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Challenges face the creators of Tootsie 2.0
GUEST COLUMN
by Karen Topham
2018-09-05

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In the 1982 hit movie Tootsie, Dustin Hoffman plays Michael Dorsey, an out-of-work actor who, in a fit of desperation, decides to audition for a job as a woman. "Dorothy Michaels" gets the role and, through a series of actions a real woman of that era would never have tried ( including changing scripts willy-nilly and hitting a costar over the head with a stack of papers ) becomes a star and an icon for women everywhere, a symbol of women standing up to men.

The sexist message that it just might take a man to help women be strong is buried beneath more positive messages about growth and understanding, but it is nonetheless present.

Also present is a not insignificant latent homophobia and transphobia, manifested in the repeated jokes about how Dorothy looks ( "I'd like to make her look a little more attractive; how far can you pull back?" "How do you feel about Cleveland?" ) as well as an aborted relationship between "Dorothy" and Les, the father of Dorothy's young female costar, Julie.

In its time, Tootsie, which is undeniably funny, was seen as provocative and empowering, its minor indiscretions ignored in favor of its light hilarity and Hoffman's Oscar-nominated performance.

Adapting Tootsie into a musical suitable for 2018 sensibilities, then, is a bit of a tightrope walk: For the Broadway-bound production opening Sept. 11 in Chicago, composer David Yazbek ( a Tony winner for The Band's Visit ) and book writer Robert Horn ( 13 ) and director Scott Ellis have had to preserve the central story but at the same time make it more palatable both from a gender bias and sexual identity perspective.

The writers say that this is precisely what they have done. "A number of surprises and twists" are in store for audiences, said Horn. "[Audiences] will be pleasantly surprised by the choices we've made."

Playing the starring role of Michael Dorsey/Dorothy Michaels is Santino Fontana ( Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Frozen, Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella ). Fontana feels that his character has been significantly updated in this new incarnation. He acknowledges that "Michael makes a terrible decision in order to get a job. I don't think he is aware at all at the beginning of the piece of the ramifications of what he is doing, but at the end of the piece, which is what Robert ( Horn ) has done, he acknowledges how many people he is offending with this terrible decision."

That level of understanding and contrition is missing from Hoffman's 1982 character. In the film, Michael does grow from the man who makes all sorts of "terrible decisions" to one who can tell Julie, "I was a better man with you, as a woman, than I ever was with a woman, as a man" and mean it. That shows a kind of understanding but it's a long way from seeing the real mess he's made of everything and all of the people he has hurt.

"I think one thing our show is successful in is Michael's ability to feel remorse and understand how heinous this act was and change and grow from it," said Lilli Cooper ( Spongebob Squarepants, Spring Awakening ), who plays Julie in the musical. Fontana agreed. "People battle all the time to find their authentic selves and he co-opted that for his own personal gain," he said. "But ( Michael ) has remorse and has to learn from the insanity he's engaged in."

Some of that insanity in the film comes from others' reactions to his cross-dressed character. Here's movie Les speaking to Michael after learning "Dorothy" is really a man. "The only reason you're still alive is because I never kissed you." In 1982 audiences found the line hilarious. Today, it fairly drips with both homophobia and transphobia. The musical's creators say that the line is among those that have been excised—leaving the script the better for it.

In the musical version, said cast member Reg Rogers ( who plays unrepentant sexist director Ron Carlisle ), that scene isn't about transphobia or homophobia "as much as a man whose wife had died and it was the first time he'd put his heart out there and he was pissed off that he'd been taken for a sucker."

Julie Halston ( who plays soap opera producer Rita Marshall ), agreed. "In this musical it's all about human beings. It's not necessarily about transgender issues, but it is sort of elevated to be about humans. In its attempt to be less specific it becomes bigger."

"If something was to diminish a man or a woman, it's gone," Halston said, adding that she also believes the musical is very attuned to 2018 views on gender and sexuality.

Rogers affirmed that. "This production is stronger in the sense that what Michael learns from wearing a dress is much more moving in this story. It was a gimmick in the movie, but in the musical, the dress really takes him through a journey," he said.

Michael's "beautiful journey," Rogers added, is one that the entire creative team had to be on as well.

"If the journey resonates now, it's relevant today," Rogers said. "If it fails to resonate, we've all failed."

Tootsie opens Sept. 11 at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph. For more information, got to tootsiemusical.com


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