THEY ARE lined up almost the length of his dressing room: Shoes with enough red sequins and blue and yellow satin, and taps on the soles to help Gregory Hines wing his way through 18 dance numbers and nine costume changes in "Sophisticated Ladies," the new Duke Ellington musical in which Hines is both the center of controversy and as important an ingredient as the Duke's music.
The shoes are newcomers in Hines' 34 year duet with dance. He feels like he's been doing it all his life, he says, though it hasn't been quite that long. "I don't remember starting to walk, starting to talk or starting to dance. Whenever it was that I became aware that I was alive, I was already doing those things," he says, casting a gaze with large eyes whose lids have a long way to go just to blink. The effect is a lazy, sexy stare. He is looking at the shoes which are getting their second spit-polish in a week. "These shoes are very important to the show," he explains before continuing.
"Anyway, some guy came around with free tap lessons, I think. This is what my family tells me because I don't remember not dancing. I started when I was 2 1/2. My brother was 4 1/2 and he was old enough to get in the class. So he would take the lessons and . . ." he pauses, waving a finger for clarification, "he would come home and show me the steps . . . and I would pick them up."
Hines is a warm, friendly sort who talks about his family a lot, particularly his 10-year-old daughter Daria. And he extends his familial pride and concern to the "Sophisticated Ladies" cast. "I was talking to Mercer [Ellington, the show's musical director] about how you rehearse for six weeks together and you go on the road for four weeks at a time and it is like a family. You see each other all the time. So there are explosions like a family. The tensions build up like a family."
Two weeks ago, Hines was the cause of a family explosion that threatened to destroy the "Sophisticated Ladies" company.
The show opened at the Kennedy Center Opera House on Jan. 13. The next morning, producers announced that Hines had been fired, despite rave reviews for him amid mixed reviews for the show. But within hours, Hines had been rehired by the producers, and director-choreographer Donald McKayle fired instead.
The controversy stemmed from Hines' opinions of the show. He is cast as a narrator who weaves in and out of musical numbers with Judith Jamison, Phyllis Hyman, P. J. Benjamin and Terri Klausner, to name a few, while taking the audience on a "search for the perfect note" and a tour of the clubs that made Duke Ellington famous, or vice versa.
Hines is vague about specific criticisms, but says that he simply felt something was wrong and didn't know what to do about it. What he did do was complain aggressively, and in doing so alienated himself from the director and producers. But the rest of the troupe -- acknowledging both Hines' crucial role in the production and the accuracy of his judgment -- rallied around him.
When they heard of Hines' dismissal, a contingent of the cast met in Klausner's hotel room for an hour before matinee and appealed emotionally to the producers in Hines' behalf. Meanwhile, Hines had checked out of his hotel room and was on his way back to New York. When he telephoned a friend in the cast to say goodbye, he learned that he was back in and McKayle was out.
"Not that I could come in and do it better," Hines says. "I'm not a director. I don't know what needs to be done, but I know the show can be made better."
Easy for him to say. Hines is already sheer magic in this show. And while Ben Vereen's feet were featured in the '70s, Hines may just be the song-and-dance man of the '80s. His style is not nearly as wildly enthusiastic or as energetic as Vereen's. Hines is cool, sophisticated tap.
"Blackface? I was somewhat embarassed by it," Hines says of Vereen's performance at the inaugural gala last week during wich Vereen danced a tribute to vaudevillian Bert Williams. Vereen was wearing a tattered old suit, white gloves and blackface makeup. "I'm not embarrassed by a tribute to Bert Williams but it depends on where it's done. This was Reagan. Black people don't seem to cool about Reagan anyway. And here we have one of our prominent black entertainers doing this . . . It was just such an intense statement." (Vereen explained later that much of his act, including significant historical context, had been edited out for television, leaving him simply "shufflin' and jivin'.")
Coincidentally, Hines made his theater debut in blackface. His first role was four years ago in "The Last Minstrel Show" which opened and closed in Philadelphia. "It was a really good show, but we were wearing blackface. Black men wearing blackface." He holds the last thought for a moment.
Hines' career began almost as early as those second-hand dance lessons. He grew up in New York City and while in his teens, Hines and his brother Maurice became an international tap-dance duo that some considered "the second coming of the Nicholas Brothers," the legendary tap-dance team of the early '40s. At 17, Hines and his brother formed "Hines, Hines and Dad," a song-and-dance nightclub act with their father Maurice, a drummer and no relation to Earl "Fatha" Hines.
"Hines, Hines and Dad" continued for 10 years on the road and spots on television variety shows including "The Ed Sullivan Show." But at 27, Hines, for once in his life, wanted some room away from the family. "I was going through a lot of changes. Marriage. We'd just had a child Divorce. I was finding myself. And I was in that era when there were the peace marches, and drugs and free sex and all kinds of new stuff . . . And I was right in there."
Four years of hippiedom and counter-culture living in Venice, Calif., followed. "I was into pot and acid. 'Cause that was 'hip,'" he says, self-mockingly. "I didn't have a drug problem. I kind of liked it, actually."
Along the way, he had picked up a number of skills. The rent was paid by playing guitar with "Severance," a local jazz-rock band. But Hines soon decided to pay his rent by teaching karate -- back in New York. "The day I got back to New York my brother tells me there's a show auditioning. That was 'The Last Minstrel Show' and I got the part."
Since then Hines has appeared with his brother, in the Broadway company of Eubie" and has been seen as a "Saturday Night Live" musical guest. He co-stars in two major motion pictures due out this summer. "The Wolfen," a thriller starring Albert Finne in which Hines plays a medical examiner and "The History of the World, Part one," a Mel Brooks comedy in which Hines plays the slave "Josephus" whom nobody wants to buy.
Forty minutes from curtain time, Hines' hair is a three-inch-high mass of unruly curls onto which he throws water and thick, green "brilliantine" hair pomade. The hair flattens and straightens as it is combed and patted. Combined with his tall, lean good looks, Hines is suddenly transformed into a smooth '40s slickster. Like the Duke himself. "I'm gonna cut it again before I leave New York. I just don't like to have short hair in the winter."
He mops up the greasy mess on the dressing table with a paper towel and then shoots it into a wastebasket at the other end of the dressing room. Two points!
"That's a good sign." He points excitedly across the room, "I haven't been hitting the basket for the last six times I've tried. But these have been intense times. I shoot a lot better when I'm relaxed."