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« Review: Tolkien | Main | Tribeca 2019: "The Projectionist" and "Circus of Books" »
Thursday
May092019

Stage Door: The musical adaptation of "Tootsie"

by Nathaniel R

“I was a better man with you as a woman than I ever was with a woman as a man.” So went the famous arc-completing line in Tootsie (1982) that resonates backwards through the movie, and carried you out of the theater, not just on a comic high but with zeitgeist capturing depth. Though it’s little remarked upon today in the now-now-now of popular culture, the early 80s were a cinematic time rife with the questioning of traditional gender roles just like our culture is today. Hit films like Victor/Victoria, Yentl, Mr. Mom,  and Tootsie all arrived in quick succession, though the then preferred vernacular was androgyny and gender-bending, as opposed to today’s non-binary and genderqueer designations.  It’s not surprising, then, to see Tootsie come round again to popular culture in 2019 in the form of a Tony-nominated musical comedy. What’s more surprising is that that resonant quotable capper is one of the few famous lines to be lifted directly from the movie.

As shocking as it is to type, they wrote new jokes!  This is, as you may have guessed given Broadway’s strange new role as a regurgitator of old movies, not the norm…. 

Santino Fontana stars as Michael Dorsey/Dorothy Michael in "Tootsie" at the Marquis

Shows like “Mean Girls” and “[Insert Whatever Show You’d Like Here]” spend a lot of time recreating exact scenes or retelling their movies most famous jokes or ever-so-slightly tweaking them to make them current (usually by adding social media to the mix). Tootsie (1982) was infamous for having six screenwriters (three credited) but the Tony-nominated book of "Tootsie the Musical" is credited to just one man. Robert Horn has done a savvy job of both concocting multiple new jokes, which feel like they might have been from an alternate version of the movie, and transposing Tootsie’s plot to work on the stage. The soap opera setting is now a Broadway show that’s riffing on Romeo & Juliet with Dorothy Michaels cast as the nurse. Dorothy takes over so completely that the show within the show changes focus and is retitled “Juliet’s Nurse” 

Though "Tootsie The Musical" requires more of a suspension of disbelief than Tootsie (1982) did —they know from wigs and drag in the Broadway theater — and the plot definitely make less sense than it did in the 1980s, the musical comedy genre is not where you go looking for realism. The innate comic pleasure of watching a cocky actor get in way over his wig-covered head with a colorful cast of fellow narcissistic creatives is thoroughly intact and transfers easily to this new tuneful genre. 

The smartest move is the lack of fidelity to the source material, which manages to make the show feel fresh while simultaneously delivering a nostalgic kick (not an easy task since so few stage-to-screen transfers succeed at it). One major change which surprises given its melancholy punch in the movie is that Julie, Michael Dorsey’s love interest, no longer has a father that falls in love with Michael as Dorothy. Charles Durning’s role from the movie is completely absent. Another major change is the introduction of a young social media star turned stunt-casted actor (he plays “Romeo” in the show within the show) who takes the plot position of that lecherous old soap star who lusted for Dorothy in the movie.

While Santino Fontana borrows Dustin Hoffman’s iconic honeyed twang Dorothy Michaels voice… the cast isn't going for direct mimicry of the movie’s famous performances. Fontana is a joy though he can't reach the nuance and complexity of Hoffman’s Oscar-worthy performance (close-ups help a lot there and there’s another reason which will get to in a second), but his take is fresh, funny, sympathetic, and his beautiful vocals lift the show’s catchiest song “I Won’t Let You Down” into a rapturous stunner.  

Sarah Stiles in "Tootsie"

Faring best in the transfer are the smallest roles. Sarah Stiles is just hilarious and Tony-worthy in the fussy neurotic Terri Garr role (she gets an impossibly fast ditty to sing and reprise for her comic showcase), reliable Broadway workhorse Julie Halston is super funny as the show within the show's producer, and John Behlmann  is adorably goofily and broadly hilarious as the terrible actor who falls for Dorothy. 

The least successful element of the production is, sadly, right at its center. Dorothy Michaels/Michael Dorsey’s relationship with Julie (Lilli Cooper here, Jessica Lange in the movie) doesn’t really work. Though the book has wisely twisted and tweaked their romance to reflect more modern sensibilities and ideas about sexuality, Cooper and Fontana don’t have half as much to chew on emotionally as Lange and Hoffman had. You can feel the show’s terror at replicating any of Michael or Julie’s least likable qualities. He’s no longer a hopelessly insensitive womanizer and she’s no longer too-passive and man-pleasing for her own good. In an effort to be less “problematic” this new Tootsie has forgotten that character arcs and redemption require something that needs heartfelt changing in the first place. This Michael is a already a fairly decent guy and this Julie barely has to move a muscle to find her inner strength since she never misplaced it to begin with.  

Despite that major reservation, "Tootsie" is otherwise a comic blast, with adorable performances and frequent laughs. Who knew that a show about a man in a dress -- an ancient form of comedy if there ever was one -- could feel this fresh in 2019? 

Related
Tony Award Nominations 

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Reader Comments (5)

Saw the pre-Broadway run in Chicago and loved it. At first I was a little underwhelmed by the score, but I think it's because the emphasis is more on functionality rather than generating pop songs or new standards. Most of the songs wouldn't really play out of context, but that's not necessarily a knock - just a different kind of writing.

May 9, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterDave S.

Dave -- yeah, i was a little disappointed in the score itself given the composer (it's a weaker effort from him in that there is only one really memorable song...) but they aren't bad songs per se and some which wouldn't work out of context are great in -- like the Sarah Stiles fast paced number... but the rest of the show makes up for the non-essential score.

May 10, 2019 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

We saw this at the same time since I saw you tweeting about it when I was there. I absolutely loved it! I was laughing every other line. Yes, the songs aren't memorable, which you'd think would be a BIG knock on a MUSICAL but the book is just so good and the show overall is so fun, you can totally excuse it.

May 10, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterRyan T.

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May 11, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterHownesia

Thanks for give information

May 11, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterHownesia

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