Doctor of musicals makes a curtain call at Mechanic Theatre Tune-up

September 13, 1995|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Sun Theater Critic

He's the man with the $6 million feet. He's also "Dr. Tune," a specialist in curing Broadway-bound musicals of whatever ails them.

These days, Tommy Tune is functioning in both capacities. By night, he shows off his Lloyd's of London-insured, size 13 feet as a tap-dancing street performer in "Buskers." By day, he brings his Tony Award-winning wisdom and experience to rehearsals, as "Buskers' " creative team reworks and fine tunes the show during the cross-country, pre-Broadway tour that brings it to the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre tonight.

Production costs have made out-of-town tryouts a relative rarity for Broadway musicals, but Tune insisted on taking "Buskers" on the road for six months before venturing onto the Great White Way. "It's the only way I know how to do it. I'm from the old school," he said earlier this week from Pittsburgh, with a soft drawl suggesting his Texas origins.

If Tune's reliance on a tryout tour sounds like a return to the good old days, it also signals a return for the Mechanic Theatre, which once presented a fair share of tryouts. Under the auspices of its new partnership with Broadway's influential Jujamcyn Theatres, the Mechanic has a tryout ushering in the season. And, with original musicals almost an endangered species, "Buskers" -- with music by "Mary Poppins" songwriters Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman, and a book by screenwriter A J Carothers -- would have to be described as one of Broadway's most-anticipated new shows.

But the life of a busker -- as street performers are known in British slang -- can be a hard one, and this show has had its share of hard knocks, too. "You keep thinking it's going to become easier, and it doesn't," says Tune, 56, who last doctored a musical at the Mechanic in 1980. That show, "A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine," brought him his first Tony Award for choreography. (Since then he has become the only person to win Tonys in four categories, for a total of nine; the others are for direction and supporting and starring actor in a musical.)

One of "Buskers' " hard knocks hit Tune during his last appearance in Baltimore. He was starring in the revival of "Bye Bye Birdie" at the Lyric Opera House in 1992 when, he recalls, "I came back to the hotel, and there was this thick envelope -- my one and only lawsuit." The suit was brought by the then-producer of "Buskers," who reportedly claimed Tune had breached his contract by extending the "Birdie" tour beyond the date he was to begin rehearsing "Buskers." The eventual ruling was in Tune's favor.

Now with new producers at the helm, the musical -- based on "St. Martin's Lane," a semi-obscure 1938 movie about a May-December romance starring Vivien Leigh and Charles Laughton -- has been undergoing the ministrations of various "friends of the court." The first of these, of course, is Tune himself, though he is billed solely as the star. Credit for direction and choreography goes to his associate, Jeff Calhoun.

Tune says, however, that he's been helping out "from square one . . . I liken it to a quilt, and everyone brings their own square, and we stitch it all together."

The text has been receiving a power assist from Peter Stone, who performed a similar service on Tune's 1989 "Grand Hotel" and also wrote the books for two of Tune's other hit shows, "The Will Rogers Follies" and "My One and Only."

Stone calls Tune "a complete performer." "He has a sense of the musical theater that is rare, and he is more or less the last of the powerful director/choreographers," Stone explains, referring to, among others, such late greats as Gower Champion, Bob Fosse and Michael Bennett.

He also whole-heartedly supports what Tune describes as the "necessity" of "Buskers' " lengthy pre-Broadway tour. "This show would have closed without it," says Stone, who will be in the audience tonight. "It's gone through that much of the process. It still has a great distance to go, not before it's enjoyable -- it's enjoyable now -- but before it's working the way we hope it will."

The changes began with the show's title. At the start of the tour it was called, "Stage Door Charley"; it's currently called "Buskers." When it reaches Broadway next month, it will be called "Busker Alley." The initial problem, Tune explains, was a concern about Americans' lack of familiarity with the term "buskers." But, he says, "it's always been 'Busker Alley' in my head."

This doesn't mean Tune always gets his way, however. Both his favorite song and his favorite dance have been cut. "Jeff [Calhoun] had made the most glorious dance for me, and it had to go. It was decoration, and you just don't have time for decoration when you're telling a story," he says.

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