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Everything Is Choreography: The Musical Theater of Tommy Tune
by Kevin Winkler
Book Review by Wendy Caster
Everything Is Choreography: The Musical Theater of Tommy Tune, Kevin Winkler's detailed examination of Tune's career, offers a tremendous amount of information on Tune and his shows, including some scene-by-scene discussions of his more famous works. Winkler centers much of his analysis of Tune's work around "guzzintahs," based on Tune's comment that:
While Winkler acknowledges the "guzzintahs" of Jerome Robbins and Michael Bennett, he sees Tune as combining the best of their skills and is impressed that Tune also continued working as a dancer and actor.
Winkler bends over backwards to award Tune very specific "best of" titles. For example, in reference to Tune winning Drama Desk Awards for both outstanding director of a play (Cloud 9) and outstanding director of a musical (Nine) in the same year, Winkler writes,
Of course, Tune was brilliant. His production of Cloud 9 remains one of my all-time favorite theatrical experiences even after seeing thousands of shows. But "the most" and "the best" comments (and there are more) seem unnecessary and odd when his contemporaries that year alone included Michael Bennett with Dreamgirls and Trevor Nunn with The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby. Tommy Tune was amazing, but he was not alone. On the other hand, Winkler makes an excellent case that Tune was significant in re-invigorating the reputation of American musicals after the British Invasion.
The most interesting section of the book focuses on the development of Grand Hotel. It could be said that the project started with a recurring dream that Tune had, complete with ballroom chairs and mirrors, mixed with his viewing of the movie version. Or you could go back further to the musicalization of the story by Kismet creators Robert Wright and George Forrest, which ran in the late 1950s in Los Angeles starring movie star Paul Muni. And of course you could go back even further, to the original novel written by Vicki Baum. But it was the meeting of these different ingredients that jump-started the musical of Grand Hotel as directed by Tommy Tune.
Despite all of these potential sources, rehearsals of Grand Hotel started without a script. As actor Jane Krakowski explained:
Tommy would just send us home with the original Vicki Baum novel and say, "Read chapters one through five." And then tomorrow we'd come in and kind of improvise it to get to the songs that [had been] written.
The development of Grand Hotel vividly demonstrates Tune's collaborative instincts. He told people with small parts, "Go home and figure out who you are and write your backstory." He also let them name their characters. And when the going got rough, which it did repeatedly, he called on a slew of his earlier collaborators, including Peter Stone and Maury Yeston. (Figuring out how to credit the various contributors was almost as complicated as the show itself.) Tune also gave huge credit to other collaborators. For example, he said of the late Wally Harper, "He made Grand Hotel. His underscoring told the story." But Tune had the final say, and he cared about every detail. For example, he didn't allow marking tape on the stage because he thought it would mar the beauty of the floor for people sitting upstairs.
While what Tune did in developing Grand Hotel was close to miraculous, the show itself wasn't particularly good. And Wright and Forrest mourned their own version of the show, with Wright saying, "It's Tommy's vision of our show." Wright also quoted a Yale-Harvard playwrighting professor as saying "A director's theatre is a theatre in decline." Also, some people said that Tune deliberately chose weak material to shine in comparison. Art isn't easy.
Winkler includes fascinating tidbits in this book. For example, Tune choreographed Shirley MacLaine's version of "I'm Still Here" for Postcards from the Edge. Tune felt that Michael Bennett's Ballroom was damaged by too much workshopping and rehearsal. During previews of Cloud 9, when playwright Caryl Churchill was out of town, Tune switched the final two scenes of the show. (I've seen it both ways, and, though the change was rude of Tune, the show does work better his way.) Tune turned down directing The Normal Heart since he was going through tremendous AIDS-related loss in his own life.
Larger than a tidbit is that Tune didn't always choreograph his own choreography. He specialized in concepts, and sometimes other people did the steps. Jeff Calhoun (Will Rogers Follies) referred to Tune's contribution as "the genius" and his own as "the sweat equity."
Unfortunately, there are many errors in Everything Is Choreography. For example, Winkler writes of West Side Story, "[With] a rivalry between teenaged gang members–one American, the other newly arrived immigrants from Puerto Rico..." I guess it's true that "Nobody knows in America, Puerto Rico's in America." In a discussion of songs that were not in the movie version of Easter Parade, Winkler includes "I Love a Piano," which is in the movie version of Easter Parade. And he refers to the New Amsterdam Theater as being on the corner. It isn't. While the individual errors are not a big deal, added up they cast doubt over the other stated facts in the book.
A parenthetical line toward the end of the book, while not exactly an error, also adds to doubts about accuracy. Winkler writes of Tommy Tune: White Tie and Tails, "The show was roundly criticized for a supposed plant in the audience who was called upon to ask Tune a question and dance with him." He leaves out the rather pertinent point that the plant was identified as someone from Tune's earlier life, and that her presence was staged as an emotional, surprise reunion. Audience members who thought they were witnessing a unique and wonderful moment were being hoodwinked, and it struck many people in the theatre community as tacky, at best.
As for the physical book itself, its type is way too small, and its photos are of mediocre quality. I suspect that these were both financial decisions, and if they were necessary to allow the book to be published, so be it. But it would have been nice to actually see the people in the photos. On the other hand, effort was made to identify everyone in each picture, which is helpful to the reader (and respectful to the people pictured).
Overall, the writing of the book can be pretty dry, and it might be better utilized as a reference book than a read-straight-through book. However, whatever its flaws, Everything Is Choreography: The Musical Theater of Tommy Tune offers a good sense of Tune's contributions to theatre and what it was like to work with him.
Everything Is Choreography: The Musical Theater of Tommy Tune