‘Tootsie’ on Broadway: A Cross-Dressing Classic Gets a Large Spoonful of Woke
‘Tootsie’ is a strange musical, with a better script than its music, and a story which goes out of its way to emphasize its feminist credentials—as well as apologizing for itself.
Tootsie as a musical is a confusing mélange, and not for the sexual and romantic attractions and farce-heavy confusions set in motion by lead character Michael Dorsey’s (Santino Fontana) cross-dressing.
The Broadway version of the 1982 movie—which starred Dustin Hoffman as Michael Dorsey/Dorothy Michaels—is both chaotic and apologetic, with a sharper and better book than it has music.
In 2019, Tootsie—which opened tonight at the Marquis Theatre (to December 22)—wants to telegraph how woke and aware it is. The show, directed by Scott Ellis, has speeches grafted into it about gender inequality and feminist respect that stand out like absurd sore thumbs.
These periodic speeches of “we-get-it-we-really-do” rather undermine Tootsie’s central conceit: a male actor dresses as a woman to get work, leading to a woman falling for him as a woman, and a man falling for him as a woman. The experience teaches Michael—well, what exactly? How hard it is to be a woman, and phew, he’s ultimately very happy to be a man, albeit one who’s learned something about sexism.
While there is no overt homophobia or misogyny in either movie or stage show, note that the central “joke” in both of Tootsie’s intimate scenarios is that Michael’s cross-dressing could lead to, with both male and female suitors—oh no—two variants of a same-sex kiss or attraction, and Michael is a straight guy in a dress! Stop the clocks!
His deception is ironic. At the start of of the show, Michael is the actor’s actor, honest about his art to the point of work-imperiling, decrying a terrible lead number for a show he is auditioning for: “This opening number is benign and dishonest, directed by an inept, derivative hack. And this musical sucks!” Fontana is a charming performer, but he can be forgiven for sometimes flailing in whether he’s performing door-slamming farce—centered around how innately hilarious you find a man masquerading as a woman—or socially conscious parable.
The book of the musical by Robert Horn is witty and sharp—much of this thanks to the get-real buckets of verbal cold water thrown by Andy Grotelueschen’s blunt-speaking flatmate Jeff.
“Michael, part of the problem is that you don’t recognize you’re all of the problem,” Jeff tells him. He rightly sums Dorothy up as “this ‘Faye Dunaway as a gym coach, glittering, clearance sale, Jack Sparrow’ character.”
It is Jeff who tells Michael: “At a time when women are literally clutching their power back from between the legs of men, you have the audacity to take a job away from one by perpetrating one?... You’re pretending to be a woman to get a job! And you know you’ll have to take a pay cut.”
If the words are mostly on point, the music, design, and choreography of Tootsie rarely rise above meh.
Why the producers have decided to change the meta-backdrop from the daffy daytime soap of the movie to a Broadway show is theirs to explain. Write what you know I guess (and a musical-within-a-musical yields more tunes), but the absurdities of a daytime soap—ageing lothario doctors, back-from-the-dead, long lost cousin plot twists—yield more guffawish humor than “Juliet’s Curse, a musical continuation of Romeo and Juliet.” A loopy update of Romeo and Juliet is not that strange.
Reg Rogers plays the convincingly sexist director (his very own Dabney Coleman), and Michael McGrath as Michael’s agent Stan milks his moment of discovering the truth about Dorothy for all its comic worth. He also tells Michael, “Be a he, be a she, be a they, use whatever bathroom you want and don’t let anybody tell you, you can’t.”
Julie Halston as producer Rita Marshall has her own riot, with one of the best lines of the show about a not-so-dead husband.
The musical also brings us John Behlmann as Max Van Horn. In the movie Van Horn is the out-of-it actor who needs the teleprompter to remember his lines and who falls for Dorothy as the actress whose character abuses his character so fulsomely on the show.
In the musical, Max is a young, vain, well-meaning, brainless hunk, forever required to take off his shirt (it just falls off when it needs to), and is bewitched by how “sturdy” Dorothy is. Behlmann hams it up perfectly. Sarah Stiles is equally wonderful as Sandy, Michael’s buddy and sometime girlfriend, whose untethered-stream-of-consciousness-made-song, ‘What’s Gonna Happen’—combining the hell of auditions, colonoscopies, and Judge Antonin Scalia—is one of the evening’s best.
‘Unstoppable,’ which closes out act one, is the musical’s version of the magazine covers sequence of the movie (which was accompanied vocally with Stephen Bishop’s ‘Tootsie’), leading to a tableau not of magazines as in the film but of names of lead female characters that Dorothy may play on flashing neon billboards. Costume designer William Ivey Long recreates Dorothy’s triumphant red glittering dress, here with a scoop neck.
Oddly, for a show that wants to prove its feminist worth, the character it serves least well is Lilli Cooper’s Julie Nichols, whose character is a little blank (and similarly her songs). The book again is sharper: in this musical version, Julie goes to kiss Dorothy, not realizing Dorothy is Michael. The musical leaves the duo in a convincing state of friendship/romance suspension at the end.
Michael’s take-home from dressing as Dorothy is that “being a woman is no job for a man.” He says it with a self-admonishing sigh, as if to renounce the revels of the previous two hours; here is a man who has only been able to empathize with or understand what women face by impersonating one. This Tootsie is slightly lost in its own cloud of sequins and cultural intent.