Monday, May 13, 2019

Tootsie: In Name Only

 Julie Halston, James Moye, Santino Fontana, Lilli Cooper, John Behlmann in Tootsie. (Photo: Matthew Murphy)

The new musical of Tootsie, with a book by Robert Horn and music and lyrics by David Yazbek, has “smash hit” written all over it. It’s slick and rapid-fire. The veteran director, Scott Ellis (who’s also represented on Broadway this season by the revival of Kiss Me, Kate at Studio 54), and his expert cast build the farce perfectly, so that the more complications that are piled on top of the premise – actor Michael Dorsey (Santino Fontana), whose temperament has made it impossible for his agent (Michael McGrath) to land him jobs, finally gets one by presenting himself as a woman, Dorothy Michaels – the funnier it is. Rather than set the story in the period in which the movie was made, the early eighties, Horn has contemporized it. There are #MeToo jokes – Michael’s wry aspiring-playwright roommate Jeff Slater (Andy Grotelueschen) quips that in an era when women are literally seizing power from between the legs of men, Michael is risking infuriating everyone by pretending to be female. There are jokes about sexual fluidity – when Michael, forgetting momentarily that he’s in drag, kisses his co-star, Julie Nichols (Lilli Cooper), whom he’s fallen for, instead of scaring her off since she’s not gay, she likes him so much that she decides to try to be gay. It’s all very up to the minute, and the audience at the Saturday matinee I attended screamed with laughter. I would be dishonest if I said that I didn’t have a pretty good time, too. But I haven’t the slightest idea what the hell this Tootsie is about.

I have no trouble elucidating what the 1982 movie, with its script by Larry Gelbart and Murray Schisgal (with uncredited contributions by Elaine May, Barry Levinson, Robert Garland and reportedly many others) and direction by Sydney Pollack, is about. It’s an unconventional romantic comedy – I’d say one of the half-dozen finest ever produced in this country – that borrows from Twelfth Night and As You Like It the device of cross-dressing not only the way Shakespeare employed it, to fertilize the dramatic ground for farce while getting at the unstoppable potency of the erotic force, but also to address the problems of male-female relationships in a society that’s finally trying to achieve gender equality. Michael (Dustin Hoffman, in his most pleasurable performance, and certainly one of his two or three best) thinks of himself as sensitive but he’s both too self-absorbed and too mired in his male privilege to examine his behavior with women. It’s only when he finds himself living a double life as himself and as Dorothy, after winning a major supporting role on a popular daytime soap opera, that he starts to notice what women have to put up with on the set, where the male star, John Van Horne (George Gaynes), is a preening womanizer who can’t take no for an answer and the director, Ron (Dabney Coleman), is a chauvinist who doesn’t take women’s opinions seriously and cheats on his girlfriend Julie (Jessica Lange), one of the series regulars. The title refers to one of Ron’s usual generalized, condescending nicknames for Dorothy or whatever woman he happens to be conversing with. It’s a romantic comedy because both the main characters change in order to deserve their shared happy ending – Michael by learning something about what it’s like to be in a woman’s shoes, Julie by learning, with his help, to value herself more both as an actor and as a person. She grows past Ron while Michael grows aware.

The movie has a secondary theme. Michael is a beloved acting teacher who rants at his students that if they’re serious about their craft they won’t fall back on the excuse that it’s hard to get work because it’s always been hard for actors to get work. He busts his own ass to get jobs, and when he loses them it’s not just because directors find him impossible; his demands come from a profound commitment to making dramatic sense out of even the most trivial and fatuous material. Sure, that commitment is often hilarious, but when he’s playing the dying Tolstoy off-off-Broadway and his director insists in rehearsal that he get up in the middle of his death scene and move center, we’re on Michael’s side, not the side of the incompetent director who couldn’t figure out how to stage the damn scene to begin with. When he dons a wig and a dress to audition for the soap as Dorothy Michaels, he’s embodying the principle that a good actor does whatever it takes, no matter how extreme, to get work; when, as Dorothy, he starts to improvise on camera to make a scene better and develop the character of the hospital administrator, Emily Kimberly, he’s embodying the principle that a good actor is tireless in the pursuit of his – or her – art. The movie Tootsie is a valentine to Method acting. One of the elements that makes it so much fun is that Michael is such a terrific actor that he learns how to think like both Dorothy and Emily – and that, of course, ties in with the primary theme.

Santino Fontana and Lilli Cooper in Tootsie. (Photo: Matthew Murphy)

Almost none of these ideas makes it into the musical; in fact, some of them have been reversed. Michael isn’t an acting teacher, though he does a little coaching for his friend and ex-girlfriend Sandy Lester (Sarah Stiles), a befuddled neurotic with zero self-esteem who goes up for the role Michael winds up getting, as the nurse in a musical sequel to Romeo and Juliet called Juliet's Curse starring Julie in the title role. In fact, though Yazbek, the gifted songwriter who scored Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown and The Band’s Visit, has come up with a good self-defining character number for Michael called “Whaddya Do?” that underlines his commitment to acting (the key phrase is “I’m all in”), at least half the time Horn’s book treats his acting as a display of narcissism that gives him an excuse for ignoring the needs of those around him. Ron is now the show’s director-choreographer (played by Reg Rogers), and he’s still sexist, but since he’s not romantically attached to Julie, his dismissiveness toward both women is a minor annoyance that plays as merely an appendage to his ego. (And, as a result, the title no longer means anything; it’s only an allusion to the musical’s celebrated source.) Because a heroine who lets herself be dominated by a man in every way her inferior and who learns to stand up for herself through the example of a woman who’s really a man wouldn’t be a good role model for 2019, Julie is grounded and self-knowing – and there goes the romantic comedy, since there’s nothing for her to learn. And for the same reason, though the musical makes a pass at the idea that Dorothy’s refurbishments to the script of Juliet's Curse (which ends up being renamed Juliet's Nurse) make a political statement, that’s mostly a gag. Dorothy doesn’t become a feminist icon the way she does in the movie, because how could a man in 2019 teach women how to claim their place in the world?

In the musical, Dorothy is supposed to represent the wise side of Michael; when he’s up against a wall at the end of act two he sings a song, “Talk to Me Dorothy,” in which he solicits her advice. In thematic terms that decision amounts to nothing at all. The show ends with the most famous line in the movie, Michael’s assertion to Julie that he was a better man as a woman than he’d ever been as a man (it’s the curtain line), but it doesn’t match the musical that precedes it. If you’re looking around for a theme, Horn gives us a few to choose from, each one delivered as a proclamation by one of the main characters: “You can’t live a lie,” “Some things are more important than acting,” “Being a woman is no job for a man” (that one gets expected cheers and applause from the audience), “Maybe the universe doesn’t revolve around only you,” “You think because you walked a mile in a woman’s shoes you know something . . . Try walking a hundred miles,” “The best bet you can make is on yourself.” They’re all equally valid and equally uninteresting.

Horn, whose last libretto was for the forgettable teen musical 13, does a clumsy job of plotting in the first act. The movie does a clever ancillary job of parodying the world of daytime soaps, where the plot lines are so silly and opportunistic that Dorothy’s improvisations are uproarious without seeming wildly implausible, but Juliet's Curse is so idiotic and amateurish that you can’t believe anyone could have persuaded the producer (Julie Halston) to put up the money. Nor can we buy the writers, Stuart (Nick Spangler) and Suzie (Britney Coleman), who, even combined, have no personality and so little conviction about their own work that they allow Dorothy to rewrite it.

This isn’t Yazbek’s best score, but it does contain some pretty ballads and some nifty comic numbers, especially “Jeff Sums It Up,” which gives schlubby, scruffy-bearded Andy Grotelueschen a chance to shine, and Sarah Stiles’s knockout solo “What’s Gonna Happen,” which is in the mode of Laura Benanati’s “Model Behavior” number in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (perhaps the funniest song anyone has written for a Broadway show, though hardly anyone got to hear it). There isn’t much choreography, and what there is, provided by Denis Jones, is unmemorable, except for the ensemble work in “I’m Alive” in the first act. Among the show’s benefits are Reg Rogers, a boost to any play, Michael McGrath, and John Behlmann as the juvenile in Juliet’s Curse, a buff, brainless dude who falls for Dorothy – the George Gaynes character from the movie wittily rethought as a young man. He gets a showcase song, too, called “This Thing.” Lilli Cooper, who was so delectable as Sandy Cheeks in last season’s SpongeBob SquarePants, sings well, especially in the rather puzzlingly staged “Gone, Gone, Gone,” but the alterations to the role of Julie haven’t left her much to work with. How is Santino Fontana in the Dustin Hoffman part? Well, skillful but a little bland, and I think that’s the fault of the writing too. Just as I never got a sense of what the show is supposed to be about, I never got a feel for Michael Dorsey. Tootsie doesn’t so much hit all the contemporary bases as skate around all the ideas from the movie that the people who put together the show seem terrified might offend someone. It’s a big neon sign with nothing written on it.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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