EXCLUSIVE: To get to Tony Danza’s dressing room at the Nederlander Theatre, where he stars in the new Broadway musical Honeymoon in Vegas, you walk a corridor that circles the perimeter of the ancient house, where trash cans line one wall, and graffiti scrawled by Rent cast members dominates the other. Climb a set of stairs, and then there is the star’s cold perch, one that would barely provide room for Michael Keaton’s Birdman levitation act.
You imagine how much smaller this must be than the giant trailers where Danza spent most of his adult life in Taxi and Who’s The Boss. And then he emerges, euphoric and still sweaty after two hours of singing, tap dancing, even serenading with a love song while playing the ukulele, and he looks like a small Brooklyn kid whose parents took him to Coney Island. He has just completed another in what seems like an endless string of preview performances—last time a major musical had this many previews, it was because harnessed performers in Spider-Man Turn Off The Dark were perilously falling from the rafters—and it is clear Danza is having the time of his 63-year-old life.
When Honeymoon in Vegas opens on Broadway tomorrow—all of his Taxi and Who’s The Boss co-stars and creators are flying in—it will be after more than 50 preview performances that Danza says has shaved two minutes off the running time, which he says “feels like 20 minutes to the audience.” Honeymoon opens as ticket-buyers have turned up their noses at high profile musicals: The Last Ship will soon sink, even after songwriter Sting joined the cast, and If/Then, the musical starring Frozen’s Idina Menzel, also just hung a closing notice. Because of the endless previews and the bleak economics, some are betting against Honeymoon, even though it arrived on Broadway already armed with a rave from New York Times critic Ben Brantley when it launched at New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse. Brantley wrote that Honeymoon “could almost pass as one of the best musicals of the early 1960s…the last-gasp period for the well-made, un-self-conscious and insistently tuneful song-and-dance show.” He likened Danza’s performance—as a smooth-talking card sharp who sets his sights on an engaged woman who is a dead ringer for his late wife—to Frank Sinatra in his Rat Pack heyday.
Now, Danza’s second career wind is being set up by high powered agents at CAA and his manager Dan Farah and this is just a step in what will inevitably include TV and movie roles. But it is clear Honeymoon, and being in New York, means everything to Danza and that there is oddly a through line to his whole life, going back to his origins as a Brooklyn fighter who climbed through the ropes armed with guile and a puncher’s chance to win. He has already been in Broadway hits before, but that was as a supporting piece or replacing a star in shows like A View From The Bridge, The Producers, and The Iceman Cometh opposite Kevin Spacey. This is Danza’s chance to finally to be on the ground floor of a Broadway hit he hopes will have a long run.
“Look, we really feel we have something here, and since I did The Producers, I haven’t seen anything as much fun as this,” Danza said. “And you know, I broke Max Bialystock’s two rules, you know where he says there are only two rules in our theater. Number one, never put your own money in the show. Number two, never put your own money into the show. You know what? Maybe it wasn’t a lot, but I’ve even got my own money in this show.”
There has been a report or two of how Danza has been seen at the TKTS booth, imploring undecideds to buy discounted tickets to fill Honeymoon‘s houses. The inference was that such salesmanship is somehow beneath a star like him, and let’s face it, his rival salesmen are kids handing out flyers. The funny part of that is how often Danza actually hits that booth–more days than not, he is there–and how much it has helped fill seats with blue-collar family audiences who drive in from Jersey and Long Island, people he has convinced will find Honeymoon a worthy place to spend some dough and see a show. Danza doesn’t see what the fuss is about. After all, he has been doing this his whole life, going back to the days when he was hustling to get on boxing cards.
“Man, you had to sell tickets, the promoter told you that flat out, or he wouldn’t put you on the show,” Danza recalled. “So you put the arm on your friends, your relatives, and anywhere you went you put up posters and you sold tickets. There, and even later when I went out and did my live act, that’s the only thing you worry about, is anybody going to come? If you can do something about that, why wouldn’t you? This is the big challenge, Broadway. When I took over A View From The Bridge from Anthony LaPaglia, that was pressure. I am hanging out with Arthur Miller, which was unbelievable, and we were at that giant Eugene O’Neill Theatre, which is hard to fill. So I used to skate over there to the ticket booth, hang out for a little while, and then go to the theater. And I started selling a lot of tickets. So now, I go and say, I’m really proud of this show, and you know what, I’m doing you a favor because it’s going to explode and it’s going to be a tough ticket. Maybe I take a shot or two at Disney—do you know what their tickets cost?—but mainly I am there for the people who come in not knowing what they want to see. I tell them, I’ll be out there, after. If I’m wrong, you come and call me a bum. Nobody has. They love the show.”
Danza is backed up by the lavish production, a big, silly exuberant musical wet kiss to Vegas, based on the Andy Bergman film. The surprises start right away, when the moveable rostrum brings the orchestra center stage for the overture and then moves them out. There are the harnessed flying Elvis impersonators, and memorable songs sung by Danza, Rob McClure and Brynn O’Malley as the young couple.
As an investor and the star, Danza has been in on all the discussions that included a move from the smaller Brooks Atkinson to the larger Nederlander, and the decision not to open soon after previews started mid-November. “It was timing,” Danza said. “You want buck the frigging holidays, and open a show in maybe the premiere Christmas destination in the world, with all the things people can do? It was either open with a really short preview or go longer than usual. The only real difference is, previews allow for discount tickets. So we opted for the longer preview and it’s risky because you have to pay the bills. We just wanted to get into the theater and not wait. And the benefit is, this show hums now. I like what I see when I stand off to the side and look out at the faces when surprise moments happen, and the Elvis impersonators come on. Nobody is nodding off; I feel like we’ve done the right thing and we’ve really got something here.”
I spent a bit of time with Danza; we had lunch as the show’s Broadway moves were still being formulated. We first met at upper East Side restaurant Scalinatella, me thinking I’d show him my favorite Italian place. “I know this place,” he said when he walked in. Instantly, waiters just began bringing food, clearly for him, but which me and his manager Farah were also allowed to eat because we were with him. I noted to the maitre’d that I’d never felt so loved even after all the times I’d come. His look made it clear: You are not Tony Danza, New York’s enduring Italian-American icon. Whatever they fed him, it led to 90 minutes of irresistible anecdotes, starting with his feeling about being home, and the recognition that comes with being in a couple of classic sitcoms.
“I’m lucky to have the perfect amount of fame,” Danza told me after the waiter walked away to bring still more food. “There are really two places you want to be a celebrity, a hospital and a restaurant, and that’s it. I’ve got that. LA was so good to me, it was paradise, in the 70s and 80s, and, but I just needed to go home. It’s so energizing, just the New York brush.”
“You know, you actually brush against people,” he said. “In the subway, you brush. You walk down the street and you brush. In LA, the only brush you get is when you give the finger to somebody from your car.” So how did Danza, whose father drove a garbage truck and whose bookkeeper mom was a closet bobby-soxer who adored one Francis Albert Sintra, wind up the star of what he is determined to make Broadway’s next hot ticket? It starts in the boxing ring.
“I used to train at Gleason’s Gym on 30th and 8th, where Muhammad Ali and all the great fighters and trainers were,” Danza said. “I was the only white guy there in 1974. Anyway, there was this over the hill hooker named Annie Rosa who took a liking to me. She hung out and watched the fighters, a real New York character. Chickie Ferrara was my trainer. Anybody researching a picture about boxing came there, and one day this guy walks in wearing a suit. Annie sees the suit and figures there’s money to be made, and he looks at me and says who’s that kid and she gives him my phone number. Why she had my phone number, that’s another story we don’t need to get into, but he calls me up. Says he’s Stuart Sheslow, a TV producer, he says he saw me in the gym and wanted to know if I’m interested in a meaningful part in a TV show he’s trying to put together. I figure it’s one of my friends, so I play it cool and say I’m not interested. ‘You sure?’ he says and I said yeah, but I go, ‘Wait a minute, are you on the level?’ ” Danza went in and read, and conveyed an ease borne by the fact he didn’t care what happened. “I had a fight coming up, I was stressed only about that,” he said as he read for a pilot about an old ex-fighter who can’t pay the bills on his gym and rents part of it to a hot aerobics instructor.
Suddenly, Danza is told that he and a couple of NBC execs are coming to see him fight. “There was another complication,” he said. “See, I’d had trouble getting fights and I recently signed on with this new manager, his name was Cha Cha, and…well, Cha Cha had some friends, you know? They were coming to see me fight, this little group of wiseguys and the TV guys. So I’m fighting Rocky Garcia, the State Champion of Connecticut. Bell rings. I want to look good, but this guy’s got a crazy weird move. It looks like he’s throwing a right but he throws a left hook instead. I brace for the right and lean right in to the left hook. When you get hit with the right, you go down. Get hit with the left hook, it throws you up in the air and you land on the back of your head with your feet up. It’s the most embarrassing thing that can happen to you. I get knocked down and I was so f*cking pissed I jump to my feet. I get up, move around the ref, I’m gonna knock this guy out. And he hits me with the exact…same…punch. First time I got knocked down, all I could think of was the TV guys and being embarrassed. Now I’m sitting there again, and I’m more hurt than embarrassed. And this guy just beats the sh*t out of me.
“I’m following him around the ring, because I must have been in never-never land and he throws this right, I see it coming but I don’t move. If I go down, that’s three times and the fight’s over. Something keeps me up. And by the way, all this is in the first round. So with 15 seconds left in that round, we both throw right hands. Mine gets there first, and I knock him out. Hit him flush on the chin. You can see in the film, I walk over and apologize to him, tell him he had me. The mafia guys are thrilled, and Sheslow says it’s the greatest thing he ever saw, that nobody would believe it if he’d scripted it. They didn’t make that show, but this was the moment my life changed, because I got hit, the whole world slows down; this guy is breathing fire and screaming for me to get up. The ref had almost counted me out and somehow I keep going and land the punch and win it.”
That got him an agent, and an audition for the Walter Hill-directed gang pic The Warriors. Knowing he was his own best advertising, Danza showed him a poster of his next fight, his first big headliner—Tough Tony Danza, Brooklyn’s Knockout Artist—and tells Hill and producers Larry Gordon and Joel Silver to come. “They sit through five boring fights, and then I’m fighting this guy named Billy Perez, and Billy and I don’t like each other,” Danza says. “We yell at each other and ran to the center of the ring where he hit me a couple of good shots, but then I connect with the left hook and I just kill this guy, knock him through the ring ropes into the first row. We’re in Brooklyn, and I am king, just walking around like King Kong and my eyes meet Larry Gordon, who’s standing on the floor in my corner and who says, that’s the greatest audition I’ve ever seen.”
Danza was locked for a big role in the film, but word had gotten around and suddenly, he was called to meet James L. Brooks as he is auditioning Mandy Patinkin (who read for the Taxi lead that would go to Judd Hirsch). Danza still had an NBC deal and the network moved fast when it was clear they’d lose Danza to film. The part was written for a 200-pound blonde Irish heavyweight, but after his reading, Brooks was ready to custom fit it for Danza. “Jim Brooks says, I loved your work and I’m embarrassed to say I didn’t know what he was talking about,” Danza said. “I was a fighter. This was work?” After a long conversation with Gordon and Silver who urged him against it, Danza became a star of Taxi. He hung up his gloves, probably best because his record was 9-3, all but one loss coming via knockout.
That led to all kinds of success, but since reviewers bring up Sinatra in the Honeymoon reviews, it’s funny that what Danza remembers is what his mother told him when he hung up the gloves. “If I’m on TV, big deal, but when you introduce me to Sinatra, then you’re a star,” she told me. “My mother was nuts about him, she was this Bobby-soxer who went to the Paramount. I had this script for Who’s the Boss where we could use Sinatra and I saw Tina Sinatra. The show’s in the Top Five and I say, ‘You think your father would do my show?’ So I get him and the producers are like, ‘Get the hell out of here. No way!’ But it was true. I flew my mother out and all I can say is, one thing about Frank that people don’t really remember is that he had a way about him, he was a charming, giving guy and the way he treated my mother that day, she felt like the Queen of England.” Danza remained close to Sinatra until he died.
So how does a knockout artist wind up singing and tap dancing, all the things that you’d imagine tough guys like Tony Danza making fun of back in Brooklyn? Inevitably, an anecdote as the waiter brings more food we didn’t ask for.
“So for the first 15 years of my career, I can’t do anything wrong,” he said. “I’m on TV 13 years on two great series, and even the bad choices I made didn’t hurt me,” he said. “I’m about to have a movie career with Angels in the Outfield, and then go skiing for Christmas, and I break my back, I break my leg. I shave off three of the transverse processes on the side of my spine. I detached my soleus muscle from my hip because of the way my leg swung around the tree. Forget about it, it was like a car accident without the car. They stretcher me to my house in Sherman Oaks and that house blows up three days later in the earthquake of 1993. And for the next 15 years…I’m not doing self-pity because I can’t take that…but I had that period where nothing went wrong, and then I couldn’t do anything right. And it made me who I am today.”
Danza said series work—he had a stake in Who’s The Boss—made it so he never had to sweat the rent, but he had to learn to walk again, and ponder what he wanted out of life. “I knew I was going to be alright, eventually, and I decided that what I really wanted was to be a song-and-dance man,” he said. “I’d learned tap dancing and had done it 12 years. I figured, let me see if I can do this.” The progression was slow, and he had help from the likes of pal Merv Griffin, who got him jobs at his resorts, where Danza developed a 90 minute act with comedy, song and dance. “I got a job with Tony Bennett in Hawaii, where I was doing stand up and a little tap dance. I’m relying on fame at the time and off I go. It’s 2,500 people, mostly Japanese tourists who don’t know who the f*ck I am, and they are like who’s this guy and where’s Tony Bennett? I learned that your fame gets you out there but it creates the pressure because it’s like, okay, we let you come, now you better deliver. I put in the time, at bus-and-truck shows and other things, I took classes. I learned how to deliver.”
Danza has done other things parallel to that path: a couple of TV shows didn’t catch on, he hosted a talk show, served a stint where he became a 10th grade English teacher at a tough inner city Philadelphia school he wrote a book about. He recently returned to the big screen in Don Jon, the film written and directed by and starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt (as a kid he starred with Danza in Angels in the Outfield) and got strong notices playing JGL’s father, even if the film’s premise—a playboy and internet porn addict tries to find love—stunted its audience potential (“this was a smart movie, almost Saturday Night Fever in its look at a moment in time, but in hindsight I wish Joe had taken it a little easier with the blur of images at the beginning, because I don’t think Academy voters even got far enough to know Julianne Moore was in the movie”).
All this brings him to his first attempt to create a stage hit. “Look, I’ve bombed, and I’ve been knocked out, and actually the latter is easier because you don’t know it until you wake up,” he said. “The first time I played Rainbow and Stars in New York City, in 96 or 97, doing it despite being told I wasn’t ready and I was crazy, and there’s celebrities from Donald Trump to Muhammad Ali, and I stunk the place out. I did not even know that when you make a mistake, you don’t tell the audience.
“Now,” Danza said, “I have no fear of anything. I’m at an age where I’m older than my father when he died, and that was a guy who was a lot to live up to, but I’ve tried. I’m a Brooklyn guy who is on Broadway, taking his shot. Arthur Miller once told me, ‘The best thing you can hope for is that you end up with the right regrets.’ That man was so smart, and so right.”