As "Snowmageddon 2015," the overhyped snowstorm (at least in NYC) began to bear down on the city, my phone rang and I was greeted with, "Hello. This is Tommy Tune." We had originally planned to meet in person to discuss his City Center Encores! debut in the Gershwins' Lady, Be Good, but the city that never sleeps had decided to call it a day, taking shelter before the storm -- so our plans quickly changed.
"I had to walk home from where we rehearsed on 56th Street," the legendary performer and director explained, telling me he was unable to hail a cab. Perhaps best known for his mile-long legs that have helped him dance his way to nine TONY awards and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Tune had no reservations about putting them to good use, trekking home halfway across Manhattan.
This is a star who won't let age or ego get in the way of performing. "At this point in my life," Tune explained, "I'm 'the spirit of '76.'" A cunning double entendre, this phrase, taken from the American Revolution, stands for self-determination and individual liberty as well as Tune's birthday next month, when he will turn 76.
In an incredible career that has spanned 50 years, Tune has appeared in, directed or choreographed more than a dozen Broadway shows (including Seesaw, Nine, The Will Rogers Follies, My One and Only, and Grand Hotel), and received nine TONY awards and eight Drama Desk awards for his work.
Tune is also well known for his role as "Ambrose" in the film, Hello, Dolly! and starring opposite Twiggy in The Boy Friend. He has also made frequent guest appearances on many TV programs from the past like The Dean Martin Show, through today as Argyle Austero, the younger brother of wacky, but lovable, Lucille Austero (played with an artist's precision by Liza Minnelli) on the acclaimed series Arrested Development.
"It's very hard to find something I'm making a debut in," Tune explained. "This is my Encores! debut, and I'm excited about it." The first of fourteen Broadway shows by George and Ira Gershwin, "this show is so sweet," Tune said of Lady, Be Good. "It's 91 years old, so I checked with the oldest person I know, who is Carol Channing -- she's 94," he said with a wink I could almost see through the phone. "I said, tell me about Lady, Be Good... She said, [as he affected a dazzling Carol Channing impression], 'Well, I can't... I was only three years old at the time!'"
The show, which originally opened on December 1, 1924, ran for what at that time was an impressive 330 performances and starred Fred and Adele Astaire. It was a competitive season, with more than 225 productions opening that year, but Lady, Be Good proved to be great. It was a hit and went on to similar accolades in London. Fast forward to 2015 -- it has nearly been forgotten, but it is now being artfully brought back to life through the City Center Encores! series, known for resurrecting the discarded gems of American musical theater.
"We have the script, and we have the songs," Tune explained. "It's all being lovingly, authentically pieced together and reconstructed with such care," he continued, acknowledging the creative team and cast, including Director Mark Brokaw, Choreographer Randy Skinner and Music Director Rob Fisher.
The show focuses on a brother and sister who crash a garden party, but as is true in any madcap musical, it quickly draws together a tangled web of characters, including Mexican gangsters, crooked lawyers, wealthy socialites and a song-and-dance man possessed by a "fascinating rhythm," played by Tune. He will perform two specialty numbers, the Gershwin classics "Little Jazz Bird" and, of course, "Fascinating Rhythm." Of the latter he promised, "I dance up a storm. I'm dancing my little legs off in this number. [It's] really a whiz-bang version of it. It's really good."
In addition to his debut for City Center Encores!, Tune has been touring his symphony show as well as his cabaret performance, "Taps, Tunes and Tall Tales."
Realizing that he has earned his way into the history books of film, TV, music and theater, and he is now finding yet another opportunity to "debut" his talents, I asked Tune what else he's set his sights on to achieve. "I guess . . . pure happiness," he replied. "That would be a jolly good thing to have."
The City Center Encores! production of Lady, Be Good will run from February 4-8, 2015.
Steve Schonberg is the editor-in-chief of Center On The Aisle.