This year, behind two great women is a great director: Scott Ellis.
Not content with just directing a super-charged revival of Kiss Me, Kate for Roundabout Theatre Company or a major new musical adaptation of the beloved movie Tootsie—about a difficult actor who disguises himself as a woman for an audition and ends up with an entirely new career and understanding of the female experience—Ellis ended up doing both. (And he earned a 2019 Tony Award nomination for Tootsie, his ninth nod overall.)
The Kelli O’Hara–led Kate had already been in the works for several years (“I’d gone to Kelli and said, ‘I’m going to do this if you say yes’”) by the time Tootsie came his way. And that’s how Ellis ended up spending the fall of 2018 in Chicago with composer David Yazbek and book writer Robert Horn, working on the out-of-town tryout for Tootsie. Kiss Me, Kate opened on Broadway five months to the day after Tootsie ended its Chicago run; Tootsie began Broadway previews two weeks later, a few blocks south at the Marquis Theatre.
And though both musicals are vastly different—one a beloved Golden Age property, the other a brand-new musical based on a defining comedy of the 1980s—both “ask a lot of the same questions,” Ellis says. He was adamant early on with Kate that Tony-nominated composer and writer Amanda Green come onboard for subtle revisions in order to make the power dynamic between the battling duo at the show’s center more evenly balanced. Tootsie offered a bit more freedom, in a way, as no one involved wanted to replicate the movie onstage.
“We said, ‘Let’s bring it back to the beams and build it back up,’” Ellis says. “By doing that, we were constantly able to ask questions about [the character’s] journey, what he’s learning.”
And in both cases, as with every show, Ellis made casting a priority.
“Casting, to me, is the most important thing a director does,” he says. “Who knows by the end what we’ll have. Will the show run, will it not run? No one knows that. What I’m in control of is the rehearsal process. I put people in a room I not only think are talented, but I would like to work with.”
Much as he did with O’Hara, Ellis also insisted that Santino Fontana star in Tootsie.
“I knew in my gut he was the type of actor that could do this. It was just someone I wanted to go down this journey with. That’s really what it is with casting. It’s a collaborative form,” he says. “I don’t have all the answers. Many times I say, ‘I don’t know. Let’s try this.’ Or someone will say, ‘I have an idea, can we try it?’ Of course we can. That’s what I enjoy a lot. To make actors feel—not to make them feel, because they are—an integral part of this process.”