Tootsie, the musical adaptation of the 1982 movie comedy about a difficult actor who becomes a beloved actress, begins bravely with an opening number in which bubbly ensemble members sing their enthusiasm for New York. This is brave because the number is overly bright and deliberately trite – less a parody than a spot-on reproduction of an opening number in the sort of shiny, shallow musicals you can see on stages across America, including Broadway.
Suddenly, one of the performers stops the rehearsal, and complains about his line.
This is how we meet Michael Dorsey, who was portrayed by Dustin Hoffman in the hit movie comedy, and who, on the stage of Broadway’s Marquis Theater is being performed by Santino Fontana. Fontana is a charmer and a great talent – he acts! he dances! he sings in different octaves! After an initial bumpy ride, Fontana seems clearly on his way to major stardom.
But as the show opens, his character Michael is nothing but a pain in the neck, and the director fires him – prompting Michael to explode in invective, blasting the opening number as dishonest, calling the director an inept hack, and, in a final flourish, declaring “And this musical sucks!”
Then suddenly the ensemble stops singing about New York, and the opening number shifts in tone:
This is the tale of Michael Dorsey
He is the center of the plot
Is he an actor, yes of course he is
Is he successful, yes of course he’s not
In the movie, Michael Dorsey, desperate to be cast in anything, auditions disguised as a woman he names Dorothy Michaels, and lands a role as a female hospital administrator on a soap opera, with ever increasing comic complications. In the musical, the silly soap opera becomes….a bad musical. (The complications remain more or less the same.) I’m sure the musical’s creative team could make a good case for this change of venue. If the events of Tootsie are supposed to take place in 2019, there are very few soap operas left on network TV anymore. And then, much of the creative team knows from Broadway musicals. Choreographer Denis Jones is a veteran of ten Broadway shows. Director Scott Ellis has been nominated eight times for a Tony Award. Composer David Yazbek won a Tony last year for A Band’s Visit. Most of the members of the cast are Broadway pros. The collective Broadway savvy of cast and creative team results in such cleverness as that opening number, and at the same time produces entertainment full of what most people expect from a romantic musical comedy on Broadway – wonderful comic performances, beautiful singing, lively dancing, some heartfelt moments, some razzmatazz.
Yet, in attempting to update a story that was very much of its time, Tootsie the musical winds up with a show that is more awkward than it surely wants to be, and that says less than it apparently wants to say.
Some of the changes do work beautifully, aided by the terrific cast. Andy Grotelueschen is a standout as Michael’s roommate Jeff, a character that was played to deadpan perfection in the movie by Bill Murray. The Jeff of the musical is scruffier and more judgmental, but just as funny, especially in the song “Jeff Sums Up,” which displays songwriter Yazbek’s gift for brassy tunes and comically crass lyrics. Jeff also gets many of book writer Robert Horn’s best one-liners. When Michael as Dorothy falls in love with his leading lady Julie (Lilli Cooper), he says: “I’ve conquered more difficult challenges than this.”
“Yes, crazier things are possible,” Jeff replies. “Penguins can rotate their heads 360 degrees. But only once.”
Sarah Stiles as Sandy, the insecure actress and Michael’s mistreated friend, is more than a match for Teri Garr in the movie, scoring big with the amusing rapid patter number “What’s Gonna Happen,” imagining the nightmare of auditioning. Her delivery reminded me of the Amy part of “Getting Married Today” from Sondheim’s Company. The song includes verses that can almost serve as an anthem for the struggling actor:
“I’m smart enough to know
That I’m too stupid to admit
you can’t survive a diet
that consists of eating shit.”
But the musical ultimately treats Sandy more humanely than the movie did, in a way that gives her more dignity and her own arc, making her more than just a device to add to the comic mayhem and to demonstrate what a jerk Michael is.
This is a production with a deep bench of comic talent, including two of New York theater’s comic masters, both of whom make the most of their time on stage, though I wish they had more – Julie Halston as the Broadway show’s no-nonsense producer (one reviewer during the Chicago try-out called her “graceful as a gazelle, ferocious as a lion”) and Michael McGrath as Michael’s long-suffering agent.
Lilli Cooper as Julie has by far the best song in Tootsie — “Gone, Gone, Gone,” part of Julie’s moonlighting bluesy nightclub act (which seems to exist only so that we can hear that song, although I’m not complaining.) Julie is tougher, less of a victim, than Jessica Lange was in the movie, and more open to a lesbian relationship when Dorothy/Michael makes her/his attraction clear, which leads to an exchange that is delivered expertly and gets a big laugh:
Julie: I know it’s not the package I imagined.
Dorothy: It is so not the package you imagined.
This might be enough for some people to claim that Tootsie has been sufficiently updated to make sense as taking place in 2019. But the show’s comic engine still depends on the assumption of heterosexuality as the only norm, and the story still revolves around a straight man’s awakening. The show doesn’t much reflect the past 37 years in the evolution of the women’s movement, and completely ignores the gender fluidity that has fueled several current headline-making issues. That might not necessarily lessen the comedy; Shakespeare’s mistaken identity comedies also depend on the assumption of a heterosexual norm. But Tootsie the movie felt like it was saying something about the relationship between the sexes in 1982. Toostie the musical, set in “the present day,” just feels like an old-fashioned entertainment.
Oddly enough, though, the gender politics is not what gives Tootsie its most awkward moments. It’s the switch from soap opera to a Broadway musical that makes the plot even less plausible than it was in the movie. How has the same bossy behavior that his colleagues found so off-putting when he was a man make him such a leader as a woman? How exactly could Dorothy as a hired actress, cast as a nurse to a Juliet who has lived beyond Romeo, take over “Juliet’s Curse” and rewrite it so that it revolves around her, and get it renamed “Juliet’s Nurse?” Not even Patti LuPone could get away with that. (Could Nathan Lane? Lin-Manuel Miranda?)
Tootsie is on stage at the Marquis Theater 1535 Broadway, between 45th and 46th Streets, New York, NY, 10036). Tickets and details
Tootsie . Book by Robert Horn; Music by David Yazbek; Lyrics by David Yazbek; Based on the story by Don McGuire and Larry Gelbart; Based on the motion picture by Columbia Pictures. Directed by Scott Ellis; Choreographed by Denis Jones. Scenic Design by David Rockwell; Costume Design by William Ivey Long; Lighting Design by Donald Holder; Sound Design by Brian Ronan; Hair and Wig Design by Paul Huntley; Make-Up Design by Angelina Avallone. Featuring Featuring Santino Fontana as Michael Dorsey, Lilli Cooper as Julie Nichols, Sarah Stiles as Sandy Lester, John Behlmann as Max Van Horn, Andy Grotelueschen as Jeff Slater, Julie Halston as Rita Marshall, Michael Mcgrath as Stan Fields, Reg Rogers as Ron Carlisle. Sissy Bell, Barry Busby, Paula Leggett Chase, Britney Coleman, Leslie Donna Flesner, Jenifer Foote, John Arthur Greene, Drew King, Jeff Kready, Harris Milgrim, Adam Monley, Shina Ann Morris, James Moye, Katerina Papacostas, Nick Spangler, Diana Vaden, Anthony Wayne. Reviewed by Jonathan Mandell