Arts Review

Tootsie, Then and Now

The new musical Tootsie begins with a chorus number straight out of the Musical Theater 101 playbook: “The night is falling on Manhattan / And soon the daylight will be gone. / Anticipation’s all around you / As one by one the lights are coming on.” It’s a quintessential “anything can happen in New York” opener, one heard in countless shows since the genre’s birth, a classic scene-setting gambit, alerting the audience to expect an evening of captivating strivers, yearning to make their mark in the capital of the world. The enthusiastic chorus sings: “Nowhere more delicious. / Everything’s inviting. / Everything’s the best. / Every soul is soaring. / Everyone’s ambitious. / No one here is boring.” Hmmm, you think. The lyrics are a bit on-the-nose, and the staging seems a little tacky, doesn’t it? Could this really be a musical created by serious practitioners in the year 2019? It all seems somewhat . . . corny? The number gets cheesier and cheesier until, suddenly, one of the choristers steps forward and calls for the orchestra to stop. It’s our protagonist, the actor Michael Dorsey, who questions his motivation as an anonymous city dweller. He’s given himself a complicated “backstory” and demands that the director acknowledge and adjust the staging accordingly. With relief, we realize that the cliché-fest on display was merely part of a show-within-a-show. The cantankerous Michael is fired, and the chorus turns to the audience and begins the actual opening number of Tootsie—set to the same music but now with vibrant, witty lyrics: “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.”

Based on the 1982 hit film of the same name, Tootsie spotlights a talented but self-sabotaging actor. Michael (played of course by Dustin Hoffman in the film and, in the new musical, by Santino Fontana) has the talent to succeed, but his artistic intransigence and his inability to work collaboratively have consigned him to a life on the outside, looking in. He waits tables to pay the rent, suffers through auditions, gets fired from show after show, and is finally told by his long-suffering agent that his reputation in the business is incurably toxic. In a moment of desperation, he disguises himself as a woman, who calls herself Dorothy Michaels, and auditions for a role, gambling that if he’s not recognized, he might have a shot. It works. He is cast, and he quickly becomes successful—not just good in his new role, but somehow important, a figure of enlightenment and positive change for the show and the people around him.

In the film, the role that Michael gets is on a popular soap opera. In the Broadway show, this has been changed to a musical play called Juliet’s Curse, which seems to be a sort of strange sequel to Romeo and Juliet. As rehearsals progress, Dorothy takes charge—criticizing the writing, the directing and even the design of the show (in one outlandish moment, she summarily instructs a nonplussed wardrobe mistress to change the costumes overnight from Renaissance to Fellini/1950s). In the process, Dorothy’s role as Juliet’s Nurse, a minor character as originally envisioned, becomes more central to the show’s plot. The Nurse increasingly exhorts Juliet to stand up for herself and eventually begins to express her own needs and—apparently, for the show-within-a-show plot details are sketchy—becomes more central to the story. “I Like What She’s Doing,” sing the writers, producer and cast in an extended production number. The love plot morphs, and the male lead, Romeo’s brother Craig—played by a reality TV show dimwit (amusingly portrayed by John Behlmann)—now falls in love with the Nurse instead of Juliet. Eventually, the show is renamed from Juliet’s Curse to Juliet’s Nurse. Fighting all of this is the play’s buffoonish, no-talent director, Ron Carlisle (played by Reg Rogers and sounding, as always, like Snagglepuss in the old Hanna-Barbera cartoons). Ron is Dorothy/Michael’s nemesis, but the story’s real problem is that Michael falls in love with his leading lady, Julie Nichols. Julie only knows him as Dorothy, whom she comes to think of as a beloved friend.

Tootsie is arguably the greatest film comedy of the 1980s. Directed by Sydney Pollack, the movie had a famously fraught production history, with a script touched by over a dozen writers. Larry Gelbart and Murray Schisgal eventually received formal Writers Guild credit, but apparently Elaine May, among others, made important contributions. Whatever happened behind the scenes does not register on film, as the screenplay is near perfection from a structural perspective. And it remains truly uproarious—anchored by Hoffman’s blockbuster performance, but also full of generously elaborated work by its supporting cast, a collection of delicious zanies including Teri Garr as Michael’s still-close ex-girlfriend Sandy, Bill Murray as his roommate Jeff, Dabney Coleman as Ron the sexist director, George Gaynes as an aging lothario on the soap, Charles Durning as Julie’s father (a character cut in the musical), and Pollack himself as Michael’s agent.

The musical’s performers have gigantic shoes to fill. Fontana was, at once, the smartest current choice for this role and, at the same time, predictably limited. His physical and gestural presence is very similar to Hoffman’s. Both actors always manifest an underlying hint of angry arrogance—an acrid tension that gives tensile strength to all of their performances and provides ideal shadings to the role of Michael, keeping it from becoming too rote. Fontana also has a strong singing voice, and he’s found a brilliant register for Dorothy’s vocals: a sort of voix mixte that blends head and chest tones to suggest femininity without resorting to falsetto, which would have grown wearying over the course of the show.

Yet Fontana, for all his skills, lacks the touch of genius that animates all of Hoffman’s acting, and particularly his Michael/Dorothy. Hoffman’s line readings are ceaselessly eccentric and hilarious, his physicality constantly surprising. Even throwaway lines in the film are sources of wonder, so idiosyncratic that the performance remains fresh even with repeat viewings. (In one priceless moment, when Dorothy learns of a friend’s night of heavy drinking, she prudishly clucks to herself, “Hmph! Hard liquor!”). Hoffman seems to be discovering the character and the situations as he progresses, whereas Fontana hits his moments with a matter-of-fact directness—correct but never quite inspired. At the end of the story, Michael, his charade exposed and his life in tatters, finds the furious Julie and says to her, “I was a better man with you as a woman than I ever was with a woman as a man.” Hoffman works out this sentence as he says it, awkwardly trying to articulate the complex mystery of what he’s learned. Fontana delivers the line confidently and clearly—the moral of the story that Michael now nobly proffers.

The most changed character in the new iteration is that of Julie, the co-star with whom Michael falls in love. In the film, she is passive, dreamy, wounded—and in the midst of an abusive affair with the director, Ron. What made the character viable was Jessica Lange’s extraordinary, Oscar-winning performance. Lange filled the character with enigmatic grace notes, suggesting a rich inner life and a deep, untapped intelligence. She conveyed the same kind of luscious aura that made Marilyn Monroe so treasurable in Some Like It Hot, with the same sexual charisma. And like so many of Monroe’s characters, Lange’s Julie capitalized on an audience’s propensity to feel protective of beautiful, fragile women. In the scene toward the end of the film, when, following a terrible misunderstanding, she tells Dorothy that they can no longer be friends, her radiantly open face becomes guarded, her eyes darting to diagonal extremes, unwilling to engage in the humili­ation of acknowledging their mutual hurt, her inner light extinguishing as she closes the door on what had been the only happy relationship in her life. It’s an acting master class.

As radiant as Lange is, and as lovable as she makes Julie, the film’s characterization simply could not stand in 2019, and so the character now becomes a somewhat less dimensional, but more acceptable, heroine. The musical’s Julie, charmingly played by Lilli Cooper, is smart, self-centered, and completely capable of standing up for herself. She is no longer in a relationship with Ron but is happily single, wholly dedicated to pursuing success as an actress. In the lovely, Joni Mitchell-esque song, “There Was John,” she explains to Dorothy that she gave up a promising long-term relationship in favor of her career—and it is this mutual dedication that now bonds the two characters and makes Michael fall in love. In the film, when Michael-as-Dorothy makes an inadvertent pass at Julie, she recoils in confusion, but in the play, the newly woke Julie considers and ultimately welcomes the possibility of a same-sex relationship.

Tootsie is composer David Yazbek’s first show since his big success with The Band’s Visit. Every one of his scores has been strong in its own way, from the vibrant Full Monty to the jaunty Dirty Rotten Scoundrels to the eclectic Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. His sound is classic Broadway, but with offbeat rhythms, spiky melodies, and odd “wrong” notes. He delights in pastiche songs that subvert themselves but is equally expert at serious ballads, as exemplified in Tootsie’s “Who Are You?” and “Talk to Me Dorothy.” Best of all are his motor-mouthed patter numbers, a genre he perfected with Women on the Verge’s “Model Behavior,” and which he now tops with Sandy’s “What’s Gonna Happen,” a showstopping, rapid-fire portrait of the life of a frustrated actress. (Sarah Stiles nails the song—and the role—bringing a neurotic energy that manages to be both exasperating and lovable.) Pop composers who come to Broadway are generally unable to write for character and plot; their style does not encompass those dramaturgical needs. Yazbek is the opposite—a truly theatrical musician who always roots his songs in individual character and situation. Just as strong as the score is Robert Horn’s book, which truly lives up to the ideal in that much-maligned nomenclature “situation comedy.” The laughs come from the situations and the characters therein, not from gags or one-liners.

The musical’s production team have unfortunately not performed at Yazbek and Horn’s level. Director Scott Ellis is a solid, journeyman artist, the opposite of a visionary. He knows how a show goes, but he never lifts it to the next level. And he doesn’t have an eye for imaginative design. William Ivey Long’s costumes come off best. He has more leeway with Dorothy’s gowns than Ruth Morley did in the film: because of the camera’s proximity, all of Hoffman’s outfits had to be high-necked, so as to cover his Adam’s apple. Fontana is far enough away from even the closest audience member that he can wear low-cut gowns without problem. David Rockwell’s sets, on the other hand, are surprisingly drab, and blame for this must fall in Ellis’ lap; as the director, part of his job is to push his collaborators to their best work. In an era when commercial stage design is increasingly inventive and elaborate, it’s jarring to see a show that looks like a throwback to the bad old days of the late 1980s and early ’90s. In a way, the show’s overall conventionality—including the barely acceptable choreography by Denis Jones—feels like an even further throwback: to the dime-a-dozen musical comedies of the 1960s which mixed slightly bawdy farce, contemporary urban settings, and zippy scores, all placed within a framework of makeshift staging and design. Most of these shows—Skyscraper, Henry Sweet Henry, How Now, Dow Jones—are barely remembered, although the better ones, like Promises, Promises, still survive. Tootsie, in its visual and physical blandness, feels like a relic of that era.

Tootsie the musical more or less follows the arc of the movie but with enough changes to keep it from feeling like a lazy copy. The biggest alteration, from soap opera to play, makes sense for a stage work but does engender some problems. Most importantly, you lose the notion that Dorothy has become a nationally recognized phenomenon. In the film, she makes the cover of TV Guide and People, and we’re told frequently that her views have made a difference to a lot of women. She’s inspired and empowered them. Stage musicals, the recent phenomenon of Hamilton notwithstanding, do not have that kind of impact—especially ones that are just in rehearsal, as Juliet’s Curse/Nurse is until the final moments of the show.

A bigger problem with the new setup is that the show-within-a-show seems almost incomprehensible. Just what was Juliet’s Curse going to be about, anyway? A sort of sequel to Romeo and Juliet—but a comic one, full of power ballads and goofy faux-Italian tarantellas? The scenes we see look awful—spoofy and retro—but it’s hard to tell if this is intentional or not. There’s no way this show could be produced on today’s Broadway. We’re told that Dorothy’s artistic integrity and her feminist principles have dramatically improved the production during the rehearsal process—in fact, it seems to have undergone an impossibly complete makeover in plot and design in just a few weeks—but the bit of the opening night performance we see seems just as silly as the earlier rehearsal scenes.

Tootsie has always been about a man who becomes a better person through the profession of acting. He plays a better person than himself—a more empathetic person, a more enlightened person—and discovers that it takes him further. People like him more. He gets more work. His relationships are more fulfilling. And he realizes that he needs not just to play that role but to become it. But Tootsie now finds itself in a changed world when it comes to gender politics—its central subject—and the show works hard to avoid feeling dated. It is full of “teachable moments”: lines and situations that signal the show’s wish to make important statements that it wants the audience to learn from. The character of Jeff now plays a key role in this mission. He remains the voice of wry skepticism so memorably performed by Murray, but he also foregrounds the politically problematic aspects of Michael’s actions. In the film, Jeff pointed out the logistical challenges of Michael’s charade. In the musical, he points out that Michael’s masquerade might rob real women of the few good roles available to them, and that Michael’s gender performance might be offensively stereotypical. Fortunately, the actor Andy Grotelueschen handles these didactic moments with grace and finds his own slacker rhythm, different from Murray’s but equally inspired. At the top of the second act, he has a delightful number, “Jeff Sums It Up,” in which he profanely castigates Michael for the fine mess he’s created. Grotelueschen caps it with a goofy, taunting, shuffling dance, capturing the physical rush of an epically justified instance of “I told you so.”

Many of the attitudes in the film have been mercifully updated; for example, the play is much less concerned than the film with asserting Michael’s heterosexuality. Hoffman’s Michael sleeps with numerous women, including Sandy, and goes to great lengths to stress his macho bona fides. The musical’s Michael is a millennial (Fontana was born in the year the film came out), raised in an era that views such conspicuous displays of gender performance with suspicion. And, as noted, Julie’s character has shed her passivity and her discomfort with the idea of a same-sex relationship. These changes are admirable, but they can’t quite overcome the fact that the central situation in the story holds inherent challenges.

Perhaps the key problem for Tootsie in the #MeToo era is that it is, inevitably, a story about feminism and gender politics told almost exclusively through a male lens. In this sense, it is the equivalent of all those works about racism which are really about a white protagonist who learns to be a better person, thanks to the black people he or she encounters; or the films purportedly about colonialism which are actually about a European confronting “exotic” natives and undergoing a personal transformation. We spend a lot of time with Michael, but Julie and Sandy are really only seen through his eyes. Younger audiences have a hard time connecting with such protagonists. Why should they invest time (and money) in caring about this jerk in the first place, even if he does finally come around?

What’s more, would Michael really be more listened to as a woman? Isn’t the problem that opinionated, outspoken men get taken seriously, but similar women are dismissed? In the film, Michael says “I’ve got a lot I can say to women.” He’s going to fix gender politics—and the implication is that it will take a man to do something that women have not been able to achieve. Such direct statements are gone from the play—in fact, in the final reconciliation scene with Julie, Michael makes a point of saying that he wants to stop talking and to start listening to women—but the mechanics of the plot remain what they were in the film. In retrospect, the film was never as progressive as it seemed to be in 1982. The story’s villain, the chauvinist pig Ron, is so cartoonish that he lets the audience off the hook. Most sexual harassment and gender discrimination was—and is—more subtle and insidious than Ron’s ghastly, inept behavior. As an essentially farcical comedy, Tootsie can’t quite carry the weight of its implications.

The musical’s tagline led to some controversy that demonstrated the perils of gender politics in the current moment. “Being a woman is no job for a man,” proclaimed the show’s posters. The intention was to suggest that the plethora of daily micro- and macro-inequities that all women face, from condescension and unequal pay in the workplace to harassing behavior on the streets, would exhaust even the hardiest man. This is partly the lesson that Michael learns: living as a woman hardens him but also softens him, makes him more compassionate, gives him insight into the implications of his behavior. The trans and trans-supporting community, however, took issue with the tagline’s implication that a man cannot be—or become—a woman. Taken at face value, the phrase could be read as an abrupt dismissal of trans identity. The ensuing debate, one barely imaginable when the film came out, demonstrated just how much the world has changed in the last 37 years. Tootsie is a brilliant, hilarious film, but its politics are of its time. The new musical, for all the pleasure to be found in its book and score and many of its performances, does not quite make a case for trying to tell this story at this moment.