. Red was her favorite color.