Digging Disco Again

Tommy Tune’s newest show—a glittering trip back to Studio 54—debuts with help from an all-student cast and some memorable ghosts of disco past.

Liza, Liz, and Truman get cameos in Fifty*Four*Forever, a musical about the Manhattan nightclub opened by Steve Rubell (student Kyle Axman, top row, far left).


In the weeks leading up to the launch of a new musical about legendary 1970s nightclub Studio 54, nine-time Tony Award winner Tommy Tune is his usual unflappable self.

“To create a show from scratch is not easy, but the kids in the UM theatre department are quick, hip, and great to work with. I’d love to do it again sometime,” the veteran of such Broadway smashes as The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas says of the 26-member undergraduate troupe he’s been directing in preparation for the debut of Fifty*Four*Forever at the Jerry Herman Ring Theatre.

“The history of Studio 54, to them, is like an archaeological dig, excavating the pyramids. These characters are new to many of them: Truman Capote, Liza Minnelli, Halston,” he says. “But they’re so plugged in to everything now, with their YouTube and Google, carrying around a whole library in their phones. They’re finding out what we all knew in the 1970s—the disco music of that era is totally irresistible.”

Musical theatre major Elizabeth Nestlerode, B.F.A. ’12, cast as a “Jersey Girl” trying to penetrate Studio’s ultra-selective velvet ropes, says being taught to do the hustle by Tune himself, whose Broadway dance career began in 1965, is, in a word, “amazing.”

During a rehearsal break, Sammy Courtright, B.F.A. ’12, observes that being surrounded by daily doses of infectious songs like “Funkytown” has given her a sense of wistfulness, nostalgia for an era of dissipation she missed by virtue of not being born yet. “It seems like nightlife was a little more coherent back then,” says the musical theatre major from Australia.

Courtright plays Sir, a scheming government temptress who recruits a handsome character named Casanova to infiltrate the wildly successful Studio 54 and gather evidence for an investigation of owner Steve Rubell, who has a habit of depositing trash bags full of cash behind the walls of his office.

The show’s writer, Mark Saltzman (The Tin Pan Alley Rag, among other projects), remembers Studio 54 firsthand, and Tune’s concept for a musical version of the story gave him a chance to re-create pop history.

“Back then, Steve Rubell was portrayed as a spawn of evil in the media, a Lord of the Underworld,” Saltzman notes of the Studio 54 creator. (In 1979 Rubell and his business partner Ian Schrager pleaded guilty to tax evasion and served 13 months in prison.)

“But Rubell was also a kind of Jay Gatsby character who made history in the short 33 months the club was open,” Saltzman adds. “Now, with autograph hounds, paparazzi, and camera phones, that kind of democracy among beautiful people would be very difficult to find.”  

Tommy Tune and David Warren Gibson at the premiere of Fifty*Four*Forever
The University of Miami was a good fit for Tune’s Studio 54 project, says Henry Fonte, the Ring Theatre’s producing artistic director and chair of the Department of Theatre Arts. “Tommy had been working on this for a while and wanted somewhere to develop the piece in workshop before going on to a try at New York,” explains Fonte, who joined UM in 2010 from The Hartt School, where he founded its New Works Development Program as well as a student training initiative with the prestigious Goodspeed Musicals. “Since he [Tune] has a place on Miami Beach, UM made a lot of sense. Fifty*Four*Forever is also a musical about youth and dancing, full of young characters and perfect for our students.”

In 2011 Fonte’s students also had the chance to work with Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Nilo Cruz. “Thankfully, President Shalala and Dean Bachas at the College of Arts and Sciences are big supporters of projects like this,” he adds.

Fifty*Four*Forever’s opening night—like the opening of Studio 54 in 1977—was pure spectacle, flash, and fun, attracting The New York Times and other media, as well as producers invited by Tune. Cast members dressed in identical red satin jumpsuits helped patrons to their seats before the opening dance number, choreographed to “The Hustle.”

In just over an hour, the one-act show revived other standards such as “Stayin’ Alive” and “YMCA.” And Donna Summer’s “Love to Love You Baby” accompanied a pushing-the-limits routine—a mass of entangled bodies writhing orgy-like on the dance floor.

A post-premiere reception in the Ring courtyard included a giant cake topped with the show’s trademark image: a woman licking a mirrored disco-ball lollipop. Tommy Tune and company bounded into the party like an all-star team. The seniors, about to face working life ahead of their cast mates, were asked to cut the cake first, a nice theatrical touch.

Longtime Tune collaborator David Warren Gibson, who served as associate director and choreographer, was thoroughly pleased with the young cast. “These kids in the show are so damn brave,” he says. “They’ll do anything, and they’re so open, available, and unjaded.”

Watching the students revel in the aftermath of their full-house debut, Tune, wearing white pants, sneakers, and a denim blazer, is in his usual good form, one big perky kid.

“When I was going to Studio 54 a lot, I was on Broadway and I’d drop by Studio after the show. Back then, I also lived across the hall from Steve Rubell, at 145 West 55th Street. The scene was like a drug, to be dancing next to Rudolf Nureyev and Liz Taylor, or just Disco Sally and Rollerina,” he muses. “Now I live on South Beach, in my quiet getaway, but it’s a circus outside, a nightclub that never ends, just like Studio 54.”

Fifty*Four*Forever, conceived and directed by Tommy Tune, appeared at the Ring Theatre last November. For upcoming shows, visit www.as.miami.edu/theatrearts/ring.html.