A Tale of a Tune

"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."

Still, despite Tune's interest there continued to be delays. Producer problems, litigation, creative complications -- they all led to the actual production being pushed back. Even now, when it's up and running, Buskers isn't exactly a finished project. Though scheduled to open on Broadway in November, the show has changed names a number of times over the past few months -- once even being titled the confusingly ironic Stage Door Charley (which isn't the same as a busker) -- and, on the day of my interview, Tune noted rather proudly that the previous night they had put in a brand-new opening. "The show isn't right yet," he says. "But look, I've never been involved in a show that went up and that was it, no changes. If there's one thing I've learned from The Best Little Whorehouse Goes Public [the disastrous 1994 follow-up to The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, both of which he co-directed], it's that you have to allow everything to fall apart before it comes back together. All we're doing is test marketing."

Hearing this might make local audiences wary of attending, but Tune insists there's no cause for concern; the show is coming along fine. The artistic team's ability to create endearing wit seems well-matched to Tune's own facility for showmanship. "Part of my position is to inspire the Sherman Brothers and A.J. and Jeff to create," he says. "They have the brush, they have the paint, and once they make the stroke, that's me. Then they look at it and see what they've got." What they've got is a one-of-a-kind. It was Tune who, at one point, suggested turning a nondescript Buskers alley into a dazzling sea of streetlights. Tune is nothing if not a crowd-pleaser.

Speaking of tunes, that's what I heard when I entered the Doubletree Guest Suites on Westheimer to interview Tune's Buskers collaborator Richard Sherman. How could you not like somebody who's sitting in a VIP lounge at a piano singing a medley that includes such family entertainments as "Supercalifragilistic" and "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang," not to mention Annette Funicello's Top Ten hit "Tall Paul," Hayley Mills' "Let's Get Together" and Ringo Starr's "You're Sixteen," especially when the person you're listening to co-wrote them?

Richard Sherman and brother Robert have worked together for more than 40 years and created some 500 songs, many among the world's best known. The best story Sherman told me concerned Walt Disney and "It's a Small World (After All)," the song he and his brother introduced at the 1964-65 New York World's Fair. The Sherman Brothers were hesitant to show the tune to Disney, fearing it too modest. And if Disney hadn't asked, "What else you got?" after listening to other Sherman songs-in-the-making, it might never have been made public. When they finally played "It's a Small World" for him, what Disney said was, "That'll do," and then made mention that he'd need it in 18 languages. That was the total of the praise the Shermans received, except for when they told Disney they were thinking of donating their proceeds to UNICEF. "Disney exploded," Sherman remembers. "'This song is going to send your kids through college, and your grandkids, and your grandkids' grandkids,' he screamed. And that was the end of it. He never mentioned it again. Until years later, when he asked in passing what we thought about it playing in his theme parks forever."

As for Buskers, Sherman calls the process of getting it into shape "exquisite agony." And since it's a period piece, he's not worried that its 30 years of accumulated material will cause it to seem unwieldy.

Buskers plays July 11-16 at the Brown Theater, Wortham Center, 500 Texas, 629-3700.

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Peter Szatmary