Maurice Hines’ new Alliance Theatre production could very easily be called My Favorite Things. Besides offering up tales about the entertainer’s decades working in show business, the production pays tribute to his family (including brother Gregory) and key influences throughout his life.
Running through May 4 at the Alliance, Maurice Hines Is Tappin’ Thru Life sports a supporting cast that includes Leo and John Manzari from Washington, D.C., tap performers/brothers who are stage veterans from TV’s So You Think You Can Dance, and 10-year-old Atlanta dancer Leilani Negron. It’s directed by Jeff Calhoun, who recently launched the Tony-winning Broadway musical Newsies. Yet the undisputed star is Hines himself.
Now 70, Hines began studying tap at age five in New York City with younger brother Gregory. The two often performed together — such as in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Cotton Club — but made their own Broadway marks, with Maurice grabbing a Tony nomination for Uptown . . . It’s Hot! Gregory, a noted film star who received a Tony for Best Actor in a Musical for Jelly’s Last Jam in 1992, passed away in 2003.
The impetus for this gig was reading an article on tap that didn’t mention Gregory Hines. “It got me very, very upset,” says Hines. “It was a long article. After Gregory had gotten (National) Tap Dance Day with Congress and everything else, I could not believe it. One of the greatest talents I ever saw was my brother. I started talking about it in the act I was doing at the time.”
He did some shows later in Boca Raton, Florida, and began to incorporate family pictures his late mother had left him into the act. When he began collaborating with Calhoun, the production found direction. “It wasn’t until Jeff [Calhoun] came in that we really put it together the way it is now — more meaningful, much more logical and narrative,” Hines says. “It has given us a chance to expound wonderful stories about my brother and also my mother. The show has evolved into a love letter to my mother. She was there nurturing us — she had three jobs, took us to dance lessons. She was really the giant of my life. In the end, when I usually sing ‘Too Marvelous For Words,’ Jeff said, ‘Why don’t you sing it to your mother?’”
His mother taught Hines never to take audiences for granted, but it wasn’t just his mother that educated the brothers. “My father sat us down and said, ‘When you are in the company of the Ellas [Fitzgerald] and the Lenas [Horne] and the [Harry] Belafontes, you got nothing to say. You know nothing. Sit there and learn from those giants.’ I am channeling the Sammy Davis Jrs., the Billy Eckstines, the Josephine Bakers, all the people we met, because without them there would be no me or Gregory.”
Although he’s directed, choreographed and recorded songs, it’s as an old-school performer that he feels most welcome. “It’s a mean, hateful business; it’s political and all that stuff the audience doesn’t know about, but we continue on,” he says. “In theater we don’t make the money you do in movies and television. Why do we do it? We do it for the love of it. I love to see the audience, see them react.”
Hines is especially proud of the new faces in the Alliance production, particularly the Manzari brothers. “It’s wonderful, because I get a chance to work with these two gentlemen I discovered when I was in Washington doing Sophisticated Ladies and then to find new, young talent like I found here,” he says. “I am not interested in mediocrity. Nothing around me is that way. Gregory and I were raised that way.”
He was admittedly disappointed in the local auditions. “Everyone was doing the same thing,” he says. “It was like the same teacher. I saw effects — being cutesy, not being real, not being little kids. These two were little girls [including understudy Maika Takemoto] and they danced like that. That’s what we wanted.”
Seeing a legend in action is what Calhoun feels the production is about. “There is no one who does what these gentlemen do, especially Maurice,” he says. “I was asked to do it, to be part of this lineage, this legend. Absolutely — that is why I am here. I want to hear about times before I was born. That is what you get from this. You really get a musical time capsule. [Maurice’s] tongue is as facile as his feet. So the stories are just as good as the great numbers. Truly, Maurice is the last of the song and dance men.”
The story is told through the feet of two young tap dancers, brothers John and Leo Manzari, and Hines has gladly acted as a mentor. “I thought that John, being the older, I was going to see me in John and Gregory in Leo,” he says. “Just the opposite. Leo is more like me — sweet, nice. John is more acerbic.” Tap-wise, he calls the two the greatest he’s seen today, on par with Savion Glover, able to improvise quickly, a la Gregory. Hines doesn’t dance a lot with them and jokes they want to do improvisations so “they can hurt me.”
What this younger set of brothers has learned from Hines is more than dance techniques.
“Through him, we have learned about Gregory,” John Manzari says. “Not only do we look up to Maurice, but to Gregory. Through his stories, Gregory lives.”
Leo Manzari first met Hines when he was a freshman in high school (he graduated last June). “Tap dancing is an art form that should be appreciated and respected,” he says. “Mr. Hines gave us newfound respect for the dance. Behind the scenes, he says show business is tough. Sometimes you want to go onstage and do your greatest; sometimes political stuff doesn’t enable you to do that. You need to learn to deal with that. Mr. Hines has had our backs.”
Hines agrees with Leo that tap is not as respected as other dance disciplines. “Tap, for some reason, maybe because it looks so much fun, it doesn’t get the respect of ballet or contemporary or modern or even African dance. But we will insist on it. That is my brother’s legacy, too.”
Hines is still able to command a stage, in part because he’s learned to eliminate stress from his life. “A lot of my contemporaries have stopped,” he says. “Debbie Allen calls me a freak of nature. I can’t do what I did at 24. I have a groin pull dancing with these two [Manzari brothers]. I can still do this at 70, but you have to eliminate all that stuff.”