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

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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.

Clarifying that story has been a focus of the rewrites. In the show, Charley (Tune), a late bloomer romantically, falls in love with an ambitious, much younger woman whose sights are set not on busking -- or on Charley -- but on the legitimate stage. The reason for Charley's earlier reluctance to take a chance on romance is one of the plot elements that has been strengthened.

And the changes keep coming. Tune had expected to arrive in Baltimore Monday, but was delayed a day at "Buskers' " previous stop in Pittsburgh when songwriter Richard Sherman faxed a new song. The new number, which will be the next-to-last song in the show, won't be ready tonight, but it will probably be in place before the end of the Baltimore run.

One constant throughout the long tryout process has been Tune's enthusiasm for his leading lady, Darcie Roberts, 21, who made her Broadway debut in "Crazy for You." "We just throw her new stuff daily, and she comes out on stage and she does it," Tune says. "I keep thinking back of me at 21, and I didn't know anything."

"And she's tall!" the 6-foot, 6-inch Tune says of his 5-foot, 8-inch co-star. "It's a whole other thing when you're dancing with a regular-sized person. My extreme height is really ridiculous. With Darcie, it's just so easy."

Tune's height kept him from pursuing his original dream of becoming a ballet dancer. But as the son of two amateur 'D ballroom dancers who met on the dance floor, he believes he was born to dance. He also credits his late parents -- whose real name was "Tune" -- with inspiring his first record album, "Slow Dancing," due to be released by RCA Victor early next year.

As a boy, he recalls, "The radio would be on, and I'd be passing through on the way to the kitchen when I was doing my homework, and my parents would be dancing in the living room to 'Stardust.' I think this album has something to do with them. Both of them are in heaven dancing."

After forsaking ballet for the theater, Tune earned a degree in drama from the University of Texas. Eager to get on with his career, however, he dropped out of graduate school at the University of Houston before completing his thesis. The subject was to have been doctoring an ailing show. In a sense, he's been working on that thesis ever since, earning a reputation as "Dr. Tune" for doctoring not only his own shows, but also the shows of others.

And, as Peter Stone, his frequent collaborator points out, "He has had an astonishing number of successes."

Just about his only flop was his last Broadway show, "The Best Little Whorehouse Goes Public," which he co-directed and co-choreographed with Calhoun. His experience with that 1994 sequel to "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas" hasn't made him apprehensive about returning to Broadway, though.

"One doesn't have anything to do with the other," he says, looking ahead to "Buskers' " arrival in New York, where it begins previews at the St. James Theatre on Oct. 19 and opens Nov. 16. "You just serve the material that you're given in the best possible way, and every show is its own thing. I don't know what I learned from that except to wait for better material."

Furthermore, worrying isn't part of his nature. "It's such a waste of energy. So, 'Stop worrying and do it' is what I say to myself. A long time ago I was in a diner with Michael Bennett, before he became MICHAEL BENNETT," he says, as if the name of the late creator of "A Chorus Line" were in all capital letters. "I said, 'But Michael, I'm afraid,' and he looked at me with those piercing eyes and he said, 'Tommy, never fear,' and he said it so strongly that it stuck."

Then, as he launches into another story, Tune -- who is such an avid storyteller that he has been kiddingly called a teller of "tall tales" -- pauses. "Not that I'm less afraid," he says. "I'm less afraid of being afraid."

'Buskers'

Where: Morris A. Mechanic Theatre, Hopkins Plaza

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays; 7:30 p.m. Sept. 18; matinees at 2 p.m. tomorrow, Sept. 16, 17, 20 and 23; and 3 p.m. Sept. 24. Through Sept. 24

Tickets: $27.50-$57.50

Call: (410) 625-1400

Tap with Tommy Tune

What: Join Tune and the cast of "Buskers" in a tap dance around the harbor. For each participant, the Mechanic Broadway Series will donate $1 to the Johns Hopkins Children's Hospital. Participants are eligible to win prizes including: Round-trip Continental Airline tickets, tickets to "Buskers," T-shirts and signed Tommy Tune tap shoes

Where: Harborplace Amphitheater, between the Light and Pratt Street Pavilions

When: Noon today

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