A Tale of a Tune

Tommy Tune comes home, and brings Buskers with him

"Houston Proud" may be a familiar refrain in the Bayou City, but for some reason, it's one that's never really applied to Houston native Tommy Tune. "The prophet goes unheralded in his hometown," Tune says laughing. "I always get the worst reviews in Houston. So I don't even read them. I get great notices from the rest of the country, but not here."
It is odd that Tune isn't given his critical due in the city where he grew up. This is, after all, a song-and-dance man extraordinaire, whose 30-year career includes two Tony Awards for acting in a musical, three for best direction of a musical and four for best choreography. He's the only person in theatrical history to win the same two Tonys two years in a row (for choreography and direction). He's performed for three U.S. presidents and the Queen of England. He's been inducted into the Theatre Hall of Fame and has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (right between those of two of his heroes, John Houston and Texas Guinan). Perhaps most notably, he's received the George Abbott Award for Lifetime Achievement and a similar award from Dance Magazine. All this, and more, from someone who began tap, acrobatics and ballet lessons at the age of five right in our own back yard.

And he's going to be in our back yard again next week when Tune's Broadway-bound musical, Buskers, comes to the Wortham Center for a July 11-16 run. That Tune has chosen to preview the show here despite the disdain of the town's critics may be because, as Tune says, "I love [Houston] audiences. They pull for me. With many having known me for the better part of 50 years, they take on the parental thing, root me on."

Since he's gifted both in front of the footlights and behind, it might seem Tune would have had trouble deciding what his function in Buskers should be. In fact, the decision was easy. "I am a dancer," Tune explains in a phone interview. "Off that root the tree of acting, singing, choreographing, directing and producing has grown, but what I am is a performer."

At age 56, there could be the sense that he's taking the star turn because the best roles are behind him -- after all, how many plum parts are there in musical theater for a six-foot, six-inch middle-aged hoofer like him? -- but Tune looks at it differently. "I've always had to play younger, to appear less experienced, less knowledgeable," he says. "The role in Buskers is age appropriate. So there's a correlation there." Tune also finds a correlation between the path his character in the show takes and his own career choices. His character is a busker, a street performer who has no desire to entertain anywhere but in front of ad hoc crowds; Tune himself has largely forsaken television and movies, preferring instead to play to people live. Thus, as the busker stands his ground, Tune, too, stays where he wants to, on the boards.

Tune -- who's the driving force behind Buskers -- has entrusted the directing and choreographing duties to protege Jeff Calhoun, who choreographed and directed the recent Broadway revival of Grease!. To Tune, choreographing and directing are ideally a one-person job, with one function by necessity generating the other to ensure that the dancing doesn't seem extraneous to the story.

Buskers' story, though billed as brand-new, is actually quite old. It's a tried-and-true May-December romance, set in the world of London street performers prior to WW II, between Charley Baxter (Tune), king of the buskers, and Libby (Darcie Roberts), a young, hungry performer who lives with him, takes what he has to give and then, lured by the limelight, moves "inside" to the legitimate theater, leaving Charley to seek solace in his busker comrades. Buskers might seem familiar to film buffs because it's based on the 1938 movie St. Martin's Lane, which starred Charles Laughton and Vivien Leigh. But the reason Buskers' story is familiar to longtime theater hands is that its script, in one form or another, has been around for close to 30 years.

In its first incarnation it was called Piccadilly. During the late 1960s the hugely successful Sherman Brothers -- the songwriting team of such Disney classics as Mary Poppins and The Jungle Book -- supplied the music and lyrics, and A.J. Carothers (like Tune, a Houstonian) wrote the book. Tommy Steele, an English musical-theater actor who was then the toast of Broadway, loved it, and Paramount optioned the material with him in mind, planning a stage show first, then a movie. But the studio lost interest and the project went into limbo; during the '70s there were some nibbles of interest, but it wasn't until the mid-'80s that the show, by then titled Blow Us a Kiss, was shown to Tune with the idea that it could provide him a signature role, one thing that has eluded him. Tune liked what he saw. "It's a heartfelt piece," he says. "It's real people, with real emotions. I like projects that go for the heart."

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