Tommy Tune would see them in the lobbies of the old grand hotels of Europe, the aristocratic class caught short by the fast-forward of time, as faded as the furniture, as once-elegant and now-tattered as their surroundings.
"These incredibly strange aristocratic mutants!" Mr. Tune remembers with glee. "A lot of what I saw I couldn't put in the show. You would think I was kidding -- these self-indulgent people so into themselves, their problems and their pleasures."
Such a research trip, in lesser hands, could have netted a flash-and-trash show called something like "Aging Mutant Euro Aristocrats." But in the hands of one of the great choreographer-directors of our time -- rightfully mentioned in the same breath as Bob Fosse and Michael Bennett -- the result instead is the highly lauded "Grand Hotel."
The winner of five Tonys last year, "Grand Hotel" checks into the Mechanic Theatre on Wednesday for a four-week stay. The show brought Mr. Tune's personal Tony tally to seven, and he is the only person ever to win the prize in four different categories.
An intermissionless two hours of non-stop action, the show is a swirl of interweaving stories about the residents and staff members of a hotel in 1928 Berlin. It has been praised for its haunting evocation of the decay and decadence of that place and that time just before the economic crash and the big war.
"Grand Hotel," however, is not just a period piece, says Mr. Tune, but one with current resonance.
"There is some correlation. We're a country in transition now -- the financial state we're in is not unlike before the big crash that befell the world," Mr. Tune says in a telephone interview from New York. "We're people on the edge of a volcano."
Still playing on Broadway, the show is also touring the United States and playing in, of all places, Berlin itself.
Mr. Tune, who visited that city to check on the production, marvels at the full circle the musical has come -- in the Vicki Baum novel on which the show is based, the ballerina performs at the very theater where the show is now playing. Adding to the already surreal quality of evoking a city's history even as the city undergoes another fluctuation in character, the gulf war broke out while he was there.
"It's a city in transition. I couldn't get a fix on it," Mr. Tune says. "Then the war broke out, and everything was very strange."
While Americans may hear "Grand Hotel" and think of the 1932 movie starring Greta Garbo and John Barrymore, it was instead the 1928 Baumnovel of the same name that actually inspired the choreographer.
Among the characters playing out their personal dramas are a dying bookkeeper out for his first and last stab at life, a baron reduced to petty thievery and a ballerina facing the inevitable hanging up of her pointe shoes.
To tell the stories of these and other characters, the show almost by necessity never stops for a breather.
"The continuous action of the show is a dance from beginning to end, because that's what a hotel is," he says. "I was just trying to serve the material. It just seemed right to keep the action constantly flowing."
And to do that, Mr. Tune broke with what seemed to be the Broadway model of the time -- the kind of show in which the razzle-dazzle, big-budget technology of rotating sets a la "Les Miserables" or roller-skating ramps a la "Starlight Express" get all the attention.
"I didn't want to do it with a lot of heavy scenery," he says. "I prefer people."
Which leads to a discussion, a criticism actually, of "the British musicals -- they've become designer musicals. There's no dancing -- that's what gives Broadway shows movement.
"That's not the American way. We don't do that," he continues. "Our energy is to move things along. Our country is younger. New York -- there's an energy there. You can't get your show moving if the set is getting in the way."
And move is what both "Grand Hotel" and Tommy Tune himself do best. The songs, dances and dramas play out in non-stop action, one scene barely playing out before the next one streaks in. And even as the main event of the moment takes place at center stage, period dances can be seen on the sidelines.
Dance is of course the driving force for Mr. Tune and his work. (And, in fact, the New York Times theater critic gave "Grand Hotel" a mixed review -- lauding Mr. Tune for what he considers "the most extravagant imagination in the American musical theater" but ultimately ruling the show empty. Later, one of the newspaper's dance critics gave it a rave.)
All he ever wanted to do even as a boy in Wichita Falls and Houston, Texas, was dance in a Broadway chorus. By dint of his height and equally sky-approaching talent, though, he was not long for the chorus line.
He began his Broadway gypsy life in the mid-'60s, adding directing to his performing credits some 14 years ago. And his Tonys reflect his varied life, having won statues for starring and supporting actor as well as choreographer and director for his work on shows such as "Nine" and "A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine."
He is one of those people drawn to a certain period in time -- the songs, the fashions, the attitude -- not necessarily their own.
"I always was connected to the '20s and '30s," says Mr. Tune. "I remember when I was 13 or 14, all I wanted was a raccoon coat, a porkpie hat and a banner and to go to football games. And the only musical instrument I've ever played is the ukulele."
Indeed, no matter what era Mr. Tune is evoking as a performer, he captures the gloriously giddy, oh-you-kid atmosphere of those days.
It's either a past life, he speculates, or an inheritance from his mother, a flapper in her youth.
He has what Texans might describe as a long cool drink of a body -- a lanky 6-foot-6 that in motion is sheer exuberance, whether he's clogging down stairs in wooden shoes, as he did to win his first Tony in the 1973 "Seesaw," or splish-splashing a water-tap dance with Twiggy, as he did in his double-Tony winning "My One and Only" in 1983.
At 51, he still performs, as loose-limbed and engagingly as ever. He'll star with Ann Reinking in a revival tour of "Bye Bye Birdie" this spring. And, concurrently, he's in the final throes of readying his next Broadway show, "Ziegfeld Presents the Will Rogers Follies" (not to be confused with the Mechanic's next production, "Ziegfeld"), for its first performance April 1, followed by the Broadway opening May 1.
"I'm usually working on three or four shows at a time," Mr. Tune says.
And, as he tells it, the shows themselves decide their scheduling. "Any show worth its salt starts leaving you when it's ready," he says. " 'Grand Hotel' needed to be done when it was done."
And now, it's Will Rogers' time. Starring Keith Carradine, the show as directed and choreographed by Mr. Tune will feature 16 glamour gals, a winding staircase seemingly built out of colored lights, a dog act and even some rope twirling. In other words, as far away on the spectrum from the impending doom of "Grand Hotel" as a person can get.
"I never," he says by way of explanation, "like to follow myself."
Where: Mechanic Theatre, Hopkins Plaza.
When: Feb. 19 to March 17. 8 p.m. Tuesdays to Saturdays, 2 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays.
Tickets: $34 to $45.