Nearly four decades after Dustin Hoffman put on a dress, slipped on high heels and hit the silver screen as Michael Dorsey in “Tootsie,” the story is being remade as a new comedy musical on Broadway.
Dorsey is an out-of-work actor who, for lack of other opportunities, auditioned for a woman’s role in a TV soap opera — as a woman. Dorsey, or Dorothy Michaels as he renames himself, gets the part. But not without a host of complications.
Nearly four decades later, the new version, a Broadway musical, is getting rave reviews.
Santino Fontana has stepped into the role of Dorsey, and in this incarnation, he’s auditioning for a farcical musical sequel to Romeo and Juliet, “Juliet’s Nurse.”
But that’s not the only difference. Without preaching, lecturing or losing a beat of humor, this “Tootsie” reflects a culture of feminism, and takes on stereotypes from ageism to gender roles.
The show is up for 11 Tony Awards, including best actor for Fontana, best original score for David Yazbek — who also wrote the music and lyrics for the Tony-winning musical “The Band’s Visit” — and best book of a musical for writer Robert Horn.
The music itself receiving accolades, but Fontana’s voice makes it soar. His uncanny ability to sing in a falsetto so powerful and convincing was labeled by The New York Times as “one of the six biggest mysteries of the Broadway season.”
“I don’t think it’s a superpower,” Fontana says. “I don’t know if it’s really a falsetto. It’s just a different extension of ‘How are we going to make these two characters different?’ ”
Fontana says that idea came into focus over the three years of developing the show.
Yazbek says he didn’t write the character’s songs with Fontana in mind, but he’s grateful Fontana got the part.
“Thank God he is in the show, because when I was writing it, I had no concern or thought for the person who was going to have to do it,” Yazbek says.
Fontana says even Yazbek was surprised by his range.
“In one rehearsal,” he says, “we added something where there’s a high D … and David came up to me after the run-through and said, ‘Can you do that?’ And I was like, ‘What I just did?’ ”
Yazbek explains that as a jazz musician who performs a few times a month, he just couldn’t fathom that Fontana could do it “eight times a week.”
When it comes to the question of why remake “Tootsie,” Horn says the story still resonates decades later.
“At the core, the DNA of this story is about a man who was desperate, who was told, ‘You can no longer do the one thing that you love more than anything,’ ” Horn says. “And what would you do, in your life, if somebody told you that?”
Horn says that premise — and the poor choices that Dorsey makes — are the perfect setup for farce and comedy.
“And once we knew that was all we had to honor, and that we could write our own version of ‘Tootsie’ based on that, and then bring back from the movie anything or nothing that we wanted to use, it all sort of organically started to take place,” he says.
“Tootsie” was written before the era of #MeToo, at a time when men wearing dresses could always generate a laugh. Horn and Fontana also comment on how the updates make the show relevant for 2019. For one, Dorothy Michaels is a feminist, empowering the women she works with in the musical.
Fontana says the story is also is still relatable because deep down, “Tootsie” is about empathy.
“This highlights the power of stepping into someone else’s shoes, and in the process, learning about their experience and being able to transfer from sympathy to empathy,” he says. “And Billy Wilder has a great quote that says, ‘If you’re going to tell someone the truth, you better make them laugh, or they’ll kill you.’ And that’s exactly what we’re doing.”
Fontana also notes the play shatters a number of stereotypes. In a nod to gender fluidity, Julie — the woman who Dorsey falls in love with while he’s impersonating Dorothy — isn’t repelled by his kiss. Instead, she tells Dorsey — thinking he’s a woman — that she’d like to give a relationship a try. And when Dorothy replies that she’s not a lesbian, Julie Nichols, played by actress Lilli Cooper simply replies, “Neither am I.”
That theme of stereotypes, Fontana says, isn’t obvious at first glance.
“But when you step into it, you realize, ‘Oh, gosh, this is saying so much about humanity, and that you have to find common ground,’ ” he says.
While Fontana’s character dominates the stage, the show is very much an ensemble cast, with strong performances by Cooper as love interest Julie, Sarah Stiles as neurotic ex-girlfriend Sandy Lester, John Behlmann as absurdly buff actor Max Von Horn, and Andy Grotelueschen as Michael’s wise-cracking, advice-giving roommate, Jeff Slater.
Fontana says the character of Jeff serves as a challenge to Dorsey — calling out his absurd behavior.
“David and I early on realized that the audience needed a window in — a point of view saying, ‘You’re not going to get away with this. This is a stupid thing to do. What are you doing?’ The character of Jeff fulfils that role,” Fontana says.
When it comes to the show’s music, Yazbek admits that it couldn’t be more different than his last show, “The Band’s Visit,” where his influences included visits to Lebanon to see his grandparents when he was a child. The songs defied the Broadway genre, with smaller numbers, and less than one minute, at the end of the show, where all the voices on stage came together — a moment he called “transcendent.”
Yazbek says there was an overlap where he was working on both shows.
“It was interesting to be bouncing from that personal quiet show” to uproarious comedy, he says, adding that it was incredibly valuable and refreshing to be able to do that.
Yazbek calls “Tootsie” the funniest show he’s ever seen. “This is Larry Gelbart, Neil Simon territory, I think,” he says.
But Yazbek also admits that his music is “eclectic to a fault.”
“I’d like to hope that you’d be able to hear me in the songs,” he says.
Audience members might hear strains of his song “Model Behavior” from his 2009 production of “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown,” in the “Tootsie” number, “What’s Gonna Happen,” sung by Stiles.
In the end though, it’s the combination of humor and drama that makes the show relevant, Fontana says.
He points to an exchange between Dorsey and Nichols, where Dorsey apologizes for his behavior, saying he knows that he messed up. But instead of forgiving him, Nichols says, “No you don’t. You think because you walked a mile in a women’s shoes you suddenly know? Walk a hundred, walk a thousand, and then fall a thousand more. Because there’s so much you don’t know about so much.”
That exchange, Fontana says, is “the point of the story.”
“He’s on the road to beginning to learn, and she does not need to forgive him,” Fontana says. “He has to become aware … and other people have to make sure there’s a reckoning.”
This article was originally published on WBUR.org.