Backstage

Tommy Tune Brings His Retrospective 'Steps in Time' to D.C.

Hip-hopping along: Baye Harrell in
Hip-hopping along: Baye Harrell in "Zomo the Rabbit" at Imagination Stage. (By Scott Suchman)
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By Jane Horwitz
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Today, Tommy Tune is saying, he officially enters his 50th year in show business. So the nine-time Tony winner -- a quintuple-threat (dancer-choreographer-director-singer-actor) of famously long and lanky stature (he's 6 feet 9 and change) -- intends to celebrate.

Tune's new touring show, "Steps in Time: A Broadway Biography in Song and Dance," comes to the Music Center at Strathmore on Friday and Saturday after a series of shakeout performances in Florida.

"I'm calling it 'A Broadway Biography in Song and Dance' because I tee off with the Broadway experiences, and those are the ones that have taken me around the world," Tune says of the new revue. "The hardest thing was what to leave out." He's even including a number from the "Valentine Varieties of 1957," his high school talent show back in Texas.

Teaming with Tune will be his frequent collaborators, the Manhattan Rhythm Kings, a trio of close-harmony singer-musicians who specialize in music of the 1920s and '30s but who adapt to "the other styles that I require," says Tune, who adds: "They're such great guys. We have so much fun."

During their Florida performances, he notes, they've been doing two shows a night, each in a different venue. Between shows, he and the Kings are "hustled into this bus," then someone calls ahead to the next place and says: "Okay, they're en route. Put on the comic."

Says Tune: "I feel like I'm in vaudeville. I missed vaudeville."

Apropos of that, the lifelong hoofer has built the dances in his new revue on what he calls "the square root of all tap dancing" from vaudeville onward -- the time step. That lends his "Steps in Time" title resonance as both bio- and choreo-graphy.

Tune won a supporting actor Tony for the musical "Seesaw" in 1974 and quickly began to branch out, earning nominations for choreographing and co-directing "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas" in 1979. He won Tonys in 1983 for choreographing and starring in "My One and Only," which was built around some of the Gershwin tunes he's showcasing in "Steps in Time." (He also won four Tonys in two years for directing and choreographing 1990's "Grand Hotel, the Musical" and 1991's "The Will Rogers Follies.")

Italics pop up frequently in Tune's conversational style, and it's a good bet his new show will use them, metaphorically, to scan his career. And why not? It's an emphatically classic showbiz plot: A fella who's just gotta dance arrives in New York from Texas and goes to his first audition. It was, Tune says, "on St. Patrick's Day in 1961 or '2 . . . and I got the job my first day in New York." (It was in a national tour of the musical "Irma la Douce.")

Tune, who says he stays fit with ballet, yoga, weight training and dance classes (he also paints, and exhibits and sells his art), will turn 70 on Feb. 28, when "Steps in Time" plays Palm Springs, Calif.

"I just hope they don't try to do a surprise birthday party for me, because I always find out."

'Zomo the Rabbit'

Sky God gives the trickster Zomo the Rabbit three impossible tasks to complete in "Zomo the Rabbit: A Hip-Hop Creation Myth." Zomo wants power, and Sky God wants to stop all the other animals from warring with one another. So she uses Zomo's ambition to teach him how to use his cleverness to accrue something better than power: good feeling.


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