When Tony-nominated actor Santino Fontana booked the role of Michael Dorsey/Dorothy Michaels in the musical adaptation of Tootsie and he re-watched the ten-time Oscar-nominated film, three things stuck out to him: “She’s southern, there’s a red dress, and the conflict is that he is a man pretending to be a woman and he falls in love with a woman.”
All of this remains in the stage version, but don’t expect a carbon copy of the Dustin Hoffman–starrer at Broadway’s Marquis Theatre. Michael Dorsey is still a notoriously difficult actor who disguises himself as Dorothy Michaels to land work. But now the film’s soap opera is a Broadway show—Juliet’s Curse, a musical sequel to Romeo & Juliet—and Dorsey guns for the role of The Nurse opposite Cooper’s Julie as Juliet.
At the helm is eight-time Tony-nominated director Scott Ellis, with Tony winner David Yazbek penning music and lyrics (a brassy musical theatre sound à la his The Full Monty) and Robert Horn writing the book with a humor and awareness worthy of 2019.
That includes a “2019 woman” in Cooper’s Julie, who she describes as independent, strong, and outspoken: “It’s really an important shift we’ve made to Julie’s character.
“Robert Horn is just one of the funniest people that I know,” says Cooper. “It’s a room full of comedians and we’re sort of out-bidding each other.” But the team calibrates the laughs with a truthful heart.
“We definitely highlight the spots where Michael begins to identify with Dorothy,” says Fontana. “He’s realizing the stuff that women go through that he never thought of.”
The same goes for Fontana. As a result of playing Michael Dorsey/Dorothy Michaels, the actor sees the world through a woman’s eyes.
The famous transformation doesn’t just provide fodder for the classic makeover montage; it’s pulled back the curtain on systemic inequities. “I went to get my legs waxed and I was asking, ‘What is this pink tax?’ The men’s razors are less expensive than the women’s razors. That’s insane!” he exclaims. “I knew there was inequity, but I didn’t experience it to that level. It makes me want to help.”
In addition to seeing the world through a woman’s eyes, Fontana also had to find Dorothy’s voice—literally. He and the creative team wanted to cultivate two distinct singing voices for Fontana’s two characters. “I sang the audition song [that Michael sings as Dorothy] for the first time in every key—literally every key—and just recorded it,” he says. “And then we went back and listened and we were like, ‘When would you buy that’s a woman?’”
“It sounds like a woman’s full natural range,” says Cooper of her co-star’s technical feat. “There is a high flippy soprano and you’re belting your face off, too.”
Beneath the comedy and technical triumphs, the story also exposes vital truths. “Dorothy witnesses how Julie behaves or acts or speaks to Ron, the director [of Juliet’s Curse],” says Cooper. “Michael would speak to Ron a completely different way, but Dorothy needs to adjust the way she speaks to him because she is now displaying herself as a woman.”
In this way, Tootsie isn’t about a man at all. It’s about two women: Dorothy, the realization of everyday challenges, and Julie, the manifestation of living with those challenges.
“This is why the show is so perfect for this moment,” says Fontana, “because what women have been dealing with for decades isn’t a woman’s problem, it’s men’s problem.
“The men who were aware and progressive and thoughtful want to be a part of the conversation, as opposed to just listening—which we also need to do,” he adds. “To be a part of that in a positive way is a real responsibility, but it’s also a great opportunity.”