Santino Fontana and Lilli Cooper star in Tootsie the Musical on Broadway

Santino Fontana and Lilli Cooper Bring Laughter and Love to Tootsie

How far would you go to make your professional dreams come true? For Michael Dorsey, a New York actor whose egotism wrecked his career, a fresh start as “Dorothy Michaels” — an actress — lands him a juicy role on Broadway.

The highly anticipated new musical adaptation of Tootsie found its ideal leading man (and lady) in Tony Award nominee Santino Fontana. Stepping into the demanding dual role created on screen by Dustin Hoffman, Fontana wowed critics in the show’s recent Chicago debut. Broadway audiences will get in on the merriment when Tootsie begins performances at the Marquis Theatre March 29.

“It’s so much fun to play someone willing to sacrifice everything to get what he wants, and the fallout that comes from making a terrible decision,” says Fontana, chatting about Tootsie alongside his costar Lilli Cooper. Agrees a laughing Cooper, “It’s definitely entertaining to watch people make terrible choices.” Cooper plays Julie Nichols, Dorothy’s castmate and unlikely love interest, a role originated by Oscar-winner Jessica Lange. “We’re actors playing actors, so we can poke fun at what we do. The show is very much a love letter to theater.”

Fans of the 1982 movie, widely regarded as one of the best film comedies of all time, will recall that Dorothy becomes famous on a daytime soap opera. On Broadway, the character is cast in a wacky musical-within-the-musical sequel to Romeo and Juliet. In a seamless collaboration, Tootsie boasts a hilarious book by Robert Horn and an equally witty score by Tony Award winner David Yazbek, an expert at adapting movies ranging from The Full Monty and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and The Band’s Visit. “We’re true to the core of the movie,” explains Fontana, “but our show stands on its own. And it is screamingly funny. The reaction of the audience, from the very first preview in Chicago, has been incredible.”

A Broadway regular for more than a decade in both musicals (Cinderella, Billy Elliot) and plays (Act One, The Importance of Being Earnest), Fontana brings a dry wit and deceptively mild-mannered charm to his breakthrough role in Tootsie. “I’m very aware that a part like this doesn’t come along often, and I’m very grateful for the opportunity,” he says. Cooper, who won raves for playing Sandy Cheeks, the title character’s best buddy in the recent hit SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical, possesses the quiet confidence needed for a role that has been rethought for 21st-century audiences.

“Julie is a passionate actress, grounded and strong, and she creates a wonderful relationship with Dorothy,” explains Cooper, a Vassar graduate who spent much of her early life backstage watching the work of her father, Tony-winning actor Chuck Cooper. In Tootsie, the characters’ mutual love of the stage draws them together, which makes Michael’s deception doubly amusing, with plenty of surprises along the way. “The great thing about our show is that Michael learns from Julie,” says Fontana. “She teaches him how to behave and how to open his heart and become a better person.”

Of course, what everyone really wants to know about Tootsie is if Fontana pulls off the metamorphosis from Michael to Dorothy. The answer, according to Chicago critics and audiences, is yes, and he does it brilliantly well, with the help of six-time Tony Award-winning costume designer William Ivey Long. “Our script is funny about all the things women have to go through that men don’t,” the actor says with a laugh. “And it’s even funnier for me because I’m going through them, too. I’m getting waxed. I hate bras.” Adds Cooper, “He’ll take off his heels and say, ‘Is this normal?’” Teasingly, she tells her costar, “Your décolletage is quite attractive, and all the ladies in the show are like, ‘Wow, your legs are fabulous!’”

Beyond his physical transformation, Fontana amazes theatergoers with his ability to sing in a register much higher than his natural baritone. (Fans of the blockbuster animated film Frozen recognize him as the voice of Hans.) “It’s one thing to pass as a woman acting,” observes Cooper, “but to pass as a woman singing adds a whole new challenge. People leave the show saying, ‘How did he do that?’” Even Fontana isn’t sure. “I really don’t know where it comes from,” he says modestly, “but it’s a lot of fun.” Having a clear-eyed view of Michael Dorsey’s mind-set certainly helps. “He’s not a drag queen,” says Fontana, “and he doesn’t feel his most authentic self as a woman. He is a man who is trying to fool people in order to get a job. Her puts on the dress and the hair and doesn’t think about what will happen the next day.”

Michael’s antics come to life in a sparkling book by Horn, who has written gags for everyone from Dame Edna to TV’s Designing Women. “Do you remember our first preview?” Cooper asks Fontana. “Crazy!” he says. “Just waves of laughter. It’s rare to be in something this funny.” In fact, says Cooper, the cast had to pause so many times waiting for the audience’s laughter to die down, the show’s running time increased by several minutes, a happy “problem” for any production.

A dozen years after their New York stage debuts — hers in Spring Awakening, his in The Fantasticks — Cooper and Fontana can’t wait to take the stage at the Marquis Theatre in Tootsie. Ticking off the elements that make the show a must-see event, Fontana says, “Great parts, great cast, great script, great score, and a great creative team. And for us, a great time doing our jobs every day. It’s a totally entertaining evening, something that is wonderful to be a part of, both on stage and in the audience.”

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