The Man in the Dancing Shoes

Gregory Hines scores big on Broadway with Jelly's Last Jam.
| By Mervyn Rothstein | From Premier Issue, Autumn 92

It's close to curtain time at the Virginia Theater on Broadway, and backstage in his dressing room Gregory Hines is getting ready to put on his dancing shoes. They are bright and shining, brown and tan; on the bottom of each are two pieces of metal called taps, one covering the heel, the other the front of the sole.

"You've got to be sure the shoe fits comfortably and snugly," he says. "And you can choose from many different styles. But when it comes down to it, it's not the shoe that matters. It's what in your heart that counts."

Gregory Hines's heart has been in his shoes for most of his 46 years, as he has tap-danced his way into the heart of America. And soon on this hot Sunday afternoon, he will walk out of the dressing room door, head for the stage and go into his song and dance to thrill a sold-out audience with his portrayal of the great jazz composer Jelly Roll Morton in Jelly's Last Jam. In that role, Hines received this year's Tony Award as best actor in a musical.

As he prepares to go on, Hines is sitting before a mirror surrounded by photographs of his friends and family, talking about his life and his career: his new show, his childhood performances with his brother, Maurice, as a tap-dancing duo in Harlem, his Broadway success in Sophisticated Ladies, and his roles in movies such as The Cotton Club, White Nights, and Tap. And, as he speaks, his deep, dark expressive eyes and his gentle, relaxed friendly smile convey the warmth and happiness he has achieved by doing what he enjoys most.

"I just love to tap-dance," he says. "I've been tapping for 44 years, and for me, it's the easiest way I can express myself as an artist. I don't mean it isn't challenging. It's just that when I have my tap shoes on, I feel very self-confident. I feel like I can speak from my heart. It's a way I've always been able to get in touch with many different emotions. I put my shoes on and I start to dance, and it's clear to me what I'm feeling."

Hines usually arrives at the Virginia Theater about two hours before the show starts. "First I put the gel in my hair and slick it back," he says. "I have something to eat, I slowly begin putting on my makeup, and I go through my mail. It's time for me to relax. I make a few phone calls. And then, I begin to stretch, very slowly. I have a device called a Pro Stretch, which I use for the lower part of my legs. It's terrific for hamstrings, the Achilles tendon, the calf muscle. Then, as other people in the show come in, we talk for a bit. About an hour before curtain time, I start to get my mind right, to seriously consider the Jelly Roll Morton character--his feelings, his attitudes. And by the time they call half-hour, I'm ready to go on."

That character is a complex one because the Jelly Roll Morton in Jelly's Last Jam is not your typical Broadway-musical protagonist. Born to one of the oldest, most genteel Creole families in New Orleans, a family that vehemently denied its African-American heritage, Morton carried that same attitude throughout his life. "We are who we are, and we are not who we are not," his family would tell him. He was cruel and cutting to his friends and lovers. He called himself the inventor of jazz, but he refused to acknowledge the African-American roots of his music: "Beating on pots will never be music," he says in the show. And yet when he died, it was in the "colored wing" of Los Angeles County General Hospital.

"This show is a real departure for the American musical stage," Hines says. "Especially in terms of African-American musicals. Those kinds of shows are usually all singing and all dancing. Everybody's happy. I've been in those shows and was happy to be in them. But I think our situation now is different. We need to reach for something more. First of all, I don't think African-American people are particularly happy now. And if you show them as happy on the stage, it's not true. This is not to say that we shouldn't entertain, because that's what the musical stage is for. But we can also do more now, and learn something about ourselves, and the human condition, the condition of being an American."

Hines credits much of this aspect of "Jelly" to George C. Wolfe, the show's author and director. Bringing such a story to the stage, Hines says, "was a great gamble, because Jelly Roll Morton is not a hero; he's a human being and not a great one."

"I struggled, man," Hines says. "Some of the things Jelly says, that I have to say, I couldn't even say to the other actors during rehearsal. In one line, where I'm talking about Jelly as a young man, I say, 'classically trained by the finest musicians of the day, while others of darker hue lived in shacks and crooned the blues. 'Whew! And then I say to the woman I know loves me, 'Nobody knows me, but as far as bitches go, you come the closest.' And, I say to my best friend, Jack the Bear, I say, 'Why don't you just be a good little nigger and put on that coat?' For the first three weeks of rehearsal, I just couldn't say it. We'd get to those lines, and I would just hang my head. And George would say, 'It's all right. Don't worry about it. It will come.'"

Finally, it did, "One of the things about acting," Hines says, "is that one has to get in touch with one's own self, one's own emotions and experiences, with anything that will help. We all have a darker side, but we push that side back. But once I started to get inside Jelly, to try to understand him, to try to live in that character, I was able to get in touch with aspects of my own personality and my own history that I couldn't deny, and that were very valuable to me.

"I come from a background where people on my mother's side of the family are very light-skinned and the people on my father's side are dark-skinned," he says. "And when my mother married my father, my mother's father refused to come to the wedding. He didn't want her to marry a dark-skinned African-American. I loved them all, but as I grew up I could see and feel a certain subtle superiority that the lighter-skinned African-Americans felt toward the darker ones. And the more I read about Jelly, the more I could understand."

Now, Hines says, he loves to say those lines. "I've been hissed on stage by the audience because of some of the things Jelly says," Hines recalls. "And it makes me feel good. Because I've always played nice guys. It was time for a change."

Hines started playing nice guys at an early age. He was born in New York City, and spent his younger days with his family on West 150th Street in Harlem, in an area known as Sugar Hill, where many black entertainers resided. His older brother, Maurice, began taking tap lessons at age 4. Gregory was eager to follow in his brother's dance steps, and soon joined in.

"I don't think we were given tap lessons because my parents thought we were going to become professional dancers," Hines says. "It was just like giving kids piano lessons. But we began to develop, and we began to feel it might be a career."

Gregory and Maurice's parents next sent them for lessons to Henry LeTang, the world-renowned tap teacher. "He gave us an act," Gregory Hines says. "That was really the beginning."

The act, called the Hines Kids, began when Gregory was six. He and his brother danced at the legendary Apollo Theater in Harlem. They made their first Broadway appearance in 1954, in small roles--Maurice was a newsboy and Gregory a shoeshine boy--in the musical The Girl in Pink Tights. As they became teenagers, the name of the act was changed to the Hines Brothers. And later, after their father, Maurice Hines Sr., joined them as a drummer, they called themselves the Hines, Hines and Dad. They appeared on television on the The Ed Sullivan Show and often on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show and performed internationally.

But by the late 1960s and early 1970s, Hines says, "Tap had fallen out of fashion and the act split up." (The breakup, and earlier disputes, drove a wedge between Gregory and his brother, one that persists despite occasional reconciliations.) There was also another split: Gregory had married in 1968, and his daughter, Daria, was born in 1970, but divorce soon followed.

Gregory moved to Venice, California, and played in a jazz-rock band, Severance. He often had little money, but, he says, those days were a crucial learning experience.

"It was a great time for me," he says, "because it was a time of great discovery. I became a hippie. I didn't do any tap dancing. In fact, from 1973 to 1978, I didn't even own a pair of tap shoes. It was the first time I was really by myself. It was the first time I was on my own. I had to learn how to take care of myself. Which I did. And it really paid off when I came back to New York and started working in the theater. Because I felt so much more self-confident. And ultimately, that's what it takes."

It was in Venice that Hines met his current wife, Pamela Koslow, who is a producer of Jelly's Last Jam. They have a son, Zachary, 9. Koslow also has a 19-year-old daughter, Jessica, from a previous marriage.

In the late 1970s, tap was beginning to make a comeback. Hines returned to New York and soon found roles in Broadway shows. And soon rediscovered the success he had known as a youth.

First there was Eubie!, a tribute to the composer Eubie Blake, choreographed by LeTang, in which Hines appeared with his brother. Then came, Comin' Uptown, a musical version of Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol, set in Harlem. And finally, there was the smash hit, Sophisticated Ladies, a joyful and highly praised revue of the magic of Duke Ellington. For all three--in consecutive years from 1979 to 1981-Hines received Tony Award nominations: as featured actor in Eubie!, and as leading actor in the other two. But each time, he lost.

He then began his movie career, as an actor, first in Mel Brooks's History of the World Part I. Roles soon followed in Wolfen with Albert Finney, Deal of the Century with Chevy Chase, Francis Ford Coppola's The Cotton Club (set in the legendary Harlem supper club at which his grandmother, Ora Hines, was a dancer), White Nights with Mikhail Baryshnikov and Tap with Sammy Davis Jr., a boyhood idol.

And now, he is back on Broadway, after a decade-long absence. And he has finally won that elusive Tony, for a role that showcases his talents as an actor and a singer as well as a dancer. "Tony night was very intense," Hines recalls, "because I had lost three years in a row. I knew that I knew how to lose. I knew that if I lost again, I'd feel bad for a couple of hours, and then I'd be OK. That was the way it usually was. I recovered. I got my appetite back. I felt good about the whole nomination thing, but I remembered that every time I lost, when I heard the other person's name announced, it was like a harsh sound in my ears. It was cutting. I felt such a rush of disappointment. But this year, when I heard my own name, it was so warm. And, it felt so good. We have a tape of it, and a couple of nights ago we looked at it, and even now when I replay it, I feel the same warmth."

Soon it will he time for Hines to perform, to rise up on a platform in front of the stage, his back to the audience, his head and shoulders slumped forward, as Jelly Roll Morton, his old body "terminally inclined," prepares to relive in music and dance the joys and sadnesses of his life. There will he no hisses this day, but there will be a standing ovation, for Hines and the entire cast, at the end of the show.

Immediately after the final curtain, Hines is almost as busy as he is during the two and a half hours on-stage. First he smiles and shakes hands with the long line of well-wishers waiting outside his dressing room. And then he heads downstairs to sign 15-minutes worth of autographs for a crowd of fans standing outside the Virginia's stage door.

Finally, he is back in his dressing room, and it is time to relax. It is time to indulge in one of his favorite pastimes: a good cigar. He takes one out of a portable rosewood carrying case, gazes at it and smiles.

"I love the taste," he says. "I love the whole ritual. Clipping off the tip. Rolling the cigar in my fingers. Looking at the wrapper. Lighting it up. The aroma. The sense that pervades my sinuses. I love that it all takes a nice long time. It really relaxes me."

Hines says he smokes many kinds of cigars. "I get some Cubans surreptitiously," he says. "But lately I've been smoking the Zino cigars. Zino Davidoff has been doing some cigars in Honduras now. He's pulling all his stuff out of Cuba. I have a lot of respect for his artistry in terms of cigar making."

Hines began smoking cigars 22 years ago, he says. "My daughter was born Nov. 16, 1970, and I bought a box of cigars to give out," he recalls. "They were just typical cigars that said, 'It's a girl!' It was a very happy time for me, and I was smoking them, and I liked them. I just felt so contented and happy that I'd had a daughter. She was so beautiful and healthy. So I started smoking on a daily basis. They weren't expensive. They were just whatever I could get my hands on. They cost maybe a buck or a buck fifty."

But then, he says, he stopped for a while. "I was only 24 years old at the time," he says, "and my father told me I looked stupid with a cigar in my mouth."

He started again about nine years later. "I was in a film, Wolfen with Albert Finney," Hines says. "Finney had Montecristos--lots of them. We were supposed to play best friends in the movie so he said we should spend a lot of time together. He was supposed to smoke the cigars in the movie, too. And he asked me if I liked cigars, and I said I used to smoke them but I hadn't had one in years. So he gave me about 10 Montecristos. And that was that."

Then, a few years later, while Hines was in London filming White Nights with Baryshnikov, he ran into an old friend, Robert DeNiro. "He told me about Davidoffs," Hines says. "He bought me a bunch of them and left them for me at my hotel. And ever since then I've been a Davidoff fan. It's a terrific cigar. It's well-wrapped. I like the color. It's a full smoke, but it's not harsh in any way."

When he's not working, Hines says, he smokes about one or two a day. "But if I'm on vacation--we go to the Caribbean and rent a house for about a month in Barbados--then I smoke four or five or more a day." When he's performing though, "It's just one at the end of the week, after the Sunday matinee, because there's no performance Monday," he says. "But on the night of the Tonys, I smoked two."

As he is puffing, Hines is thinking about what comes next, what he is hoping to do to follow the success of Jelly's Last Jam . Tap is in his future, he says, and so is film.

"I'm committed to this show for a year," he says. "And, I'm looking forward to it. I'm going to use that time to develop a couple of musical films. I co-own the movie rights to the story of the great African-American tap dancer Bill Robinson, and I very much want to do that."

Because the role of Jelly Roll Morton is so intense, he says, he is not planning to take a vacation during his time in the show. "It would he very hard to come back," he says. But afterward, he says, he is looking forward to relaxing in Barbados, "while the Caribbean is lapping up against the shore."

He laughs. "I'll sip some piña coladas," he says. "And, I'll smoke 50 cigars a week."

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