Bending gender -- and genre

CATCHING UP WITH... Toni Tennille

Toni Tennille made her fame as half of a '70s pop music duo, but she got her start in the theater. Now, she's back onstage, starring in 'Victor/Victoria.'

April 18, 1999|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Sun Theater Critic

There was a major brouhaha when the musical "Victor/Victoria" wasn't considered for a Tony in 1996, but the show's got one now. Only this one isn't an award, it's a person -- Toni Tennille, who's starring in the touring production that opens at the Mechanic Theatre on Tuesday.

Yes, she's the same Toni who was -- and still is -- half of the pop duo the Captain & Tennille. But what most folks don't know is that she began her career as an actress. She even wrote a Broadway musical (more on that later).

Tennille was so worried that the producers of "Victor/Victoria" would think of her merely as a pop singer that she went to considerable expense to create her own audition videotape. "It was not cheap, but it did the trick," she says from the tour's stop in Cincinnati.

She hoped the tape would land her the role on Broadway, after the original star, Julie Andrews, left the show in June 1997. But, she says, "We got it there two days after they signed Raquel [Welch]. I thought that was end of it for me."

Then a few weeks later, Tennille got a call asking if she'd be interested in doing the tour. "It was a big decision," she says.

Nearly a quarter century has passed since the Captain & Tennille made the big time with their 1975 hit, "Love Will Keep Us Together." She and the Captain -- her husband, Daryl Dragon -- have done lots of touring since then, and she's also traveled solo, singing with symphony orchestras, including the Baltimore Symphony.

But 55-year-old Tennille, who lives in northern Nevada with her husband, two dogs and a cat, isn't especially fond of being on the road. Dragon, however, persuaded her to accept the "Victor/Victoria" tour. "He said if you don't do this you're going to always wonder what would have happened if you had," she says.

Then she hands the phone over to Dragon, who visits her every few weeks on tour. "She basically has gone back to where I thought she should have been in first place," he says. When they met, in 1971, he explains, Tennille was performing in her own musical, a show about ecology called "Mother Earth," for which she composed the score.

"When I even thought of putting a group together I was hesitant because I felt she belonged on stage," Dragon says. Pop music, however, soon became Tennille's career, which included a stint as a background musician for the Beach Boys (the same group that gave her husband his "Captain" sobriquet), as well as a network TV variety show.

"Once you begin having hits, frankly, there's a lot more money in pop music than theater. Agents weren't happy about my taking time off," she says.

So both husband and wife feel "Victor/Victoria" is a long-delayed way of showing audiences a side of Tennille that has been hidden far too long. "I like to see anybody do what they're born to do. She was born to do a couple things," Dragon says, listing her talents for composing, singing and acting. "She got the whole package."

For Tennille, the acting part of the package began in school plays in her hometown of Montgomery, Ala. She also studied piano and dance, but theater was always her focus. Show business ran in her family. Her father was a big band singer with Bob Crosby and the Bobcats, and her mother was the host of Montgomery's first daytime TV talk show.

After her family moved to California, Tennille spent a half-dozen years with the then-fledgling South Coast Repertory theater in Orange County. In the early 1970s, she and one of the company's directors created "Mother Earth." One positive outcome of the musical was that she met Dragon when she hired him to play keyboards in the California production.

However, she calls the show's short-lived Broadway version "a very painful part of my history. I don't usually talk about it except to say that I did it. We were very young and naive and idealistic and we didn't have a lawyer. What we ended up doing was signing away artistic control."

In recent years, most of Tennille's acting has taken the form of benefit performances for the Nevada Opera, in which she has played Julie in "Show Boat"; the title character in "Mame"; and Prince Orlofsky, the "trousers" role in "Die Fledermaus." The latter was a rather unconventional interpretation. "Daryl came out in the party scene, and we did a couple Captain & Tennille tunes," she says. "I stepped out of character."

Even so, playing a male character proved helpful for "Victor/Victoria," which is based on Blake Edwards' 1982 movie about a starving singer who becomes the toast of the Paris cabaret scene by pretending to be a female impersonator.

Orlofsky wasn't Tennille's first gender-bending role, however. In the late 1960s, she starred in a community theater production of "Goodbye Charlie," a play about a man who is reincarnated as a woman. "So I've done it before," she says.

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