The wind sighs, the surf bubbles over dun-colored sand. Swaying silently on a Fire Island, N.Y. beach is a wraithlike man—6’6″ tall, 161 pounds light—with the legs of a heron, the cheekbones of an Indian and the eyes of a mystic. A sandpiper scuttles by. Suddenly Tommy Tune stops. “Did that take nine minutes?” he asks. Then, his morning breathing and stretching exercises completed, he returns to his cedar beach house. As Tune kicks off his shoes, the nails—painted silver on his long, fingerlike toes—catch the sun and glitter. “I did it for opening night,” he explains. “I’m very superstitious. You know—twinkle toes.”
A few weeks later those toes break unexpectedly into a tap dance before a national TV audience. The occasion: the Tony Awards, at which Tune is named Best Director for his new Broadway musical, “Nine,” based on filmmaker Federico Fellini’s 8½. The win signals that Thomas James Tune, 43, has emerged as successor to the late Gower Champion as daredevil choreographer and showman. It proves also that this ostensible eccentric is every bit as real as his improbable name, which he has refused to change. (One suggestion, Clay Rollins, was “too Tab Hunter,” says Tune, while David Logan sounded “too Waspy.”) “I blame my career in show business on my parents,” jokes Tommy. “Would you trust your money to a bank clerk named Tommy Tune?”
Probably not, but Tune doesn’t lack financial—or creative—savvy. Broadway audiences are paying up to $40 a ticket to see the saga he has mounted of a creatively blocked Italian film director driven by power, lust and Oedipal obsessions. Taking a cast of one actor, 21 actresses and four little boys, he set them loose across a stage teeming with mock canals, leering nuns and a clutch of doves. One show-stopping number considered unsuitable for the Tony telecast, in which sinuous Anita Morris appears in a black lace body stocking, was described deftly by the New York Times as “a one-body simulation of two-body copulation.” Despite mixed reviews, “Nine” has proved a 10 with audiences—and with Tune’s industry peers. Altogether the show has won five Tonys.
Tune’s brazen innovations have been praised even by rival Michael Bennett, whose Dreamgirls is the other musical hit of the season. Says Bennett graciously, “Lots of directors can referee a production and put reality onstage. Tommy puts heightened reality onstage.” Concurs Tune, “It isn’t Annie. It’s a metaphysical world, a distortion of civilization. But that’s what one needs in the theater. You create an alternate view of the world.”
It helps that Tune is not a little transcendent himself. Larry King, who co-authored The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, which Tommy co-choreographed, once observed, “That dude grew up on a different planet.” The cast of “Nine” was no less bemused on first encountering the director. At the opening rehearsal he announced that the previous night he’d been visited in a dream by none other than Laurence Olivier. Lord Olivier’s advice, Tommy reported breathlessly: “My dear boy, it’s all of it, all of it, simply an expression of love!”
Tommy Tune arrived on Loveboat Earth as one of three kids, and the only son, of amateur ballroom dancers who met at an Oklahoma hop. After their marriage Jim and Eva Tune settled in Houston, where he went into the business of servicing oil rigs. But Jim’s avocation was training Tennessee walking horses. Inevitably, his son took to hanging out at the stable. “I got my eye for choreography at age 5,” Tommy says. “I would imitate the gait of the horses. I still think of them when I dance.” Later the youngster took tap and ballet lessons and choreographed amateur shows. Tune’s height must have intrigued the Lamarr High School basketball coach, but hoops were not Tommy’s delight. Besides, he says, “I didn’t like the costumes.” A University of Texas graduate, Tune was working on a master’s degree in directing at the University of Houston when he impulsively left for New York. “I wanted to get on with it,” he says.
He was not alone. Tommy spent the early ’60s as yet another of New York’s struggling young gypsies, with a significant added debit—his height. He took to wearing horizontally striped shirts to auditions, dipping low in plies, and cannily cavorting upstage. “I’d look shorter that way,” he says. “It’s a law of perspective.” In 1969 Tune made his movie debut waltzing with Streisand in Hello, Dolly! Five years later he captured his first Tony as Best Supporting Actor for the musical Seesaw. In 1976 Tune turned to directing with The Club, an off-Broadway production in which an all-woman cast dressed as men sang lascivious songs in a Victorian gentlemen’s club. (Its author, Eve Merriam, thought Tune perfect because “he is such a unisex person.” Mutters Tommy, “Unisex? Sounds like a hair-dressing salon.”) Then, two years ago, he won his second Tony for choreographing A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine.
Ever theatrical, Tune is given to peacockish attire ranging from everyday strange (headband, baggy pants, purple thermal undershirt) to ensembles custom-made by pals like Perry Ellis and Giorgio Sant’ Angelo. Such rarefied tastes, combined with his patented airy pronouncements (“I don’t think our purpose in life is to stoop and furrow our brow and be serious—we’re here to enjoy”), give the impression he’s a perennial adolescent. It is a view shared by co-workers. Says Larry King: “During rehearsals of Whorehouse, Tommy would stand around and stare into space. You wondered what he was doing and then you realize he’d been seeing dances in his mind. Hellfire! He’d been watching a private brain movie.” Adds Lucie Arnaz, who co-starred with him in the road company of Seesaw: “Tommy is childlike. He’s pure romance. He appreciates a flower. He does the dance of life.”
But Tune also possesses a dark side that he values equally. “I have a certain melancholy strain in my personaggio, as they say in Italian. When I shop, I always choose the bruised peach,” he explains. “I think a day’s not complete if you don’t come to tears over something.” That something can be flowers, sunsets or even a job well done: “I was dining in the Plaza Athenee in Paris, and this serious young waiter was ladling tiny new potatoes and pearl onions on my plate, one by one, with great concentration. Then he meticulously poured a white cream sauce on top. I wept.”
Most of the year Tune lives alone in a small Manhattan apartment dominated by a 12-foot tangerine sleeping platform. “I haven’t given myself to experience that special person,” he declares. “To love someone is dangerous.” For the moment, he remains secluded at his Fire Island retreat, tranquil amidst the beach plums and the sea grass. There is no pool, he says, because “I don’t want people hanging around.” Within are low-slung couches, a giraffe collection in the bathroom, a set of Indian bells and perfectly composed grapes and strawberries suspended in water in a China-blue bowl. A little yoga, a little meditation, a little serious steaming of early summer asparagus and a lot of walking on the beach are what keep Tommy’s days sublime.
Later this summer he will return to the visible side of the footlights in a new Broadway-bound version of Gershwin’s 1927 musical Funny Face. His co-star will be Twiggy, with whom he performed 11 years ago in the movie The Boy Friend. (Observes Tommy: “She’s the first person who made me feel thick.”) But until rehearsals begin, his life is like a Fellini movie—though not, fortunately, 8½. “Where I come from in Texas,” he drawls, “we call it ‘Laaah dole-cee vy-tah.’ ”