If you’ve seen a barely average musical production on a mid-level cruise ship sailing between inconsequential ports then you’ve seen the musical version of Tootsie. The sets are functional, colorful, and load them in the truck road show ready, the music and lyrics are somewhat digestible if you like your food quickly jammed down your throat and ultimately unfulfilling, and yes, it’s funny, but it’s funny in that about to be canceled sit com funny kind of way where every desperate joke is grasping at the closest cliché before the ship goes under.
Just because a show has a lot of jokes in a season filled with less humorous fare that has a deeper meaning doesn’t mean that we’ve got an actual musical comedy laugh riot on our hands. It most probably means that a hit and miss, slickly packaged, commercial crowd pleaser has pitched its tent pole on the grounds of the great white way and folks are so hungry for a quick chuckle that they’ll prat fall face first for all the purported shenanigans.
Based on the beloved film of the same name released in 1982 Tootsie the film and Tootsie the musical share the same basic plot. Michael Dorsey is an actor with a terrible reputation of being very difficult to work with because of his exacting standards. His agent soon informs him that he can’t get hired anywhere because no one will work with him anymore. Michael then happens upon an audition for a soap opera his on again off again girlfriend is trying to get booked on. In the musical that bit is changed from a soap opera to a musical production and a chance for, well, more music. Film Michael then decides to create a new persona for himself so that he can land that role. What follows is a series of genuinely funny and touching events that teach Michael what it really is like to live in the high heeled shoes of a women in the world of men and that is where the similarities end.
In the Broadway production we don’t get to see how the character of Dorothy is brought to life. She just suddenly appears because Michael needs her to appear. In the film we watch Dorothy come to life through Michael’s eyes and his subsequent actions concerning her. In the film Hoffman’s Michael cared about creating Dorothy. He’s picky about what Dorothy wears because she wants to look good and he wants her to feel good in his choices. Hoffman creates a three-dimensional Dorothy by listening to her wants and needs and desires.
Both Michael’s are introduced as detailed oriented actors. They each argue about the importance of their characters carefully created and detailed backstories at every given moment. They both vehemently believe that a juicy beefsteak tomato would never sit. Sadly, Fontana’s Michael throws away Dorothy’s backstory by having his writer roommate concoct one from a mashup of female characters in classic plays. Then her stitched together backstory is used for cheap laughs throughout the show. It gives the distinct impression that Michael could care less about Dorothy’s identity.
In the film Michael learns to be a better man by being Dorothy. In this show Dorothy is just another woman being used by a man to get his way in the world. He has a revelation at the end, but because Dorothy has no real presence the revelation is unsubstantiated. He was never really Dorothy to begin with. He was just Michael in a dress using Dorothy. In the end, Tootsie is a musical about a guy donning drag and no matter how many strained pro woman gags are layered into the material Dorothy is just a cardboard cutout which does a disservice not only to her but to all women.
It is important to point out that a production about a man donning the guise of a woman to achieve success that he himself cannot find on his own merits while then supposedly learning about the actual plight of women trying to achieve the very same success for less pay while being undermined and demeaned by an entrenched male dominated infrastructure is helmed entirely by men. Someone in an early preproduction meeting should have said if we’re going to remake a feminist empowered comedy classic, one that made a solid cultural impact at the time of its release about women being undervalued, underpaid, and sexually harassed, the very same subject matter that we’re unfortunately and embarrassingly still dealing with in the twenty first century then maybe, just maybe, at the very least, we should have a woman in the director’s chair.
None of that happened and it’s a shame because Tootsie is a massively missed opportunity for Broadway to have created an instant classic that entertained on a grand scale while in the process striking a decisive blow for women in general and most importantly those in the business of show.
Edward Medina is an active member of the American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA), where he serves on both the Membership and Diversity & Inclusion Committees. He is also a Drama Desk member. Edward welcomes comments at EdwardMedinaAuthor@gmail.com.
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