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The Jewification of ‘Tootsie’

The Broadway musical is a lot more Jewish than the movie

Marjorie Ingall
May 17, 2019
Photo: Matthew Murphy
L-R: Julie Halston, Reg Rogers, and Santino Fontana in Tootsie.Photo: Matthew Murphy
Photo: Matthew Murphy
L-R: Julie Halston, Reg Rogers, and Santino Fontana in Tootsie.Photo: Matthew Murphy

The Broadway musical Tootsie opened on April 23 to almost universally rapturous reviews and quickly picked up 11 Tony nominations. I saw it last week. I did not love it. But I was struck by how much more Jewish the stage production was than its source material, the 1982 movie of the same name. Oddness!

Like the movie, the musical has an all-male production team, paralleling the narrative itself: Cisgender white dude shows everyone, including women, how to be better feminists. The movie was directed by Sydney Pollack and written by Larry Gelbart and Murray Schisgal (though Elaine May did an uncredited script polish, mostly writing dialogue for the Teri Garr and Bill Murray characters, i.e., the funniest lines). The musical was directed by Scott Ellis and choreographed by Denis Jones, with a book by Robert Horn and score by David Yazbek (The Band’s Visit).

Like all too many movies of my childhood, Tootsie has not aged well. You remember the plot: Michael Dorsey, a struggling actor in New York City, takes himself so seriously and is so difficult to work with that he’s deemed un-castable. After he coaches his friend Sandy for her forthcoming soap opera audition, he has the brilliant idea of auditioning for the part himself, in women’s clothing. He gets it. For the duration of the film, he toggles between Dorothy Michaels and Michael Dorsey; wackiness and heartwarming growth ensue. But the whole movie is grounded in gay panic: A male costar keeps trying to kiss Dorothy. (“We call him The Tongue,” female costar April—played by Geena Davis, in her first role—tells Dorothy, while lounging around the women’s dressing room in a tiny bra and panties for no apparent reason.) Michael is attracted to his other costar Julie, played by a whispery, radiant Jessica Lange, but Julie’s dad, played by gruff Charles Durning, is attracted to Dorothy. “Sandy thinks I’m gay; Julie thinks I’m a lesbian!” Michael wails to his roommate Jeff (Bill Murray). Ha, ha, so kooky! In the end, Dorothy outs herself as Michael during a live airing of the soap opera, and everyone becomes enlightened about women’s rights and also Michael’s genius.

The genesis of the movie was a script Hoffman and Schisgal were working on, inspired by the true story of trans tennis star Renee Richards, about a male tennis player who disguises himself as a woman so he can win matches. (That is not why Renee Richards transitioned.) The duo learned that there was another crossdressing script in development, shepherded by producer Robert Evans, and the two projects were merged.

Years after Tootsie came out, Hoffman gave a weepy interview about how life reflected art: Playing Tootsie made him a better man. He said, “I think I am an interesting woman when I look at myself on screen. [But] I know that if I met myself at a party, I would never talk to that character because she doesn’t fulfill physically the demands that we’re brought up to think women have to have in order for us to ask them out…There’s too many interesting women I have not had the experience to know in this life because I have been brainwashed.” Teri Garr, in loose-cannon mode, mocked both the movie and Hoffman’s revelation: “They put a man in a dress, and he’s supposed to know what it feels like to be a woman. But of course he doesn’t. I think what Dustin says is, ‘I realize now how important it is for a woman to be pretty. And I wasn’t pretty.’ God! That’s all you realized? Jesus Christ. Oh well. Don’t quote me. Actually, quote me.” (She also noted that her character Sandy suffers because she’s “caught between trying to have a career and trying to be a sexual woman, and it just doesn’t work. At least it didn’t in that movie, because it was made by sexist men.”)

Dustin Hoffman is credited as a producer of Tootsie: The Musical, which feels kind of weird, what with him being accused of sexual harassment and assault by multiple women. But I guess the first rule of producing club is don’t talk about non-consensual groping in producing club.

Anyway, the Broadway show is a lot funnier than the movie. It’s savvily self-aware about the problematic source material. Any criticism we might have of Michael’s conduct? The script gets there first. Jeff tells Michael, “At a time when women are literally clutching their power back from between the legs of men, you have the audacity to take a job away from one…by perpetrating one?” (He adds drily, “And you know you’re gonna have to take a pay cut.”) The musical drops all the movie’s horror about a man being kissed by another man; the lecherous old soap opera co-star has morphed into a dimwitted buff young co-star (he’s the winner of the reality show Race to Bachelor Island) who is baffled to be falling in love with a stout middle-aged woman, but utterly sincere. Julie (now played by Lilli Cooper, last seen as a squirrel in SpongeBob SquarePants, doing her best with what’s still the weakest role) responds to her confusing attraction to Dorothy by accepting it. She acknowledges that she never expected to fall for a woman, but hey, the heart wants what it wants. (“This isn’t the package I imagined,” she says with a shrug. Dorothy, after a beat, says, “This is so not the package you imagined.”) The show is even careful about mocking Dorothy’s looks: When Michael asks Jeff if he looks fat in his Dorothy drag, Jeff replies, “You look difficult to abduct.”

It helps that the cast is spectacular. Santino Fontana, who plays Michael Dorsey/Dorothy Michaels is a delight. We know from Crazy Ex-Girlfriend that his comic timing is spot-on, and Tootsie proves that his range is astounding. It’s a vocal performance for the ages; do not bet against him to win the Tony for Best Actor in a Musical. Andy Grotelueschen in the Bill Murray role is a comedy assassin; every joke lands. And Sarah Stiles in the (now much expanded) Teri Garr role is delicious.

But so much of what makes the show funnier than the movie is its newfound Jewiness. Now, instead of a soap opera, Dorothy is cast in a terrible musical, giving the show the opportunity to parody a terrible musical, which means inevitably tapping into resonances of The Producers, the Jewiest terrible-musical-within-a-musical of all time. Here the terrible musical is a retelling of Romeo and Juliet in which Juliet doesn’t die (the dagger bounces off the poison vial) and falls in love with Romeo’s brother Craig.

Parodying Broadway rather than soaps means more Yiddishkeit in general—is there any more Jewish medium than the Broadway musical? And Yazbek’s score taps into that vintage Broadway jazzy-swingy feel; as newfangled as The Band’s Visit is, this is old-fangled. (You may deem that good or bad.) And the lyrics! Rapid-fire, conversational, witty as all get out; both the lyrics and the dialogue have a major Borscht Belt vibe. I laughed so hard I was gasping at the dumbest old Catskills jokes, particularly those delivered by consummate pro Julie Halston, who plays producer Rita Marshall. (“Dorothy, I’m rich,” she says. “Not in family or friends. In money. The good rich.” Also: “If only my first husband could look down from heaven and see me now.” Pause. “But the bastard’s still alive!”)

And in giving Stiles’s Sandy more to do, the show ups the Jewish humor even further. Sandy gets a show-stopping lightning-fast patter song called “What’s Gonna Happen” in which she spirals into neurosis and rage thinking about her upcoming audition. It is a very Jewish song. She invokes a colonoscopy (which is “nowhere near as disconcerting or upsetting/as going for a part you know there’s no way that you’re getting”) and imagine how “everybody smiles and they’ll say ‘it’s good to see ya’/But all I’ll see is judges and they’ll all look like Scalia.” She also rhymes “trying to be more holy” with “reading Eckhart Tolle.” At another point she mentions going home to do Dirty Dancing lifts with her cat, which doesn’t work out that well: “He just isn’t very strong.”

Tootsie reminds me a bit of The Prom, another crowd-pleasing, tourist-luring Broadway musical with a lot of Tony nominations that also mocks actorly narcissism, has schticky speech rhythms, and displays good progressive Jewish values. A character in Tootsie actually declaims, “Be a he, be a she, be a they, use whatever bathroom you want and don’t let anybody tell you, you can’t!” which, oy, but the audience bursts into applause, which makes me hopeful about Trump’s America, or at least the contingent willing to visit the sin palace that is Times Square.

I may not have fallen in love with Tootsie the way legions of male critics did, but I enjoyed the show. And hey, they didn’t put Stephen Bishop’s “It Might Be You” in it, so Baruch Hashem.


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Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.