Tommy Tune at Cafe Carlyle, but belongs back on Broadway

Tommy Tune joked at the Café Carlyle the other night that he's 5 foot 17 and 3/4 inches tall.

Think about it. It's a verbal sight gag.

The long, tall Texan also did lots of exuberant, exquisitely smooth and intricate tap-dancing in the supper-club cabaret where the floor is so low that no one beyond the front tables could see his feet.

Imagine it. Virtuosic footwork for the ears.

Tune, who earned nine Tonys for performing, directing and choreographing from 1974 to 1991, has not made a musical for Broadway in 20 years. The theater deeply misses his wit, his dazzle, his sly originality -- whether or not the new generation of people who need to know it know it.

So what a pleasure to watch him perform his autobiographical show, "More Taps, Tunes and Tall Tales," which closed its two-week run May 3. (He'll be at Adelphi University Performing Arts Center in Garden City on May 10.) There he was, 75, still leading-man handsome with the spirit of an eternal chorus boy, making his debut at the posh Carlyle in a red-red stretch-limo of a suit with Mad Hatter collar and cuffs. He remains a master stylist, a man with wit and a vision that manages to be both sweeping and intimate.

He entered singing about having "the feel-too-good-today blues" and wore his heart on his sleeve about a heartbreak. He wistfully faced the passing years with us in "September Song," and made us feel awful with him about having lost all his journals and photos when Sandy flooded the basement of the Upper West Side studio where he paints.

He still has his tangential, italicized, seemingly guileless way of talking, flashing his I-love-to-dance smile and, in one whoop, made the whole audience feel part of his close circle of friends. He talked about all his legendary dance partners -- from Gwen Verdon to Twiggy -- and remembered getting his first chorus job at his first audition on his first day in New York by singing "You Gotta Have Heart."

What he did not address was his disappearance from Broadway after making an indelible imprint with such unpredictable hits as "Nine," "My One and Only" and "Grand Hotel."

He is, after all, the last of his generation of dance-driven Broadway visionaries who defined the modern American musical from the '60s through the '80s. His colleagues who began as hoofers -- Jerome Robbins, Michael Bennett, Bob Fosse, Gower Champion -- are dead. Our new generation has its stars, including Susan Stroman and Casey Nicholaw, but that doesn't replace what has been lost.

I realized in a phone interview the morning after the Carlyle show that Tune, for all his charming, wide-open personality, doesn't easily talk about his absence from Broadway. "I don't spend time missing things I don't have," he said without a hint of defensiveness. "That is counterproductive."

He explained how much he misses all his collaborators and producers who have since "gone on to some great show business in heaven" -- people with whom he used to be able to create in the "shortcut language we developed through the years."

When pressed, he also admitted to seeing "a seismic shift in the tone of Broadway musicals. I'd love to do something if I came up with a wonderful idea for a project that really spoke to me.... But I don't know that, in my heart and soul, I am equipped for this loud, almost aggressive tone.

"I always admired shows in which you slightly lean forward to enter its world. But so many push me into the back of my seat." He said he and his friend director Mike Nichols ask why so many plays "are hollering at us. I can hear them. There is so much false energy. And I'm very allergic to false energy."

Not surprisingly, he is similarly allergic to the voices being celebrated on reality TV. "They are less about what's being expressed than the volume of the sound," he grumbled. "What are we singing about? Just producing a sound ain't it."

Before anyone dares to dismiss Tune as old news, let's remember that "My One and Only," which used Gershwin songs in 1983, virtually invented one popular form of the jukebox musical. "We didn't know we were inventing a genre," he said, bemused, about the show that got him Tonys for his acting and his choreography.

He was gender-bending as early as 1976 in his Obie-winning direction of "The Club," a Victorian musical revue sung by women in gentlemen's clothing. In his celebrated 1981 Off-Broadway staging of Caryl Churchill's "Cloud Nine," there were men playing wives and women playing sons.

"I'm a little bit tired of it now," he said. "Another drag show? I think that's been exhausted."

One need not have loved all of Tune's big shows ("The Will Rogers Follies," anyone?), but the results were always full of new ideas, breezy and seriously original. How many directors have since used his 1979 brainstorm from "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas," when he turned six cheerleaders into 18 by hitching each live woman to a couple of buxom, life-size dolls with Slinkies for limbs?

"Every play invented something new, something new that never had been on the planet before," he said, explaining, not boasting. "There was no formula."

Or, as Michael Bennett once said about him, "lots of directors can referee a production and put reality on the stage. Tommy puts heightened reality onstage."

Apropos of height, the stage at the Carlyle had to be removed after he hit his head on a beam. Tune, who has been busy doing concerts and shows around the world for years, said the small cabaret is a "whole new thing for me. It's like playing in a living room, which takes me back to when I was a child in my first performance venue -- my living room." That was in Houston, where his father was a horse trainer whose work with gaits, Tune swears, "made me become a choreographer."

"My parents would invite friends over, make daiquiris and personally roll up the rug. And my father would say, 'Give 'em all the arms and legs!' That's what he called my dancing."

He is still giving all the arms and legs, and it's still extraordinary. But what we need from him now is a show.