‘Happy Birthday, Tommy Tune’: why Jane Fonda’s Golden Globes speech included a Broadway shout-out

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Marianka Swain
·5 min read
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Jane Fonda mentioned musical theatre legend Tommy Tune while accepting the Cecil B DeMille Award last night - NBC/Reuters
Jane Fonda mentioned musical theatre legend Tommy Tune while accepting the Cecil B DeMille Award last night - NBC/Reuters

Of all the surreal moments at last night’s Golden Globes - and there were many - perhaps one of the most bewildering nonsequiturs came at the end of Jane Fonda’s acceptance speech, when, apropos of nothing, she wished the musical theatre legend Tommy Tune a happy birthday.

The actress and activist, who was awarded the prestigious Cecil B. DeMille Award, gave a powerful address advocating for more inclusion in film and TV - a rebuke to the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, which has been criticised for its nearly all-white membership and ethically dubious practices. Fonda made sure to mention I May Destroy You, glaringly absent from the list of nominees.

That made perfect sense: there has been furious discussion about the unfair snub of Michaela Coel’s groundbreaking series. More startling was the jump from Fonda’s concluding argument that art hasn’t just been in step with history, but “has led the way”, to her final line: “And Happy Birthday, Tommy Tune!”

Hosts Tina Fey and Amy Poehler were obviously tickled by this unexplained sign-off, adopting it themselves as they ended the chaotic ceremony. Expect a host of jokers to follow suit in every Zoom meeting today. It’s the new “You have no authority here, Jackie Weaver.”

But how exactly did song-and-dance man Tune earn this shout-out? It was, indeed, his 82nd birthday yesterday. No argument there. But why, and again...why?

Song-and-dance man Tommy Tune has won 10 Tony Awards for acting, directing and choreography - Franco Lacosta
Song-and-dance man Tommy Tune has won 10 Tony Awards for acting, directing and choreography - Franco Lacosta

Unlike Coel, Tune didn’t have any work up for awards this year. In fact, his last gong was back in 2015, when he won the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Tonys; since then, he’s essentially been in retirement. Vulture quipped that perhaps Tune’s birth is “the one grounding factor that should hold us all together right now - the thing that unites us in the face of darkness, adversity, and Golden-Globes-induced entropy.”

Tune is certainly a stalwart of awards shows, having picked up 10 Tonys for his acting, directing and choreography. He’s the only person to win in the same two categories - Best Choreography and Best Direction of a Musical - in consecutive years, winning for Grand Hotel in 1990 and The Will Rogers Follies in 1991. He also has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

A well-liked hoofer and showbiz survivor, Tune was born in Texas in 1939, and initially had trouble scoring roles because of his unusual six-and-a-half-foot height. He wore horizontally striped clothing to auditions or danced upstage to create the illusion that he was shorter.

Tune made his Broadway debut in 1965 in musical Baker Street, and won his first Tony for Seesaw - directed by his close friend and mentor Michael Bennett (of A Chorus Line fame). Tune then went on to direct shows like the original production of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (later a film starring Dolly Parton), and musical Nine, based on the Federico Fellini film 8½. He helmed some flops, too, such as 2008 musical Turn of the Century, which only lasted two weeks.

Although primarily known for his stage work - and particularly his virtuosic tap dancing - Tune has made screen appearances too. On TV, he was a guest star and assistant choreographer for The Dean Martin Show, and he appeared in film musicals like the Twiggy-starring The Boy Friend and Hello, Dolly!. He and Twiggy reunited on stage in My One and Only.

Tune also popped up in the Netflix revival of Arrested Development, playing the younger brother of Liza Minnelli’s Lucille Austero. Appropriately, Tune’s character was an avid musical theatre fan.

Back on stage, Tune created a musical revue about his life, Steps in Time, and made a special appearance in 2015’s Encores! at New York’s City Center - his last performance to date. He’s a mentor to future generations of talent, too, with his own annual Tommy Tune Awards, celebrating excellence in high school musical theatre in Houston, Texas.

Perhaps it’s the latter work that made Fonda think of Tune as she grasped her Golden Globe Award. Or sympathy for those stage performers who, unlike many of their screen counterparts, have had little work during the pandemic - let alone awards ceremonies (the 2020 Tony Awards was postponed, and organisers still have yet to announce a date for this year).

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And yet even this doesn’t really fit with a shout-out to Tune, who would hardly be up for Tonys either. He’s more of a nostalgic figure, evoking George Gershwin, Cole Porter, vaudevillian slapstick, Fred Astaire-like nonchalant tapping, and soaring Broadway melodies.

Instead, the connection seems to be far more personal. In 2015, Fonda tweeted that she was having dinner in Miami with Tune, “a very cool guy”, and in a 2017 interview with Haute Living, Tune said that Fonda is “a very good friend of mine”. When Fonda discovered that Tune didn’t have Netflix, “she got it for me.” A friendship strengthened by Netflix binge-watching? That’s definitely on brand for the Globes.

Tune is also the embodiment of escapism via entertainment. Per one number in his 1992 revue Tommy Tune Tonite!, he represents a world where it’s possible to Tap Your Troubles Away. Although not all of the Golden Globe winners were quite that dreamy, this has certainly been a year where we’ve all turned to TV and films for relief and catharsis.

So, why not? It’s a message that makes about as much sense as everything else in the world right now. Happy Birthday, Tommy Tune!