Don't laugh. At least, not until you see his show. Then you will laugh--with him. That was our experience several years ago when we went to see Danza perform at the now defunct Rainbow & Stars. When we heard about the show, we figured some misguided fool had suggested that Danza do a nightclub act and that Danza, even more foolishly, had taken the advice. Our expectations were such that U-571 couldn't have reached depths low enough to find them. But, just a few short minutes into his act, Danza began to win us over. By the end of his show, we were charmed--and converted. We had been fully entertained.
We mention this because Danza is next up at , April 25-May 6. All these years later, we had the chance to ask him if he always has to fight an uphill battle to win over a cabaret audience. He understood exactly what we meant, and he was not offended. He immediately and exuberantly declared, "I love it! I really think the greatest position is the underdog. I do a joke in the beginning of the act--'I know you all have one question: What the hell does he do?' "
The answer is, a little bit of everything. The keynote of Danza's act, if not his personality, is his self-deprecating sense of humor. He doesn't take himself seriously, and he's quite humble about his successes. He talks about his career with gratitude, giving credit to everyone but himself.
Consider what this former boxer has achieved. Without any real acting training, he starred in three TV sitcoms--Taxi, Who's the Boss?, and Hudson Street--as well as a bunch of small- and big-screen movies. He has also appeared on Broadway in plays by two of America's greatest dramatists, replacing Tony Award-winner Anthony LaPaglia in Arthur Miller's A View From the Bridge and then playing Rocky, the bartender, in Eugene O'Neill'sThe Iceman Cometh (starring Kevin Spacey).
Then there's this nightclub act. Like everything else Danza has done in show business, he started at the top, learning how to be a cabaret performer on the job in high-profile venues. "I started right away at big spots," he admits. "I didn't get to learn what to do in out-of-the-way places; I didn't have a chance to hone my skills. If you make a mistake, it's human. You just have to let loose and have a good time."
But why do a nightclub act at all? What possessed Danza to even attempt such a thing? "It all started one night at a dinner," he confides. "I was at a table with 12 people, and I'm a big mouth, so I entertained them for the whole night. I thought, 'Why can't I do that as an act?' My show is a night hanging out with me and watching me do all my silly stuff." With a laugh, he adds, "I'm living every Italian's dream: a tuxedo, a microphone, and a stool.
"I'm not the best singer, dancer, or storyteller," Danza continues, earnestly. "But you put them all together, pick the right material, and it works." Always undercutting himself, he recalls his horror at realizing how close the audience is to the performer in cabaret. "My first night at Rainbow & Stars, with Donald Trump looking up my nose, that was pretty rough," he says. "To sing a ballad with Liza Minnelli looking at you--that's unnerving, too!"
Danza's been doing his act for five years now, and his only regret is that he doesn't have enough time to do it more often. Whenever possible, he performs in places like Atlantic City and Las Vegas where, he says, "I have dancing girls, film clips, a larger band. We do a 15-minute encapsulation of Pal Joey." Still, he says he enjoys the more intimate confines of smaller cabaret rooms, where "it's just a quartet and me." Unlike some of the big show palaces in Vegas, you can leave your binoculars at home if you catch Danza's act at Feinstein's.
Okay, so we understand that Danza got the idea for a cabaret act from entertaining people at a dinner function. But how did the theater thing happen? "Garry Marshall [who worked with Danza on TV] called me and said, 'I'm doing a play with George C. Scott, Wrong Turn at Lungfish. You want to be in it?' I got the chance to work with the greatest American actor; it was an incredible experience. We premiered at the Coronet Theatre in L.A. for six weeks, and then we played the Promenade in New York for three months."
Then came A View From the Bridge. Of his opening night in the play, Danza recalls, "Arthur Miller was sitting next to my Aunt Francis and Uncle Phil. My kids saw it, too. You go back to your roots: a garbage-man's son doing Arthur Miller on Broadway." (He doesn't say this with pride so much as with humility.) Later, Danza had to audition for the role of Rocky the Bartender in Iceman--but there he was again, on the Great White Way. "I just wish my parents were alive to see this," he says. "That's the only thing I'm sorry about."
What's next for Tony Danza? Well, if you haven't seen his act, you're probably going to laugh again. "I'm dying to do a musical!" he says. "I have a master plan: I have a TV pilot, but when I'm on hiatus, I'd love to take over for the guy in The Music Man [Craig Bierko]. Also, I auditioned for Susan Stroman for The Night They Raided Minsky's. If that gets resurrected, I hope they'll still consider me."
Danza should invite Stroman to Feinstein's. Everything he can do is right up there on stage.