Some interviewees, once seated, need a bit of a prod to get talking. But Maurice Hines has left them all in the dust by the time I hit ‘Record.’ The renowned director, singer, and choreographer is supremely excited about Tappin’ Thru Life at Arena Stage, and our afternoon conversation at the theatre plays at high speed.
Quick-thinking, fast-talking, and brimming with youthful mischief, Hines acts like he’s turning thirty years old this December rather than seventy. But the depth and quality of his storytelling gives him away: he’s danced his way through many a decade. Discussing friends, family, fame, and his little brother (Gregory Hines passed away in 2003) feels like paying a visit to that relative who can’t help but pull photo albums down from the shelf, eager to remind you of what you’ve inherited.
Our talk, like Hines’s show itself, takes us at a brisk clip through the highlights of a remarkable life, and back to an era of showbiz not very long gone.
Hunter: Welcome back to DC!
Maurice Hines: Thanks! I love being here. And doing this show at Arena is particularly exciting. Audiences here are really into you. I’ve felt that at Arena before, doing Guys and Dolls here over ten years ago and then doing Sophisticated Ladies. It wasn’t really about whether audiences knew who I was. It’s something about the atmosphere that this place gives off.
You had a well-received run of this show up in Boston in May, and I know you’ve been working on it for a long time. What makes this project so important to you?
I’ve got to preserve Gregory. This is my chance to tell stories about how it all began and about why he was, and still is, the great Gregory Hines. So I tap in the show, but I also tell a lot of stories about him and about me. I see this as my chance to tell the personal side of things — about why I am like I am, and about coming up in show business among the greats. This is my chance to thank everyone for the role they’ve played.
You were five years old when you started learning tap, right?
And Gregory was about three.
So you’ve been learning from the greats all your life.
Gregory and I were so lucky to meet these people. Kids today, they have no idea. There’s a certain kind of show business that Gregory and I were in, and it’s missing today. Kids don’t know it’s missing. But when they see it, they like it. The older people in the audience know it, but it’s different from most everything you see today. It feels like a throwback. It’s a show business you learn from being in nightclubs.
How would you describe it?
It’s a style that’s devoid of extraneous tricks. The greats put themselves right with the audience, and their rapport with the audience was immediate. It was genuine and authentic.
The first time I saw Sammy Davis Jr. at the Apollo, he sat down on the edge of the stage with a cup of tea and he just talked. And I remember thinking: that’s what I want to do. That’s amazing. I was twelve.
That reminds me of something Ella Fitzgerald said to me. When we worked with Ella, she’d be singing 15-song shows twice a night. She was so spectacular. I remember being in her dressing room at the theatre one time. She and I were just sitting in her room, watching TV and drinking Sprite. And I ask her, ‘Ella, why don’t you use any pyrotechnics in your show, like those new kids coming up?’ And she puts her hand on her chest and she says, ‘I don’t need pyrotechnics — I got my pyrotechnics right here!’
So, that kind of show business.
That kind of show business. The kind we saw Sinatra do, and Nat King Cole. All they needed to do was wink at the audience and people would scream with joy. I was amazed. That’s rapport. The audience really feels like they know you. There’s a warmth to it. Authentic warmth.
That’s how I felt when I saw Tina Turner at Radio City. I’d seen her on TV, of course, and I loved her. But when you see her live… she’s just so grateful to be there, and so grateful that you’re there to see her. She’ll tell you as much. At her shows, she’ll say, ‘I’m so happy you’re here.’
And Harry Belafonte. Did you ever see him live? He’d walk onstage and the place would go crazy. He was so beautiful to look at. Such a wonderful performer. I got a chance to tell him recently what an influence he was on me. It was him and Nat King Cole — they showed me how to do this. How to walk onstage. How to be authentic with an audience. How to love them.
You gotta understand — there are reasons why these people are who they are. Yes, the greats are beautiful when you see them in movies and in nightclubs. But when you get to meet them and work with them — when you see how hard they work and what special work they’re doing — you see that there’s a magic to them. A special thing. The camera catches it. The audience catches it. It’s a wonderful thing.
And a lot of these greats were so nurturing to young talent. That’s what I do. I got that from them. My father once told me: When you’re around the Judy Garlands of the world, you got nothin’ to say. You just sit there and be quiet. Listen to greatness. Because they are gonna show you how to really do this.
What was it like to work with Judy Garland?
Judy was spectacular. I remember a number we did with her… I was in Heaven the whole time. I still remember everything about it. She never rehearsed, did you know that? We didn’t meet her until the moment she jumped up on the stage with us. She said, ‘Hi, I’m Judy Garland!’ And we said, ’Hi Judy!’ We introduced ourselves right there, during the act, and the audience loved it. She said, ‘You ready to do the number?’ We said, ‘Yes we are! Are you ready, Judy?’ She said, ‘I’m ready!’ And we jumped right in.
See, when kids like Judy were singing as young girls, they were singing along with the bands! The bands would say, ‘Here’s your number, now get up and sing.’ So Judy Garland could just get up there and do it. I asked Sarah Vaughan once, I said, ‘Sarah, what do you do to vocalize? You and Ella?’ She said, ‘Vocalize? We go out there and sing! We don’t vocalize!’ So I said, ‘Well, don’t you warm up your voice?’ And she said, ‘I warm it up while I’m out there!’
Can’t think of many singers who’d say that today.
Show business changes. I don’t put down singers today — it is what it is.
Are there stars today that you admire?
The only one I really love today is Lady Gaga. She is authentic! Have you seen her HBO special, from Madison Square Garden? There’s a scene where she’s at the piano, talking to some kids, and she says, ‘This next song is a ballad, and I’m singing this because my idol is here with us tonight.’ Now, the audience is thinking it’s probably gotta be Madonna or something. But who does it turn out to be? Liza Minnelli!
See, Lady Gaga went to musical theatre school. She’s a legit singer! So when she introduced Liza, I wasn’t surprised. You can change clothes onstage all you want, but the base has to be there. And she’s got the base. She’s got real talent.
You spend a lot of time teaching dancers and choreographers. Do you think that young people bring the same spirit to this work that they used to bring in bygone years?
Well, I think it’s happening more and more that kids will feel entitled to certain things. Gregory and I never felt entitled. We just felt grateful that we were in class and that we were learning.
But I remember standing in the hallway at the Ailey school talking with Judith Jamison, and one of the kids from the second company walks up to her and says, ‘I think it’s time for me to be in the first company.’ Now, Judith is a tough teacher, but she plays nice and says, ‘Do you know the repertoire?’ And the kid says, ‘Well, no, but I can learn it!’ And she’s like, ‘You can learn the Ailey repertoire? Overnight?’ This kid was totally serious. I mean, it would never have occurred to me to do that. I would never have dared to ask Alvin Ailey if I could be in the first company! Are you kidding me? Alvin Ailey?!
It’s okay that some kids give you a little attitude in class, though. You can always find the ones that really, really love to dance. Teaching at Howard last year, I felt it. Kids were loving it. They were just flyin’. And that’s good. You’ve got to love it so much that you’d do it for free. Because this career can come with a lot of disappointment and rejection along the way.
What kind of teaching style do you most value, working with these kids?
The school that really teaches the way I think you should teach is Debbie Allen’s school. I taught out there for her — we’re great friends. A lot of kids come in to take hip-hop, because there are some great hip-hop teachers there. And Debbie tells them, ‘Here’s what I require. You can take hip-hop, but you also have to take musical theatre class, so that you learn Bob Fosse and Jerome Robbins. And you take tap, and you take Horton and you take flamenco!’
I think she makes sense to them when she say this. Because she reminds them that every dance style goes down eventually. So when hip-hop goes down, how you gonna pay your rent if you can’t do nothing but hip-hop? She says, ‘They look at me like I’m crazy sometimes, because they don’t wanna take ballet. But I’ll tell you, if you take ballet — if you know your center as a dancer — then the hip-hop comes even fiercer.’
One thing you learn as a student of dance — you’ve got to go for it! There are so many good dancers there that it’s hard to stand out. You’ve got to work hard in class, because you need to be prepared to go out there and audition for the big leagues. If Jerome Robbins is sittin’ out there, you’d better give a performance! At that point, it ain’t no class anymore!
Another lesson that really sinks in once you’re challenged by the greats.
Like Jerome Robbins. Exactly. Bob Fosse. Michael Bennett. They were great men. They demanded the best from you. I tell my students: I’m not coming here for mediocrity. If you’re up on the stage with me, baby, you’d better kick my ass up there. Because I’m gonna kick yours!
Doing this show has brought the love of performing all back to me. It really has. I love choreography. I used to say that if I had to do any one thing, it’d be choreography. When I’m in a room full of dancers I’m in heaven.
Teaching requires some performing unto itself.
Sure it does. From early on, dancing was the one thing I always knew I could do. Once you know there’s something you can do, you start to get confident, because you’re starting from somewhere. It’s that ‘base’ I was talking about. So I got into ballet and jazz from there.
But the performing thing? Being an entertainer? That came later. Gregory and I taught each other what we needed to know. We were perfect together. He was laid back, because he didn’t have to worry about getting the audience. I went out there and made that happen. Then once I had ‘em hooked, he could come in from behind and do all the comedy. We were spectacular together.
I have a jacket that I wear in his honor. I bought it at Armani on Madison Avenue. I had never bought anything there before. But my brother used to wear a lot of Armani clothes. He was makin’ that movie money! Meanwhile I was in the theatre, so I was shopping at thrift stores. But when Gregory passed away, I decided that in honor of my brother I would go to Armani. So I bought this fabulous striped jacket. I wear it onstage, for him.
You’ve been performing for so long. Do you think the way that you work, and perform, is changing over time?
You do discover things about yourself. Charles Randolph-Wright saw it on stage recently. He said to me, ‘Maurice, something’s happened to you. I’ve known you a long time, and I’m seeing something different.’ I told him that yes, I could feel it too, but I didn’t know exactly what it was.
But I’ve felt it more and more recently. It’s when you suddenly think: this is what I’m supposed to do. This is how I’m supposed to really feel. It’s a feeling of pure, true confidence. And it comes authentically now. The minute I turn to the audience, it’s there. More than ever, I feel totally free.
There’s no fear. That’s what it is. There’s no fear of whether the audience is going to like me. Whether I’m gonna forget the lines or the blocking. I have absolutely no fear of anything anymore. And that’s freeing. That’s what Garland had. That’s what Ella had. Total freedom. Nothing to prove to anybody.
I’ve been doing this since I was five years old. But it took me until this past decade to start feeling that way.
Maurice Hines is Tappin’ Thru Life
Closes December 29, 2013
Arena Stage at the
Mead Center for American Theater
1101 Sixth Street, SW
1 hour, 5 minutes, no intermission
Tickets: $114 – $122
(some performances are sold out)
Tuesdays thru Sundays
It does. But I’ll tell you, the best times are when you’re truly in it. You’re just doing it, and trying to make it better, and you’re not thinking too hard about it.
Michael Bennett once told me: When you get into choreography, you start seeing everything that’s wrong. You ain’t gonna see nothing right. Which is good, when you’re a choreographer. We put our attention on the mistakes we make, so that we can correct them. And it’s true. But you know, there’s a simplicity to that. That direct kind of focus can be a great thing. Michael Bennett also said: There’s no problem. No problem. Just something to solve.
I’m so glad that I got what I got from all of them. And I try to give back to young choreographers and young dancers now. I try to tell as many people as possible: Go for it! Do it. Don’t worry about the steps. Listen to the music and just move. Just get up and start dancing, and take it from there.
This interview has been edited and condensed for content.