Tommy Tune has been performing for more than half a century, but that doesn’t mean he can skip rehearsal. Like most performers, he still gets butterflies before going on stage. But Tune (yes, it’s his real name) is no ordinary performer.
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With 10 Tony awards, eight Drama Desk awards, three Astaire Awards, two Obie Awards and many others under under his belt, the leggy six-foot-six star, 78, will take the stage Jan. 19 with fellow Broadway-legend-turned-friend Chita Rivera — 85 on Jan. 23 — at the Parker Playhouse in Fort Lauderdale.
Tune is best known for his choreography, including the musicals “Grand Hotel” and “The Will Rogers Follies.” He has also performed in some of his shows, including “My One and Only,” and made his film debut in 1969’s “Hello, Dolly!” starring Barbra Streisand.
We talked with Tune about his career and his upcoming performance in South Florida, called “Chita & Tune: Just in Time.”
Q: What is your secret to staying in shape to perform all these years — vocally and physically?
A: It’s a constant process. I work out every day. Until two years ago, I did yoga every day, and then I had rotator cuff problems, and now I can’t do a lot of the positions. But I do the positions that I can. I discovered yoga in my early 20s. It was not popular way back then. I did it consistently through the years, and then I had to stop. I still work out every day at 11, though. I take voice class, and I try to eat well. All those things that it takes to pull off a career.
Q: Do you still have to rehearse before you go onstage?
A: I’m a very big rehearser. And Chita’s wonderful. She loves to rehearse, too. We’ve had a great time putting this show together. In doing so, we’ve come to know each other more. We’ve always known each other, but not really. And when you rehearse and perform with someone, you really get to know them. It’s been thrilling to exchange who we know in the business, and who we worked for. We had these long spans of time that we can refer to that we both experienced, but not together.
Q: Have you worked with Chita Rivera before this show?
A: No, we didn’t. On her 80th birthday benefit for The Actors Fund, Dick Van Dyke was supposed to do the Rosie number with her, and he was unable to at the last minute. She called me because she knew that I played the role. She did “Bye Bye Birdie” originally on Broadway, and I did a national tour of it. She knew that I was familiar with the material. So at the last minute, I ran in and did it. It was such a hit that it gave her the idea that we do a show together.
Q: What can audience members expect to see in your upcoming show in Fort Lauderdale?
A: They keep saying, “It’s an evening with two legends,” and Chita said, “Do you feel like a legend?” and I said, “No, not really, I just like to do what I do.” I don’t feel any different than when I came to New York and wanted to get a job dancing in the chorus of a Broadway show. That was my big dream. We’re still kids.
Q: What is the key to your long and successful career?
A: Chita and I do a lot of double interviews, and they’ll ask us what keeps us going, and we’ll both look at each other and turn back to the interviewer and say “love.” We hadn’t rehearsed it. We love it, and if you don’t love it, you shouldn’t be doing it. You’ve got to love it. You’ve got to have some form of butterflies before you step onstage, or you shouldn’t be doing it. There are certain things that you have to feel. If you dread it, then you shouldn’t be doing it. When we love it, we love it. And we both love it. It’s great fun performing together. This is something new. When I was about 40, Cary Grant said that after 40 it’s very important that you take up a new activity every year. I’ve tried to do that, and this is my new activity for this year. To do the show that we call “Chita & Tune: Just in Time.” Somebody asked me why we call it that, and I said, “because I believe in truth in advertising.”
Q: You obviously love performing, but if you had a night out on Broadway where you could be in the audience, what would you see?
A: “Phantom of the Opera!” It’s just so great. Every time, I go back to see it. When somebody comes into town, I send them to “Phantom of the Opera” because it is so well preserved, and is such a fabulous show. Harold Prince did such a great job of directing it and preserving it for all these years. I just saw a small musical that touched me deeply called “The Band’s Visit.” It’s truly a wonderful musical. It just opened. That’s my new favorite show on the boards right now. … Beautifully directed by David Cromer. He’s a really good director. He’s new.
Q: You already have 10 Tony awards, and a number of other distinguished awards, and that must be the fulfillment of a lifetime. What else do you hope to achieve as you continue to perform?
A: Oh my gosh! Every time I go onstage, my intent is to connect with the audience, and make it better than last night’s performance. Each time I go out there, I try to be better than the performance before. I’ve made three visits to Japan this year, and they have a saying that translates to “each day, each day is the student of yesterday.” I think it not only works for the theater, but works for life.
Q: How do you think dance and theater have evolved through the years? Do you think tap is becoming a lost art?
A: When I came to New York and I went to my first audition, I took my tap shoes. When we were getting dressed in the dressing room, they fell out, and somebody said, “What are those? Why’d you bring those?” I said, “I’m a tap dancer. This is my first audition and I thought they might want us to tap.” He said, “Oh, we don’t tap on Broadway anymore, darling.” The show that brought it all back was “No, No, Nanette” with Ruby Keeler. She tap danced, and the whole show was tap dancing. It comes and it goes. … When it comes, people love it.
Q: It’s no secret that you’re tall. How has your height benefited your career? Has it ever been a drawback?
A: I’ve lost jobs because of my height. Especially when I came to dance in the chorus. My dream was to dance in the chorus of a Broadway show. I came to New York, and I went to an audition, and I got the job my first day there. Everything that’s happened since then has been a surprise. The shape that my career has taken and the trajectory of it has been a blessing and there was a great deal of luck involved. Sometimes I would miss out on a chorus position because I would throw the whole look of the ensemble off as this one string bean with his head above everybody else’s. I was very proud that I could figure out how I could get a job in dance in the chorus, because that’s what I wanted to do, and I did. I danced in the chorus of three Broadway shows. I guess I still stuck out, because that’s how they started noticing me. I got an agent from it. I was dancing in the chorus of a show called “How Now, Dow Jones,” and the talent scouts from 20th Century-Fox were casting the movie “Hello Dolly,” and she found me in the chorus of that show and came back and said, “I want to send you to Hollywood for a screen test for ‘Hello, Dolly!’” So sticking out has been an asset. And it’s great for the people in the balcony.
Q: You mentioned that it was your dream to dance in the chorus. Do you have a preference now between dancing and acting onstage, or choreographing?
A: I’ve been blessed that I have sort of a banquet of things that I can do, all under the umbrella of theater. Really, it’s all one talent. The main artery of my talent is dancing. My parents told me that I danced before I walked. I had this dancing thing in me, and then all the tributaries are directing, singing, and acting. I am who I am because of what I know how to do. I paint, and that helps me with the design element of choreographing and color. I try to learn as much as I can because you need to know everything to be able to direct a show.
Q: Do you have a favorite show that you’ve worked on?
A: I always say the next one, but that’s going to run out pretty soon. I don’t know how many shows I have in me, but I’m always forward-thinking. There are shows that I’m proud of. I was proud of “Grand Hotel.” I’ve always tried to do less dialogue and tell the story with stage pictures and movement. I’ve always loved silent movies, and I’ve always been amazed how they work. You can always tell what is happening, and nothing is being said. I did a lot of silent movie acting in “Grand Hotel.” The movements would tell the story. There was a minimum of dialogue in that piece, and I thought it worked really well. “Nine” was also a big turning point in my directing career. It’s been so long. This is my 55th year, if I’m counting right.
If you go
▪ What: “Chita & Tune: Just in Time” starring Chita Rivera and Tommy Tune.
▪ When: 8 p.m. Friday, Jan. 19.
▪ Where: Parker Playhouse, 707 NE Eighth St., Fort Lauderdale