It all started with an unfortunate omission. Maurice Hines was reading an article about tap dancing and noticed someone was missing — his late younger brother, Gregory Hines. “I said, ‘Really, how soon they forget,’ ” says the dancer, singer, choreographer and Tony-nominated actor. The 69-year-old developed “Maurice Hines Is Tappin’ Thru Life” (opening Thur. at Arena Stage) as a tribute to Gregory, who died in 2003, and as a history of American tap dance — of which he’s seen plenty: The brothers started their careers as child stars, performing with their father alongside the likes of Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland.
Is the show just about you and your brother?
I thought I would do a tribute to Gregory and my family. I always talked about them in my act anyway; it just wasn’t structured. I really wanted to thank all the great performers because we became really great entertainers and performers by the people that we learned from. People come up to me and say, “You are just fabulous!” And I say, “Yes, I am fabulous, but I’m not fabulous because of me. I’m fabulous because I watched Nat King Cole and I watched Sammy Davis and I watched Lena Horne, and [Gregory and I] worked with Judy Garland.”
But you are fabulous.
Every performer knows the tricks to get the audience up —modulate the song here or say, “Oh, you’re such a great audience!” I don’t do that. I don’t say it unless I mean it. I love being out there so much. I can’t wait to get out there. Even if I’m not in great voice, I have a little laryngitis, I don’t care. The minute you get out there, it’s fabulous.
How did you learn those lessons from the legends you talked about?
My father told us, “When you’re around them, you have nothing to say. You don’t know nothing.” They’re legendary because of what they give to the audience and what the audience gives back to them.
Are those the kinds of lessons you try to pass on to the next generations?
Only if they want them. Most of them don’t. They see the Madonnas or the Beyonces and they think that’s show business — but that’s not the show business we learned. You can love the Beyonces, you can love the Rihannas, but they are not in the class of Lena Horne. I’m sorry. They’re great for right now, but to have a legendary career like a Judy Garland? I don’t see it.
They don’t have the learning curve. Most of them have a hit record, suddenly they’re in arenas trying to perform for 30,000 people. You just don’t do that. You can’t be fabulous like that. It takes years to learn how to do that. The theater forces you to train — that’s why I love the theater so much. Records don’t force you to train.
What keeps you going? What makes you try for one of those legendary careers?
I am always inspired by the audience. My mother always said, “Give everything you can to the audience. Love them and really mean it, because without them, you might as well be in the rehearsal studio.”
Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW; Fri. through Dec. 29, $50-$99; 202-488-3300. (Waterfront)