Tootsie came to life on screen in 1982 as a smash hit comedy about the ultimate transformation. A self-centered stage actor named Michael Dorsey finds the success he craves by posing as a feisty actress named Dorothy Michaels, and hilarity ensues. This irresistible story practically begged to become a musical, and now Tootsie is in performances at Broadway’s Marquis Theatre with a star-making performance by Santino Fontana in the role created by Dustin Hoffman.
It takes a special creative team to adapt such a beloved property for the stage, and Tootsie attracted one of the best: director Scott Ellis, an eight-time Tony Award nominee (She Loves Me, You Can’t Take It With You, Curtains); composer David Yazbek, a 2018 Tony Award winner for The Band’s Visit and masterful adapter of movies, including The Full Monty and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels; and book writer Robert Horn, who honed his skills in television comedies such as Designing Women and on stage in 13, Lone Star Love, and a concert tour with Bette Midler. In separate interviews, Yazbek, Horn, and Ellis recently previewed their exciting new show for Broadway Direct.
Why is Tootsie great source material for a Broadway musical?
Robert Horn: First and foremost, because it’s a comedy. The tone of the piece feels like it’s a musical, and the story is very theatrical. It’s about desperation and redemption and forgiveness and love.
David Yazbek: There’s a reason why the movie is on many people’s lists of the top five comedies of all time. The characters are great, the situation is great, and the story is great. We felt we could take all of those elements and make something new.
Scott Ellis: Movies are tricky, so your first question is always, “Why does this need to sing?” We weren’t interested in just putting the movie on stage. We were very clear as a team that we wanted to take the movie back to the studs and build it again so that people can experience it in a different way.
What do you love about this story? What themes did you want to emphasize in the musical?
Yazbek: For me, the most compelling theme is: what it takes for a semitoxic male to become a real mensch. And in this case, it takes the lessons Michael Dorsey learns by becoming and inhabiting the mind of a woman.
Horn: I was drawn to the question of how far you would go if somebody said you could no longer do the one thing you wanted to do. What crazy idea would you come up with to survive when the world keeps telling you no? Ultimately, it’s a story about becoming a better person by walking in someone else’s shoes.
Ellis: All of us are passionate about something and can understand the feeling of trying to hold on to that passion against all odds. Michael’s story is unexpected, it’s funny, and in the end, it’s moving.
Horn: We also knew going in that we wanted to modernize the character of Dorothy’s costar Julie [played on screen by Jessica Lange and on Broadway by Lilli Cooper]. She is much more empowered, with a stronger sense of who she is. Unlike in the movie, Michael finds his awakening through Julie.
Let’s talk about the comedy in Tootsie, which is key to its enduring appeal.
Yazbek: Comedy is the key. We worked really, really hard at creating a book and songs that make people laugh genuine belly laughs, the kind you can’t control. You don’t get that very often in a musical, but for me, that was job No. 1.
Ellis: The story of a guy desperate enough to do anything to keep his dream alive creates the kind of high stakes where comedy can blossom. We don’t go into a lot of slapstick; Robert can give you 10 jokes a minute, but he plants the jokes into the reality of what the characters would do in each situation.
Horn: Tootsie is a farce, and David and Scott let me write huge, long comedic scenes, which is really rare. We wanted to honor the tone of the movie while making it our own.
Yazbek: Robert is a modern-day Neil Simon, who can make audiences laugh hysterically without sacrificing character. I’m a comedy writer myself, and that’s the ultimate praise I can give.
David is a master at composing songs that match the tone of the movies he adapts into musicals. How do the score and book come together in Tootsie?
Ellis: David has a wicked sense of humor, and his take on Tootsie is totally unexpected and fresh. That’s what takes his work to another level. He and Robert are a great combination because they are so good at finding the truth in the characters in a funny way.
Horn: David’s lyrics are breathtakingly funny, surprising, and smart, and the music is contemporary, with a jazzy feel. Beyond that, he understands how to get into the heart of a character; he an innate sense of what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes. The minute we sat down together, we knew that our comedy would blend well.
Yazbek: Robert and I spent hundreds of hours working on every song and every scene, and it was the most fun I’ve had collaborating. This is a show where the circumstances and the characters suggest what the music is going to be. I wanted every song to be catchy.
Give us a preview of Santino Fontana’s breakthrough performance as Michael/Dorothy.
Yazbek: I didn’t really know Santino or his work, so he came as an extremely pleasant and massively delightful surprise. By the time we opened [Tootsie’s pre-Broadway run] in Chicago, he was giving one of the most impressive, dazzling performances I’ve seen in any show I’ve worked on, and that’s saying something.
Horn: Santino is a sensational actor with great instincts. He finds the comedy and nuance in every scene in a way that is revelatory. And when he sings? Oh, my god! He is creating an iconic stage character in his interpretation of Michael Dorsey and Dorothy Michaels.
Ellis: When I was approached about directing Tootsie, I said, “I will only do it with Santino Fontana.” He’s a great actor with an incredible voice, and he never stops working and asking questions. In a lot of ways, he is Michael Dorsey — he’s intense and passionate, and I knew in my gut that he was the person I wanted to explore this material with.
Horn: When Dorothy makes her first entrance after the audience has spent time with Michael, you can feel the excitement and joy coming over the footlights.
Yazbek: You have to forget that it’s a dude, and you do, because Santino is so great. There’s also a technical marvel involved in changing convincingly from a man to a woman several times, something that Scott and [costume designer] William Ivey Long and Santino pull off. It’s amazing.
What can Broadway audiences expect when they see Tootsie on stage?
Ellis: They can expect to have a great time — and to be surprised! Audiences really connect with the story and enjoy taking this ride with Michael and Dorothy.
Horn: I cannot remember sitting in a theatre and hearing the tsunami of laughter we hear in this show. It’s a contemporary comedy musical that’s both hysterically funny and has a lot of pathos. It’s an absolutely joyous experience.
Yazbek: The two words I would use are rolling laughter, the kind that happens with you start laughing, then something else happens that heightens the humor, then a third thing happens that goes back to the first joke and you start laughing twice as loud. That’s something people need — authentically funny stuff, not stuff that pushes buttons or manipulates. We need to lose ourselves in laughter, and that’s what Tootsie is about.