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Exploring the Lost World of Tommy Tune’s Broadway

avatar by David Meyers

Opinion

A screenshot from the original Broadway production of “Nine.”

Jerome Robbins, Bob Fosse, Michael Bennett, and Gower Champion, are among the greatest directors/choreographers in Broadway history. The first three, in particular, helped shape the entire form of the American musical.

In his new book, “Everything Is Choreography,” Kevin Winkler makes the case that Tommy Tune should be added to that list.

From the late 1970s until the early 1990s, Tune could do no wrong. He was a true auteur, who shaped his musicals to be more than the sum of their parts. And if his legacy was a bit tarnished by a string of misfires and bad luck in the 1990s, that can’t erase both his massive triumph and talent.

Massive is an apt word for Tune, who stands at 6″6″. Winkler’s book explores Tune’s childhood and early performing career, before turning to his choreography and direction.

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Tune got his start in touring and regional theatre, then became a Broadway hoofer and star. He won his first Tony Award for “Seesaw.” (His performance is captured here). Tune also gave an incredible turn in the movie of “Hello, Dolly!”

He then transitioned to directing and choreographing, and had his first hit with an off-Broadway revenue called, “The Club.” In the book, Winkler brings that show to life through his engaging prose, and describes how Tune’s imagination and singular vision turned the show from something ordinary into something extraordinary.

Tune’s first big smash was “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” — again vividly described by Winkler, followed by the largely forgotten “A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine.” The second half of that show spoofed the Marx brothers, and the first half included an ingenious use of dancing feet, which Tune borrowed from a project he first worked on with Mike Nichols.

Next came the play “Cloud 9,” followed by my favorite Tune work, Maury Yeston and Arthur Kopit’s “Nine.” I consider “Nine” to be one of the greatest musicals ever written, and Winkler does a good job of bringing the show’s creation to life. (I’m somewhat familiar with that show’s genesis, having discussed it with various cast members, as well as Maury Yeston himself.)

Winkler then goes on to describe the incredible saga of “My One and Only” — before getting to “Grand Hotel” (another show that had a torturous out-of-town tryout, but became a hit). Finally, he looks at Tune’s last Broadway smash, “The Will Rogers Follies.”

Winkler is a brilliant author at bringing Broadway musicals — a visual and oral medium if there ever was one — to life on the page. He makes you feel like you are watching the shows, though, of course, nothing can quite capture the genius of Tune as seeing some of his work onstage.

For example, “We’ll Take a Glass Together” from “Grand Hotel,” has to be one of the greatest theatre numbers ever created:

Tune’s career as a director and choreographer sadly went downhill after 1991, which, as Winkler notes, seemed impossible at the time. The disastrous “The Best Little Whorehouse Goes Public” was Tune’s last Broadway directing effort, and by the late 1990s and early 2000s, it seemed that Tune’s time had passed.

One fascinating tidbit that Winkler uncovers is how much the death of Tune’s agent in 1991 may have led to his career downfall. Indeed, he never had a hit again, and Tune himself confesses that he never made the wise decisions alone that his agent was able to help guide him towards. For Tune, that outside eye proved invaluable — and irreplaceable.

Winkler’s book is the definition of a page turner. I literally could not put it down, except when I was rushing to YouTube to watch some of the dance numbers he so vividly described.

A dancer himself, Winkler is truly able to bring Tune’s choreography and staging alive in your imagination. When I later watched some of the performances he wrote about, they were exactly as I imagined.

My only complaint is that I wish the book had been longer — especially when discussing the creation of “Nine,” “Grand Hotel,” “The Best Little Whorehouse Goes Public,” and “Busker Alley.” I enjoyed so much of what Winkler unearthed (even the stories I had heard before), and wish they had been given even more time and detail.

But that’s the only thing this book could improve on. Winkler clearly admires Tune and his body of work, but he’s critical as well (in my mind, sometimes unfairly so). Winkler is a neutral arbiter, and calls it straight down the line as he sees it.

More importantly, Winkler traces the legacy and history of the Broadway musical, and makes a very strong case that Tune deserves a large and prominent place in the pantheon of Broadway greats. (Although Tune wasn’t Jewish, almost all of the writers and composers he worked with were.)

My appreciation and knowledge of Tune’s career grew after reading this book, and I’m sure yours will too. If you love — and care about — the Broadway musical, this book is absolutely essential reading.

The author is the Opinion Editor and a culture writer at The Algemeiner. You can see some of his creative work at www.Bloomywood.com

The opinions presented by Algemeiner bloggers are solely theirs and do not represent those of The Algemeiner, its publishers or editors. If you would like to share your views with a blog post on The Algemeiner, please be in touch through our Contact page.

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