In a world where top box office draws routinely whine about the rigors of life in four-star hotels and private jets, one has to wonder why Tony Award-winning actor/director/choreographer Tommy Tune would agree to 6 1/2 months in a touring production. But the 67-year-old Broadway legend has his reasons for directing and starring in “Dr. Dolittle,” a new musical based on the 1967 movie of the same name opening for a 16-show run at the Palace Theatre April 18.
First, like Dolittle, Tune talks to animals — well, at least to his dog, Little Schubert. (The man has even dressed his Yorkshire terrier in a camouflage T-shirt to ensure he isn’t attacked by turkey vultures circling his Palm Springs bungalow). And unlike many of his contemporaries, Tune actually enjoys touring, an attitude he credits to his “theatrical godmother,” Carol Channing.
“She saw a hit show that I was in on Broadway, and she said, ‘Are you going to take it on the road?’ ” Tune remembers. Even as a youngster, he thought the road was no place for “top-rates.” But Channing persuaded him otherwise.
A more compelling reason for accepting the challenge (producers brought Tune aboard to revamp the show when it closed after just nine weeks of what one trade publication described as “lackluster business”) was his 3-year-old godson, Luca. When Tune decided it was time to introduce the child to the theater, he couldn’t find a production he thought was appropriate.
“I knew he couldn’t make it through a long show with an intermission because I didn’t know what to do with him at intermission,” he explains. “I’m not a professional parent — I only do the spiritual side of it! So when ‘Dr. Dolittle’ came up, I thought, Aha! This is a show that I can make to introduce Luca to the theater. And in doing that, I betcha I can introduce a lot of other young people to the theater, too.”
Tune’s own interest in the arts was piqued when his aunt took him to the ballet in his native Houston when he was 7. “That unlocked my imagination,” he remembers. In 1965, he debuted on Broadway in the chorus of “Baker Street.” Nine years later, he won his first Tony for best featured actor in a musical for his work in “Seesaw.” He went on to collect the award eight more times, including unprecedented back-to-back wins for best choreography and best direction in “Grand Hotel, The Musical” (1990) and “The Will Rogers Follies” (1991).
As director of “Dr. Dolittle,” Tune has hired a new cast and trimmed the musical to an attention-span-friendly 90 minutes. “I’m still working on it — I never stop,” he says. “It’s a living thing.” He drew inspiration for the task from his paintings, including renderings of elephants, giraffes, goldfish, butterflies and flamingos. “Every show that I’ve ever directed, I’ve painted first,” he says. “That’s how I can keep it in order and figure out where I should go or what I want to see next.” But Tune isn’t cloistering himself in an artist’s studio while he’s on the road.
“I experience one thing in the city every day throughout the show — the art museum, the botanical gardens, whatever the city has to offer,” he says. “It feeds my performance. What you take in during the day is what you have to give back at night.”
“Dr. Dolittle” will be at the Palace Theatre from April 18 to 30. For tickets, visit www.playhousesquare.com or call Playhouse Square at (216) 241-6000.