They don't call him Honi for nothing.
Charles (Honi) Coles, a veritable applause machine in his role as the dapper Mr. Magix in "My One and Only" at the Kennedy Center Opera House, comes by the moniker naturally. It's not just the chuckling insouciance of his tap dancing, seen and heard to beautiful advantage in the duet he does with Tommy Tune to the show's title number. It's his disposition -- he's a born pussycat, and a consummate gentleman to boot.
Coles rarely grumbles and never bad mouths -- it's just against his grain, even though, in a life with its share of hard knocks, he's had more than sufficient cause. Take the "My One and Only" display ads, for instance. They don't even mention his name -- it's just Tune and Sandy Duncan. Yet the Gershwin number he does with Tune is the musical's one sure-fire show stopper. And if there's any doubt about who's mainly responsible, Tune himself dispels it.
"When Tommy and I finish," says Coles, "and the clapping starts up, he does something I've never seen a star do before in my life. He turns his back on the crowd and faces me. It was his idea, something he wanted to do, and he did it from the start on Broadway. It used to be he didn't move until I gestured to him."
There's something wonderfully ingratiating about this moment in the show -- perhaps it's the sight of the show's young white headliner paying tribute to a black master stylist now 74 years old and still in a class by himself. The duet, incidentally, was created by Coles, the one tap number in the show he both dances in and choreographed. It's an elaboration on material he devised for a 1982 appearance at Washington's Baird Auditorium, in the Smithsonian's "American Dance Experience" series.
Coles prefers to dwell on the euphoric aspects of his involvement with "My One and Only," rather than any neglect in his billing. He won't tell you that by virtue of his performance he won both a 1983 Tony Award and a Drama Desk Award -- the only tap dancer ever to reap both -- as well as one of the three Astaire Awards given the same year by the Anglo-American Contemporary Dance Foundation (the other recipients were choreographer George Balanchine and ballerina Natalia Makarova). What he will say is:
"It's been absolutely fabulous working with Tommy. He's a fine dancer, and a real good guy. The nice, and rare, thing about this show is that throughout all the shifts and doctorings, there've been no petty jealousies. You know, usually in this business, somebody always resents somebody else. None of that surfaced in this case -- no prima donna acts, not from Tommy or Twiggy the original female star or Sandy or any of the others."
"My One and Only," like many musicals, underwent considerable metamorphosis between first conception and final stage realization. Originally, in Boston, it was a project of Peter Sellars, and it was Sellars, too, who suggested using Coles, though in a role (the Reverend) different from the one eventually created for him. "Sellars," says Coles, "is a genius, but he had something else entirely in mind -- more of a comic play with song and dance trimmings. In Boston, the show wasn't Broadway, it was Harvard. It didn't become Broadway until after it got to Broadway."
In between, a new writer, director and choreographic team were brought in to reshape things, in the course of which Coles was asked to contribute some material of his own. He showed his Smithsonian number and everyone liked it, so he taught the duet to Tune. It's a witty number that begins with a laid-back tempo and accelerates to double and triple time before swinging back to its easygoing start.
"In the beginning," Coles recalls, "Tommy couldn't understand how you could get such a variety of tap sounds without getting off the floor -- he's very much into elevation as a dancer. But that's the nature of tap. It's all in the control of your feet. It's more than clattering -- it's a matter of personality, feeling, warmth. People get some funny ideas about tap. I saw that '42nd Street,' for example. That's the hard tapping. I couldn't believe how that chorus was pounding the floor -- the thundering herd, I call them."
Tap sound depends largely on the type of floor, and Coles is ever aware of this. A new type of plastic fiber flooring, Coles says, is used for "My One and Only" and he thinks well of it.
But ask him about flooring and he invariably cites his experience at Baird Auditorium as an ideal. "It's a perfect place for tap," he says. "It's got a great floor, intimacy, everything tap needs. You know, in the old days, I kept a book on stage floors. I'd work a little cheaper if the floor was really good. If not, I'd ask for a ridiculous fee -- which of course I never got. The worst ever was the Stanley Theater in Pittsburgh. You couldn't even hear your own taps. It was like being an orchestral player and not being able to hear the other instruments."
Coles also has been in the public eye through his brief but pungent dance appearance in "The Cotton Club." "I had a terrific time working with the director, Francis Coppola, and Greg and Maurice Hines and the other dancers," Coles says. "But I couldn't stand all the sitting around. I think I'd rather never do a film again if that's what it's always like. You wake up, you go the barber and get a shave, you go to the costumer and get all dressed up, and then you sit around and do nothing. Then it's lunch break, and more of the same. I wound up spending eight weeks of my time on that film, and all for a few seconds on screen. And you know, they left most of the good dancing on the cutting room floor. I thought it was a tremendous waste -- all that dancing talent brought together for so little effect."
Coles learned tap on the streets of Philadelphia, and danced for three decades starting with the '30s in vaudeville, nightclubs and musical stages here and abroad, in shows like the original "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes." When other kinds of music and dance eclipsed jazz tap for a time, Coles served as manager of Harlem's famed Apollo Theater, but resumed his dancing career with the tap renaissance of the '70s, appearing in Broadway shows such as "Bubbling Brown Sugar," and touring widely with the confraternity of tapsters who call themselves the Copasetics, in honor of Bill (Bojangles) Robinson, who coined the term as a synonym for cool, or hunky-dory. Robinson and the great innovator John Bubbles were the tap greats who originally inspired Coles, who to this day is the leader of the Copasetics.
At the Olympic Arts Festival in Los Angeles last year, Coles appeared on a program paying tribute to jazz tap, and had something of a sobering experience in the process.
"It was a most embarrassing thing," he says. "There I was, doing my impression of Bill Robinson. What I didn't know was, right after I finished they were going to cut in a whole scene of Robinson dancing, in one of his old movies. I looked up, and man, he was really cutting it. I realized he had just danced me under the table!"
"From now on," says Coles, "I'm doin' just me."