Even over the phone from his home in New York, Tommy Tune’s excitement is contagious.
“Carol Channing is one of the greats of theater,” says the nine-time Tony Award-winning performer, director, and choreographer. “The fact that she’s willing to schlep across country and sit on stage and talk to me shows how full of life and love she is, and how eager she is to share it.”
Channing, best known for originating the role of Dolly Levi in Jerry Herman’s musical, “Hello, Dolly!,” will appear in Provincetown’s Town Hall on Thursday for “An Evening With Carol Channing & Tommy Tune,” as part of the Crown and Anchor series. Channing, the iconic platinum blonde with saucer-sized eyes, an even larger smile, and a distinctly throaty voice, first achieved fame in the Broadway production of “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” (a role Marilyn Monroe played in the film), and she earned an Oscar nomination for her role in “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” as well as a Tony for “Hello, Dolly!”
Thursday’s appearance will not be a performance, just a conversation. At 93, Channing says there are no roles she’s still interested in playing. “I’m enjoying just being me right now,” she says via
e-mail. “It’s a whole lot easier. I get applause for just telling people my age.”
Tune says the format will be fairly relaxed. “I’m inviting people to send questions via the Internet,” he says. “I know what I want to hear her talk about, but I’ve known her since I was 17 and don’t want to ask too many obscure questions.”
Channing and Tune, 75, met when he was working his first job for Dallas Summer Musicals, which presents Broadway shows in his native Texas. “She was booked for a week in ‘Show Girl,’ ” says Tune, “and when I saw this tall, gorgeous blonde stride onstage singing, I was smitten. And we’ve been friends ever since.”
Says Channing, “Tommy and I have a bond that is very special. We had an immediate connection when we met years ago in Texas. I fell in love with his mother, and Tommy became my spiritual godson.”
Over the years, Tune says, Channing is the person he turns to for advice before he makes any big decisions, whether it was how to play Vegas (“You must start with the finale and go up from there”), sartorial suggestions (“Always dress up. It shows the audience you think they’re important”), or how to be interviewed by a journalist (“Decide exactly what you want to talk about and stick to it”).
Channing says she hasn’t really mothered too many other aspiring performers but, she says, “When you travel and work that closely with people, you become a family of sorts. You care for and worry about them.”
Tune says he and Channing come from the old school of theatrical touring. “I always say that theater is a blue-collar job,” he says. “It’s almost a religious ritual when you sign up for the living theater. You have to dedicate your life to it. That discipline is what she inspires.”
Both Tune and Channing agree that the commitment to learning and rehearsing pays off when what they do looks easy to an audience. “It takes a lot of work and rehearsal to appear to be winging it,” says Channing. “I was fortunate enough to be in 10 Broadway shows, and three were smash hit musicals. Between the out-of-town tryout and opening night on Broadway . . . well, I don’t think any of us slept for weeks.”
For “Hello Dolly!,” she says, “Poor Jerry [Herman] was working on music until all hours. When he finished “The Parade Passes By,” he called me in my room around 1 a.m. and we went over it for a couple hours, and then woke poor Gower [Champion, the director] up at 3 a.m. to come listen.”
Still, Channing, with her distinctive style, is a performer whose persona dominates a role rather than one who disappears into a character.
“I don’t know that any person is the character, as much as we bring ourselves to the role,” Channing says. “Dolly has been played by many wonderful women, who did great jobs by bringing themselves into their idea of Dolly. Oh, Pearl Bailey! She was wonderful. When Marilyn played Lorelei in ‘Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,’ she was wonderful, because she made the character her own. She didn’t do it anything like the portrayal I did on Broadway . . . and they made her watch me every night for two weeks, second row center.”
‘It’s almost a religious ritual when you sign up for the living theater. You have to dedicate your life to it. That discipline is what she inspires.’
Tune laughs at the suggestion that Channing would disappear into a role. “She’s an original,” he says. “The word ‘unique’ applies to her and Louis Armstrong more than anyone else I know.”Terry Byrne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.