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The New York Times

Tommy Tune Reimagines Disco Era’s Glittery Mecca

By Patrick Healy
November 15, 2011

54 Forever production photo
At the University of Miami, Tommy Tune, left, directs a student, Kyle Axman, in Fifty Four Forever.
Tommy Tune was once the fleet-footed prince of Broadway, whose flair and Tony Awards triumphs put him in the company of musical auteurs like Bob Fosse and Michael Bennett. And then he disappeared. A pair of painful flops in the ’90s led to a self-imposed exile from commercial New York theater, which has not seen anyone quite like Mr. Tune — a triple-threat actor, director and choreographer — since.

Yet Manhattan was on his mind last week as Mr. Tune stood by a stage at the University of Miami, putting the finishing touches on his new musical, Fifty Four Forever, a valentine to the Studio 54 nightclub where he often mixed with Andy Warhol, Liza Minnelli and other chic demigods of the 1970s. For the last year Mr. Tune has been developing this disco-standards show (though not performing in it himself) with an unusual team of collaborators, the university’s theater arts department and its corps of undergraduate actors, many of whom were born after his heyday, which included nine Tonys between 1974 and 1991.

Their trusting exuberance has been a tonic for Mr. Tune, awfully sprightly for 72, helping him find his younger, less jaded self.

“Now turn and step, and step with a little hop,” instructed Mr. Tune, ever the perfectionist, as he refined the simplest of routines — the curtain call bow — an hour before opening night last week. “Let’s see spirit!”

The creators of Fifty Four Forever want the show to have a life after its run at the campus theater ends on Saturday; Mr. Tune, in an interview, allowed himself the hope of eventually mounting the show at the real Studio 54, which is now a Broadway house owned by Roundabout Theater Company. He has invited Roundabout executives here, as well as dozens of other New York producers, artists and press agents, though no deals have been made.

At the same time, Mr. Tune does not appear in any rush for an encore on Broadway, where he made his name in the 1973 musical Seesaw (winning his first Tony, for best featured actor) and going on to fame as the director of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, Nine, Grand Hotel and The Will Rogers Follies.

His two 1990s flops, The Best Little Whorehouse Goes Public (which closed after one month) and Busker Alley (which closed during its pre-Broadway tryout), cemented his belief that the Broadway of old had given way to a risk-averse industry dominated by play-it-safe producers who constantly second-guess their directors and artists.

“Broadway has become summer stock, with so many revivals of old shows, with the same old choreography and design, and with stars coming in to perform for 10 weeks and make money and then leave,” Mr. Tune said, stretching his 6-foot, 6-inch frame in a patio chair on a sunny courtyard on campus. “Directing my last Broadway shows, I had producers telling me to fire this actor or that, to fix this scene or that, to try out some new idea of theirs. I don’t want to do theater by committee. I mean, how would I explain Fifty Four to a committee?”

54 Forever production photo
Tommy Tune’s latest musical is Fifty Four Forever, about Studio 54, which he is mounting at the University of Miami.
The new musical’s plot follows the rise and fall of Steve Rubell, the nightlife impresario who made Studio 54 into a stardust Valhalla, where hordes of people waited hopefully on the rope line as boldface names waltzed past the Rubell bouncers. Mr. Tune has set the show on a 42-foot, red-carpeted runway where fast-paced scenes spin out: An early one shows Rubell’s mother, outfitted in red-sequined hair rollers, kvetching and later boogying with him in their Brooklyn home, while many other moments involve Rubell’s cavorting in the club with Liza, Andy, Halston and Truman, as well as that nightspot’s manic D.J. and shirtless boy toys.

A subplot involves Rubell’s seduction by an undercover I.R.S. agent, which leads to his downfall; he was ultimately jailed for tax evasion in 1980 and died in 1989.

If developing a Studio 54 musical — which includes disco anthems like “Y.M.C.A.” and “Stayin’ Alive” — on a Florida campus seems strange, even more surprising is that the scene has seldom been dramatized. The 1998 film 54, with Mike Myers as Rubell, was a critical and financial disappointment, and there have been a handful of books about the club. Mr. Tune, as well as theater historians, said they did not know of any stage musicals developed by major artists about Rubell, who was a next-door neighbor of Mr. Tune’s in New York and who comes in for affectionate treatment here.

Mr. Tune’s untamed theatricality seems an apt fit for the wild times of Studio 54, say many in the theater industry who are familiar with his work.

“Musicalizing Studio 54 would take an imagination that could never be put in a box, that is sometimes too wild even for its own good, and that’s Tommy’s,” said Peter Filichia, a theater critic who writes about Mr. Tune in his book Broadway Musical MVPs 1960-2010: The Most Valuable Players of the Past 50 Seasons. “In the first Whorehouse there were just so many crazy design touches and stage pictures, and in Grand Hotel there was such incredible extravagance I found myself wondering how he would top himself in the next scene. And then he would.”

While friends of Mr. Tune’s say he was devastated by the critical and commercial failures of "Whorehouse Goes Public" and "Busker Alley" ("Busker" was made worse by a foot injury he sustained during tryouts), Mr. Tune said his emotional reaction was more like a wake-up call than a meltdown.

“I just got tired of playing by the rules of commercial theater, of producers and their fear of the critics driving everything, and I decided to start working in places where those confining rules didn’t exist,” said Mr. Tune, who decamped to Las Vegas to work on shows and now splits his time between New York and South Beach. Still, he added, “I’d love to be doing a new Broadway show.” (He has kept performing, with his dance show Tommy Tune Steps in Time scheduled for Thursday night in Butte, Mont.)

Mutual friends put Mr. Tune and Mark Saltzman, who wrote the rhyming-couplet dialogue for "Fifty Four," in touch with Henry Fonte, the chairman of the theater arts department here, one of several nationally that have involved students in the development of new musicals on campus. In discussions with the two artists, Mr. Fonte said he quickly recognized "some signature Tune touches," like his desire for constant, choreographed movement and a bold design scheme.

Most of the actors appear in red jumpsuits — “It’s a red show,” Mr. Tune said simply — and various dance numbers include demolition-crew hardhats, pompoms made of fake dollar bills, a pole dance at the I.R.S. and half-naked orgies under flashing lights.

Kyle Axman, the 20-year-old junior who plays Rubell, said that when he was cast in Fifty Four, he knew Mr. Tune’s theater work only from video clips. But no video, he said, could convey “the pure happiness, the dazzle of seeing him perform for us sometimes in rehearsal.”

“Even when he had a problem to solve in a scene,” Mr. Axman said, “I’d never seen someone look as happy as Tommy.”
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