Tommy Tune, a Broadway chorus boy turned movie actor cum TV performer cum nightclub entertainer and tap-dance wizard turned Off-Broadway director and then Broadway co-director and choreographer, capped his career so far by winning a Tony Award this year for choreographing A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine, which he also directed. And after all the puns on his name have been exhausted, one thing remains to be said: Tommy Tune is the most exciting director-choreographer to hit the musical theater since Bob Fosse.

He's 41 and looks 22. He's 6-6 and looks nine feet tall. He's been in show business all his life, and he's still as sweet and starstruck as a little kid. Whether you first saw him leap off the screen in Ken Russell's The Boy Friend, grind the Broadway show Seesaw to a halt with his sensational balloon dance (for which he won a Tony in 1973), or limp to the stage (a recent leg injury) at this year's Tony Awards to deliver the most gracious acceptance speech of the evening, you remember his extraordinary appearance. And whether you first saw his work in Eve Merriam's Obie-winning feminist musical The Club (which featured the most elegant gender-fuck in history -- women duded up as turn-of-the-century gents), in Larry King and Pete Masterson's The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (in which he translated everything -- from media hypocrisy and politicians' sidestepping issues to a football team's victory celebration at a brothel -- into witty waltzing), or in Hollywood/Ukraine (which includes a tap-dance rendition of the Hays Production Code, a legs-only tribute to Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers and a  Marx Bros. version of a Chekhov short story), you will agree that there's no choreographer quite like him.

I first met Tommy in 1977 when he was in Boston secretly doctoring the ill-fated revival of Hellzapoppin' starring Jerry Lewis. He had lost his voice directing Hellzapoppin's cast of 50 in a new opening number, but somehow, through a combination of whispering, pantomiming, and scribbling on a scratch-and-lift board, he managed to tell me the story of his life.

Born and raised in Houston, he studied tap and ballet as a child and acting and directing in college before moving to New York, where he immediately landed a job touring in Irma La Douce. Lots of summer stock, lots of tours, three Broadway shows (including A Joyful Noise, Michael Bennett's first choreography credit). A bit part in the film of Hello, Dolly! got him a gig singing and dancing with the Golddiggers on The Dean Martin Show, from which he was saved by Ken Russell, who wrote a part for him in the still-underrated The Boy Friend -- just as Michael Bennett created the role in Seesaw just for him. It was through Robin Wagner, the scene designer for Seesaw, that he met Even Merriam and ended up directing The Club.

Meanwhile, he made a 10-minute movie with Marge Champion called Hollywood Boulevard, acted in a dreadful Italian movie called Mimi Bluette with Monica Vitti and Shelley Winters (never released in the U.S.), created a cabaret act that bombed at the Village Gate, and commissioned a one-man musical based on The Legend of Sleepy Hollow called Ichabod, which quietly put out of its misery after a brief run in Boston (as was, of course, Hellzapoppin'). Even a guy as talented and as euphoniously titled as Tommy Tune doesn't have an infallible Midas Touch.

"I used to think the main thing was to become a star," he told me then (or mouthed, or scribbled, or something). "But once you start getting some success in one field, you start to change and take yourself seriously. But life is not serious, and I know that. It's to be enjoyed."

Three and a half years later, at his apartment on 55th Street, Tommy greets me wearing a cool, bright white smock and slacks. He's tall, dark and handsome -- and charming as ever. "Watch this," he says. He turns his back and walks slowly and carefully in a straight line the length of his hallway and pirouettes for approval. "This is the first day I've been able to walk without limping," he crows as we settle onto cushions ("I'm not much for furniture -- it doesn't fit me") in a living room that looks like a dream sequence from Lady in the Dark with its desert-orange pastels and wall-sized mirror.

How do you like being a "director-choreographer," being a Bob Fosse instead of a performer? "I've not given up the other. I would like not to get into the trap that director-choreographers get pushed into on Broadway, where you go from show to show to show and wear yourself out, like the man in All That Jazz. I think the healthiest thing for me would be what I've been doing all my life, jumping back and forth over the footlights doing a variety of things within the only thing I know, which is theater. It's the only thing I know how to do."

But in the theater he knows how to do everything. Hollywood/Ukraine boasts the densest, wittiest and yet most economical musical staging in recent memory. When the show was originally done in London, the first half was just a suite of songs saluting the silver screen, performed before a gray backdrop. Tune has transformed it into a gala lecture-demonstration by moviehouse ushers, set in the lobby of the Grauman's Chinese Theater, doing just about everything you can possibly do onstage in an hour with six revolving doors and portholes, a piano, cardboard cutouts and an uncommonly versatile cast. The second half, Dick Vosburgh's hilarious Marxist adaptation of Chkehov's "The Bear" is "all choreography," says Tune.

"Nobody reads it as that, but A Night in the Ukraine is the closest thing I'll ever get to doing a ballet like Anthony Tudor's Lilac Garden or Leonid Massine's Gaite Parisienne, which was the first theater I ever saw, the ballets in Houston."

Hollywood/Ukraine's coup de grace, however, is a number called "Famous Feet," which takes place on a Tune invention called "the ankle stage." A catwalk at the back of the stage just below the proscenium is rigged so the audience can see whoever's up there only from the knees down. Two pairs of disembodied legs perform terpsichorean take-offs on Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell, Marlene Dietrich and Charlie Chaplin, Mickey and Minnie Mouse, and -- of course -- Fred and Ginger. The Astaire-Rogers routine is at once a breathtaking tribute and a loving spoof; several times during the fancy dancing, the couple lingers in mid-air for impossibly long intervals.

"Casting was the hardest thing to do," says Tune, shuddering to remember. "After that, well, it was fun turning them loose, knowing when to shut up and when to jump in. A lot of directing is knowing when to shut up. It's quite different from being a choreographer. it's a much gentler thing and it requires a lot more concentration, more than just visual."

What's the more? "I don't know. Getting in touch with the soul? Maybe. Because in essence what we have to offer in the theater is humanity. It's humans, in living 3-D. And that means getting through to the heart and soul and helping an actor to let that come out of the eyes. Choreographers are much bossier than a director can be. The choreographer in me can be quite bossy; the director has to coax. You can't demand somebody cry of 'feel this.' You can demand that they hit second position with the toe pointed on the count of seven. It's exact, and acting isn't."

The inventiveness that pervades every aspect of Hollywood/Ukraine is a Tommy Tune trademark. So is the flair for pure, That's Entertainment glamor. But Tune also has a subversive streak in him, a relish for sex-role satire that appears in Hollywood/Ukraine perhaps only in the unconventional casting of actress Priscilla Lopez as Harpo Marx. That satirical impulse was out in full force, however, for The Club. The way Tune's all-female "gentlemen" tugged at their trouser creases, flourished cigars, and laughed among themselves in eerie resemblance to their real-life counterparts proved that what we consider sex-related mannerisms can be -- perhaps must be -- learned, and unlearned.

But Tune's choreography for The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas is, in a way, even more subversive, if only because it has a mass audience. Whorehouse is the Broadway musical based on the true story of the Chicken Ranch, an old-fashioned, small-town bordello in Texas that flourished for over a century until a crusading, moralistic TV personality waged a successful campaign in 1973 to shut it down. In the show's most scathing number, "Angelette March" (a devastating parody of the Dallas Cowboys' jiggling cheerleaders), six all-American beauties perform a precision routine, each supporting on either arm a life-sized doll made of crepe paper and tinfoil. Once they get going, you can't tell the real women from the ones with pink balloons for tits and asses; by contrast, the Chicken Ranch's working girls look, in their regulation ballroom gowns, like Sunday school teachers. And only a long tall Texas like Tune could have devised the show-stopping "Aggie Song," a loose-limbed and genuinely sexy tap dance performed by a bare-chested football team in cowboy boots.

I ask Tune to tell me how he made up these dances. "Well, for the Angelettes number we were going to do a sort of drilling tribute tot he Chicken Ranch -- you know how they make pictures of things during halftime at football games? But when we got to that point, there were only 10 girls available and I needed 16, so I said I can't do it. I didn't want to let the idea go, but I didn't know what else to do.

"Meanwhile, I had sent our stage manager down to 42nd Street to get me all sorts of sex games and objects and devices, because I was working on a number called 'Two Blocks from the Capitol Building.' It was about all the kinky sex you could get on this whole seamy street in Austin as opposed to this simple, clean, pristine little whorehouse out in rural Texas. That number got cut -- it was just too seamy -- but I had all these trinkets. And among them were these two inflatable dolls -- they call them Love Dolls, you know, with artificial vaginas and mouths and everything? So I inflated these dolls and I was holding one on each arm, and I looked in the mirror and started dancing with them. Suddenly, I thought, my God, that's how we can do the Angelettes!

"The point we were making eventually is that these girls on television are coarser and more vulgar and showing more to American on the TV set -- and it's being accepted -- than Miss Mona would allow her girls to do in public at the whorehouse. That's the double standard that is so easily recognizable in Texas and in America. Also, if you were coming to see a show called The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, you would expect to see all sort of lascivious writhing by the girls in the house, and we didn't choose to do that. The most flesh that we show in the show is really in the locker room with the guys. We were saying that football players make their living with their bodies, too. It's gonna be even clearer in the film, because in the Aggie number we're gonna flip back and forth between the Aggies in the shower and the girls at the whorehouse in the shower getting ready for the Aggies to come."

The film, which will star Burt Reynolds and Dolly Parton, is still in the planning stages, says Tune. "We found a perfect whorehouse outside Pfluegerville, near Hutto. But I can't figure out how to get these Aggies dancing in the movie." Musicals are so resistant to film's realism. "Yeah. When you get the dirt on the potato, it's hard to make curlicues out of it." Oh really? "That's a proverb -- the problem of film musicals in a nutshell."

As the interview winds down, Tune waxes philosophical. "Every job that I've done in the past five years," he confides, "I've realized that you have to go in on the first day of rehearsal with a clean slate. You have to render yourself talentless. you have to give up all things you've done before, all laurels, all previous awards that you've won, good reviews aht have given you courage to go on -- you have to forget all that. You have to erase it all clean and start as the architect starts with one brick on a level piece of ground."

I get up to go, and he starts to show me out. "Oh, wait, I wanted to show you something that I got this morning." It's a telegram: DEAR TOMMY, CONGRATULATIONS TO YOU TOMMY ON YOUR TONY AWARD WIN, MUCH LOVE, GINGER ROGERS.

"Isn't that heaven," sighs Tommy Tune. "That is the thrill of show business."

Soho News, July 2, 1980