I was worried about Tootsie.
A new comedy musical based on the critical and financial smash hit movie (nominated for ten Academy Awards in 1982), Tootsie ran in Chicago for a limited engagement this month to work out its kinks before heading to Broadway in the spring of 2019. Tootsie tells the story of Michael Dorsey, a talented but volatile actor whose reputation for being difficult makes it impossible for him to get a job. He decides to audition for a part in a musical (no soap operas in 2018!) as a woman, Dorothy Michaels, and he gets the part. Hilarity ensues.
I wasn’t worried about Santino Fontana, the actor who plays Michael/Dorothy. He is a Tony award-nominee for his leading role as Prince Charming in Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella. He was Greg on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. He was Prince Hans in Frozen. He has the chops for this. Fontana is funny and talented. He shines in this role. He somehow manages to sing as a woman, without really like a man trying to sing like a woman. He has great comedic timing. He can pull off a red sequined gown. Fontana has four film projects and a pilot ready to be released soon. He is on the brink of stardom and Tootsie can be the vehicle to take him there.
His cast mates hold their own alongside Fontana. Andy Grotelueschen plays Michael’s hipster/bartender/writer roommate, Jeff, and has some terrific lines and a charming presence onstage. John Behlmann plays hunky Max Von Horn, a reality show star (he has just won “Race to Bachelor Island.”) cast in Dorothy’s musical, who falls for Dorothy. Lilli Cooper plays beautiful young ingénue, Julie Nichols, who is also in Dorothy’s new musical and who also falls for Dorothy. (And Michael falls for her.) But particularly talented is Sarah Stiles as Sandy Lester, Michael’s ex-girlfriend (and the woman from whom he stole the acting job). Stiles steals every scene she is in and one song in particular harkens a manic Amy in Stephen Sondheim’s Company singing “Getting Married Today”---one of my all-time favorites.
I wasn’t worried about the music or the staging or the direction. The original score is by David Yazbek, who just won the Tony for original score this year for The Band’s Visit. The choreography is by Tony Award nominee, Denis Jones (Holiday Inn, Honeymoon in Vegas). The musical direction is by Andrea Grody (The Band’s Visit). Tootsie is directed by seven-time Tony Award nominee Scott Ellis (She Loves Me, On the Twentieth Century). This is a formidable team bringing this production to life. The music is lively and engaging and Tootsie mixes the familiar flavors of Sondheim and Fosse and big colorful shows from the 1960s in an altogether new package. The ending needs a little tweak---it doesn’t end as strong as it starts, but by the time it hits Broadway next spring, this show should be a smash.
What I was worried about was this: in a #MeToo and #TimesUp climate, where women are literally marching on Washington demanding to be heard and valued and treated as equals, is it possible to stage a musical about a white man who is willing to take a woman’s job to pursue his dream--- a dream that he self-sabotaged by being an arrogant jerk ---without being tone deaf? Would the Tootsie from 1982 translate to 2018? Many movies from that era don’t. Read Molly Ringwald’s April 2018 essay “What About the Breakfast Club?” in the New Yorker. She talks about the films of the 1980s and how they were often racist, misogynistic and at times, homophobic. As someone who was a teenager in the 1980s, it feels sacrilegious to say that John Hughes’ classics like Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club and Pretty In Pink are problematic now but let’s face it, Dreamboat Jake essentially trades his drunk girlfriend to a kid he barely knows in return for another girl’s underwear. It is a problem. It would not fly today.
So what about this Tootsie? The musical is attuned to 2018 views on gender and sexuality. When the heterosexual Julie Nichols falls for Dorothy, she seems to take it in stride, “I know it’s not the package I imagined.” (“It’s SO not the package you imagined,” replies Dorothy/Michael.) And when Michael’s agent, Stan, and his roommate, Jeff, discover his double life, both are quick to let him know that it is a very very bad idea.
Fontana addressed the issue in a recent interview: “Michael makes a terrible decision in order to get a job. I don’t think he is aware at the beginning of the piece of the ramifications of what he is doing. But by the end of the piece… he acknowledges how many people he is offending with this terrible decision.”
Reg Rogers, who plays director Ron Carlisle, says “This production is stronger in the sense that what Michael learns from wearing a dress is much more moving in this story. It was a gimmick in the movie, but in the musical, the dress really takes him through a journey.”
Fontana continues, “He has a massive ego. He’s arrogant. You might not like him initially but you will understand him because everyone understands desperation. How far are you willing to go to get that one thing you want more than anything else?”
I’m not sure I agree with the sentiment that the ends justify the means. But I am always willing to watch a character try find his way from desperation to redemption.