Just where has Tommy Tune been all these years? He disappeared from Broadway in self-imposed exile following the failure of The Best Little Whorehouse Goes Public in 1994 and the abrupt out-of-town closure of the Broadway-bound Busker Alley in 1995. Given his dazzling gifts as performer and director, such exile seems wasteful, if not downright criminal. I’ve long admired Tune’s magic touch - be it the choreographed chairs of Grand Hotel or the Ziegfeldian glitz of The Will Rogers Follies – and hoped for the day he would return to Broadway with a new musical.
And now Tommy Tune is back with a new show, although Fifty*Four*Forever is definitely still under construction. The production I saw featured student actors, ran a scant 70 minutes, and lasted for only a 10-day limited engagement at The University of Miami’s Jerry Herman Ring Theatre. Figuring that even bare-bones Tune is better than no Tune at all, I lept at the opportunity.
The show’s concept sounds like musical-theater gold: a celebration of the riotous party haven that was Studio 54 during its 1970s heyday. There’s ample opportunity for stylized dance in kitschy costumes; a little sex and drugs will add spice; nostalgia should draw an older audience; and who doesn’t secretly relish a titillating glimpse into the lives of the rich and famous? It’s a bit surprising this milieu, to my knowledge, has not been mined for its stage potential before.
Why then, is Fifty*Four*Forever such a bust?
For starters, Tune has chosen to build the entire show around the character of his friend and former NYC neighbor Steve Rubbell, the chief architect and proprietor of Studio 54. In life, Rubbell was an unsavory entrepreneur jailed for tax evasion and released early only for “naming names” of other club owners involved in tax fraud. This kind of dramatic choice lands us squarely in the province of the antihero, an eminent starting point for an ambitious musical drama, but a perilous choice when staging a disco spectacular. For such a choice to work, the creators must have an audience empathize with the character and share his journey. Unfortunately, Fifty*Four, at least as currently configured, never accomplishes this feat, choosing instead to substitute glitz for content and stereotype for individuality.
Bookwriter Mark Saltzman (The Tin Pan Alley Rag) concocts a hackneyed tale of corrupted innocence, a sort of “How did you get there from here, Mr. Shepard?” only without the benefit of a Sondheim score. The plot is bookended with scenes depicting Rubbell’s trial for tax evasion during which he intones Peter Allen’s “All I Wanted Was The Dream” as his defense. The remainder of the story is told in a lengthy flashback. In broad, swift strokes we are shown Rubbell forming his first dance club, meeting his future collaborators, converting an abandoned theatre into the fabled Studio 54, and throwing a wild opening night debauch populated by the likes of Liza, Liz, and Tru. The Studio is awash in sex, drugs, and gobs of money - literal Hefty bags stuffed with cash and crammed into the club walls.
Naturally, the IRS becomes interested in all this filthy lucre. Enter Agent Brown, a smoldering Cuban shown trysting with his equally sensuous female boss in a mesmerizing dance of seduction…on the stripper pole conveniently located in her office. The “Pole Seduction” is the closest this show comes to an actual Tommy Tune signature moment and it’s a dilly: about as tasteful a pole dance as you’re likely to encounter, but still - a pole dance at the IRS?
Saltzman conjures a love triangle when Agent Brown is dispatched to Studio 54 as an undercover agent intent on obtaining access to Rubbell’s books. Brown intends to use his chiseled looks to seduce Rubbell and gain access, but guess what? They fall in love and consummate their passion in a crude orgy bathed in flashing red lights and fueled by the throbbing strains of “I Love To Love You, Baby.” Despite the hedonism, Rubbell is portrayed as an innocent, blithely unaware of the powers with which he is meddling.
Here’s the problem with this claptrap: I didn’t care a tinker’s cuss about these characters, mere underwritten marionettes spouting platitudes in rhymed couplets. Oh, did I forget to mention that? This is a verse play and everybody speaks in childish nursery rhymes (which might be described as Seussian if they displayed any intellect or wit). A verse play can work handily if your librettist is Molière, but rhymes like “Truman Capote, self-promotey” only reinforce an atmosphere of amateur juvenilia.
Predictably, Agent Brown is reluctant to give up his lover until his jealous boss fires and banishes him, but not before he suddenly and inexplicably betrays Rubbell. At this point I kept thinking how, in the right hands, this moment might have been dramatized in song and we could have identified with a character facing a difficult choice. Instead we were subjected to another disco party sequence set to “How High The Moon” featuring the iconic Man in the Moon wall sculpture that featured prominently on the wall of the Studio dance floor, complete with animated cocaine spoon. Who cares if your lover just betrayed you and you’re about to be arrested? Life’s a party. Come to the Cabaret…uh, I mean the Studio.
The show, as currently written, is about as welcome as a migraine headache. The characters are unsympathetic and the story lacks dramatic focus. Additionally, the absence of an original score is damaging. Generic disco hits may work wonders in establishing a sense of time and place, but when used to propel dramatic action, they fall tediously flat. The show contains one original song, “Lament for Three Jersey Girls” concerning a trio of schlubs forever denied access to Studio (music by Jeffrey Saver, lyrics by Stephen Cole), which is funny, theatrical, and highly effective. Why not an entire score like this?
According to a recent article in The New York Times, Tommy Tune hopes to someday mount Fifty*Four*Forever at the real Studio 54 in New York. He even invited producers to the Miami run hoping to generate interest. If the show is to have a Broadway life, however, a major overhaul is in order. The current production is simply not worthy of Mr. Tune’s talent and does nothing to enhance his legacy as one of the great Broadway showmen.