The familiar rap on flawed Broadway musicals usually goes something like this: “Well, the score is great…but the book has problems.”
Enter “Tootsie,” red sequins ablaze, a new musical adapted from the popular 1982 movie starring Dustin Hoffman as a luckless actor who finds stardom in a wig and a girdle. In this exception-that-proves-the-rule, the book, by Robert Horn, ranks among the flat-out funniest written for a new musical in the past decade, with Horn not only drawing on the clever original story by Don McGuire and the great Larry Gelbart, but spritzing it with considerable doses of his own fresh wit. I haven’t laughed as much or as hard at a Broadway musical since — I can’t remember, to be honest.
But when they strike up the band, the workmanlike score, by David Yazbek, drains most of the fizz from the champagne. Yazbek won a Tony last year for “The Band’s Visit,” which certainly marks his finest achievement to date. (I still felt it was ersatz-sounding Middle Eastern music, but never mind.) With his songs for “Tootsie,” unfortunately, he reverts to the familiar form on display in “The Full Monty,” “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” and “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.” Which is to say: pleasant, generic-show-tune competence, with the occasional bright flash of inspiration.
This is a particular pity because in addition to its outstanding book, “Tootsie,” directed with ample polish by Scott Ellis, features a terrific cast led by Santino Fontana, who gives an immensely winning, dexterous performance in the, er, title role. In the movie, Hoffman was only winkingly convincing as a woman. Fontana, by contrast, manages to find an authentic voice both for Michael Dorsey and for Dorothy Michaels — the feminine alter ego Michael invents. His nimble performance, in masculine and feminine registers that gradually blend together as Michael matures emotionally when he learns what it’s like to be treated as a woman, provides the musical with a rock-solid, magnetic center.
Although it follows the basic outlines of the movie’s story, the musical is set in the present day, and the industry that Michael-as-Dorothy finds success in is not soap operas (RIP) but Broadway, the better to accommodate the new infusion of music. Michael is a relentlessly self-serious actor whose devotion to his craft — or, if you like, his actorly pretension — keeps getting him locked out of jobs, or kicked off of jobs.
As in the movie, he’s supplied with a morose aspiring playwright roommate, Jeff, played in hilarious snarky-deadpan mode by Andy Grotelueschen. Michael accidentally hits upon a plan to end his career inertia when his ex-girlfriend, Sandy (Sarah Stiles), droops into their apartment and begs for help to prepare for an upcoming audition for a Broadway musical “continuation” of “Romeo and Juliet.”
Sandy’s patter song of complaint, “What’s Gonna Happen,” in which she predicts all the ways her audition will go wrong, is among the show’s musical highlights, with Yazbek at his lyrically funniest as Sandy details in breathless song her blossoming anxieties. Stiles, a Tony nominee for “Hand to God,” knocks it out of the park, giving a master class in the many varieties of thespian neurosis. Throughout the show, Horn — and to a lesser degree Yazbek — supply fresh helpings of chewy comic material for both of these terrific actors, who are so talented they manage to make you forget that their roles in the movie were played by the dual comic geniuses Bill Murray and Teri Garr.
While coaching Sandy, the frustrated Michael makes the impulsive decision to go up for the role of the Nurse himself — and, presto, a star is born, with the help of a stuffed bra, sensible heels and a fluffed wig. In rehearsal Michael falls for the ingénue, Julie (Lilli Cooper, warm in a rather thankless role), and tussles with the show’s pompous choreographer-director, Ron, played with his nigh-trademarked oiliness by Reg Rogers. Also supplying festive comic trimming are veterans Julie Halston, as the musical’s producer (“I’ve got twelve million riding on this show – none of it mine”), and Michael McGrath, as Michael’s actor-weary agent, Stan (when Michael protests that he’s a “name,” Stan shoots back: “To the IRS and your mother”).
In 1982, of course, Michael’s masquerading as a woman could be played for harmless man-in-a-dress gags, although a recent viewing of the movie reminded me that it was, for its era, surprisingly “woke.” In his guise as Dorothy, Hoffman’s Michael fended off unwanted romantic overtures on set and off, and was subjected to paternalistic condescension from men who are depicted as (mostly) cretins.
More than 35 years and a social upheaval caused by the #metoo movement later, the musical must tread even more gently around issues of gender — and indeed the show practically performs somersaults to establish its respectable bona fides on this front. Jeff upbraids Michael for “pretending to be a woman to get a job,” although he adds, “and you know you’ll have to take a pay cut.” Julie’s big solo is a song about a man that got away because she refused to give up her career to play housewife. And, in contrast to the movie, in which Jessica Lange’s Julie was sleeping with her sleazy boss, here Julie, with the support of Dorothy, fends off his predatory assaults from the start.
To sum up: Move along, folks! Nothing to offend here!
And there’s much to delight. I wouldn’t discourage anyone from seeing the show, if only to savor the abundance of its tart humor and its across-the-board savory performances. (Tempting as it is, I won’t spoil the delicious running gag about Michael inventing a backstory for his alter ego by swiping from classic dramas — it’s practically worth the price of a ticket.)
Still, all that accomplishment makes the bland, mostly generic flavor of Yazbek’s score more dispiriting. Yazbek tries his best to juice the comedy in a couple of numbers from the show-within-the-show, which Michael refashions (implausibly) from “Juliet’s Curse” to “Juliet’s Nurse” — thus ensuring himself the starring role opposite the reality-show-star dunderhead playing Romeo’s brother, Craig (portrayed in hilarious dimmest-of-bulbs mode by John Behlmann). But the mocking of bad Broadway musicals has been a trope within Broadway musicals since “The Producers” and even before, to the point that the joke has been worn threadbare. And the choreography, by Denis Jones, for the laugh-at-the-bad-musical numbers is almost indistinguishable from his dances for the actual musical.
Yazbek is undeniably a solid craftsman, who knows how to shape an inspirational ballad (as in Dorothy-as-the-Nurse’s “I Won’t Let You Down”), a rousing first-act closer (“Unstoppable”) or an opening-night let’s-put-on-a-show ensemble number. But in “Tootsie,” the songs for the most part don’t heighten the show’s appeal. On the contrary, they are mostly — warning: big bad pun ahead! — a drag on it.
“Tootsie” opened at the Marquis Theatre on Tues., April 23, 2019.
Creative: 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;
Producers: Scott Sanders, Carol Fineman, Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield, Columbia Live Stage, Sally Horchow, James L. Nederlander,Benjamin Lowy, Cindy and Jay Gutterman/Marlene and Gary Cohen, Judith Ann Abrams Productions, Robert Greenblatt, Stephanie P. McClelland, Candy Spelling, Jam Theatricals, Roy Furman, Michael Harrison/David Ian, Jamie deRoy/Catherine Adler/Wendy Federman/Heni Koenigsberg, JAA Productions/Stella LaRue/Silva Theatrical Group, Toho Co. Ltd., Jonathan Littman, Peter May,Janet and Marvin Rosen, Seriff Productions, Iris Smith, Bob Boyett, Thomas L. Miller, Larry J. Kroll/Douglas L. Meyer, Victoria Lang/Scott Mauro, Brunish/Caiola/Fuld Jr/Epic Theatricals, Ted Liebowitz/Lassen Blume Baldwin, The John Gore Organization,Ronald Frankel, Char-Park Productions, Chris and Ashlee Clarke, Fakston Productions, The Woodland Hills Broadway Group, 2 Js and an A, Inc., Tom McGrath/42nd.club, Drew Hodges and Peter Kukielski, Jim Fantaci, Frederike and Bill Hecht, Brad Lamm and Independent Presenters Network.
Cast: Santino Fontana, John Behlmann, Lilli Cooper, Andy Grotelueschen, Julie Halston, Michael McGrath, Reg Rogers, Sarah Stiles, Paula Leggett Chase, Britney Coleman, Leslie Donna Flesner, John Arthur Greene, Drew King, Harris Milgrim, Shina Ann Morris, James Moye, Katerina Papacostas, Nick Spangler, Diana Vaden, Anthony Wayne.