There's a parade in town this week and next, and its name is Tommy Tune. It doesn't matter that he's often been here in the past, at the Muny and at the Fox. Wherever Tune is, it's a time for celebration, because he is one of the American musical theater's few remaining superstars.
Tune is starring in the national tour of Dr. Dolittle, which almost died in infancy when it took to the road last summer. When business proved dismal, Tune was asked to assume the lead role. Tune saw the musical in Philadelphia and reported back that "my stepping into that role would not make this show successful."
"The actor in the lead role was very talented," Tune recalls. "The show's problems weren't his fault. I said that before I could play Dr. Dolittle, they'd have to shut the show down and I'd have to retool it." Tune's revised version, which is geared directly to children, has been touring America for most of this year. "A lot of reviewers find it puzzling," Tune admits, "which I don't understand, because it's so pure of heart. It is so uncynical and so innocent and so without agenda except to entertain and to enlighten and to promote kindness, that I think it's suspect."
One of Tune's goals for Dr. Dolittle is to encourage parents to bring children to the theater. And how old was Tune when he was first exposed to plays? "Not so young," he acknowledges. "Not so young." (Tune tends to say things twice. Often the repeat statement is stamped with an exclamation point, an indicator of his perennial enthusiasm.)
"We didn't have a lot of theater in Houston in the 1950s," he continues. "I only knew dancing because my aunt had taken me to the ballet when I was nine. So of course that's what I wanted to do. I was a good ballet dancer. But then I just kept growing and growing" he's six-foot-six "and at some point you realize you're not going to be a Prince. When I got to high school, I told the counselor I wanted to major in dancing. He said they didn't offer that, but maybe I should talk to the drama teacher. I didn't even know what drama was. But the drama teacher sent me to the Alley Theatre, and at fifteen I saw my first play, The Glass Menagerie. It changed my life forever. Forever!"
In the early 1960s, Tune moved to New York. His second Broadway show, the short-lived A Joyful Noise, was staged by first-time director Michael Bennett. "He was my mentor," Tune says. "He was a guy bursting with big ideas. Big ideas! But he never wanted to go to rehearsal. It fell on me to go over and wake him up every morning and get him to rehearsal. Then he would walk in and take over, but the next morning it would be the same thing. There was a torture factor there, but that's called genius."
By 1982 Tune and Bennett were two of the most important forces on Broadway. The Tony Award for Best Musical that year was a two-way race between Tune's Nine and Bennett's Dreamgirls. "It became a press thing," Tune says, "like all competitions are. We won the Tony as Best Musical, but I thought Dreamgirls was stunning. It was a ground-breaking show. Michael was using recitativo before Andrew Lloyd Webber had barely come on the scene. I had never witnessed those kinds of never-ending musical numbers before." [The Black Rep opens Dreamgirls at the Grandel Theatre on May 24.]
Two decades, nine Tony Awards and an indelible life in the theater later, Tune is still directing, still dancing, still passionate. "I put in some new choreography last night," he reports. "Now I've got to go in today and trim it. But I never stop, because theater is a living thing. Why settle for what you've got if you can make it better?"