Tap tap tap

“My faith in the project is as strong as ever, but boy, it’s been…”- there was an ever-so-brief pause over the telephone line as Jeff Calhoun took a breath – “unbelievable! To get up on the stage again – it’s been 12 years since I danced on a stage, and I’ve had to relearn the choreography.”

The choreography Calhoun was referring to was the choreography he is credited with creating for his mentor, Tommy Tune, in “Busker Alley.” When Tune broke his foot during a performance Oct. 1 in Tampa, “Busker” seemed to fulfill all the prophesies of doom that have dogged it since the project was unveiled some five years ago. With its first Broadway preview now less than three weeks away and a star whose leg was set in a chartreuse cast, things looked bleak for “Busker Alley.”

In New York, producer Barry Weissler was taking care of the business end of the $5 million show, consulting with the insurance people and having a closing notice posted backstage in Tampa, which released the company to look for other work after the final performance there, scheduled for Oct. 15. News of the accident began burning up the phone lines around Broadway, and with it, talk that the St. James Theater would book a spring revival of “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” starring Nathan Lane. The St. James is owned by Jujamcyn Theaters, a producer of both shows with a limited supply of houses.

Down in Florida, however, Weissler’s wife, Fran, was doing a different kind of strategizing to fend off what she calls “the bottom liners.” (When Fran Weissler describes a colleague as a bottom liner, she speaks as one whose credentials in making such an assessment are, well, impeccable.)

“I could abandon this show and nobody loses, including us,” she said, referring to the insurance gambit. “But I can’t. I think we have a show.”

The big turnaround

After months of enduring terrible reviews, audience indifference, multiple title changes and a late-summer hiatus when the show was revamped from top to bottom, “Busker Alley” did finally seem to be picking up steam. Audiences were beginning to respond favorably and the new notices were, for the first time, encouraging, although there was still a dearth of emotional connection between the two leads, Tune and newcomer Darcie Roberts.

By this time, Tune was supervising the entire production and had officially taken over as director. In the wake of the accident, the 6-foot, 6-inch star offered to read his part – in costume, on stage – for the rest of the Tampa run. Calhoun and understudy David Warren-Gibson would jointly dance the role, of a middle-aged street performer who falls for an ambitious young actress. Calhoun’s mom Fed Ex’d his tap shoes from New York, and at the top of each performance, he appeared with an envelope bearing Tune’s X-ray to explain the situation to the audience. And they even got to see the chartreuse cast.

Meanwhile, the Weisslers were looking for a name performer to replace Tune during the three months it will take for the injury to fully heal. They know it’s a long shot, but they are hoping to begin previews 10 days late rather than postpone altogether and risk losing the St. James at a time when musical-theater houses are tough to come by. And of course, there remains the very real possibility that the production will shutter. The producers say they’ll know, one way or the other, by the middle of this week.

That brings us back to Calhoun, who has seen “Busker Alley” pull back from the brink of oblivion more times than he cares to remember. He’s sure it will happen one more time, and a company of 26 – along with the Weisslers – are pulling for him.

“You know, Job was tested, too,” Barry Weissler said last week. “We had a show that was undergoing a difficult transformation. Now, I only have a star with a broken foot. I’m confident, because nothing more can happen to us – right?”

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