I had heard very mixed reports about this show when I went to see it a little less than a year ago. A couple of the prominent critics had said some very nice things about it, but the word of mouth in the Broadway fan community was just short of poisonous. And while the combination of a classic movie, composer David Yazbek’s credentials, and what I had already seen of leading man Santino Fontana’s abilities seemed to provide the theoretical ingredients for a hit, the utterly underwhelming number from the show performed on the Tonys broadcast the year before wasn’t exactly an encouraging sign.
Still, plenty of shows have made a poor choice of their Tony showcase numbers (Curtains and Bandstand are two examples that immediately spring to mind), and as anyone who knows reads this site regularly knows, I find polarizing shows, songs or albums absolutely fascinating as material for my reviews. So I went to see for myself what had caused all these wildly different reactions.
The fact that it took me almost a year to actually finish the review is mostly the product of depression-induced writer’s block stemming from the current world situation, but I won’t pretend the show’s quality and level of overall importance didn’t contribute to it being somewhat low on my list of priorities. Make of that what you will.
Truth to tell, both the show’s adherents and its detractors were essentially right. The thing that everyone who liked it praised about it is certainly true…this was an extremely funny evening. The movie had been more of a character comedy, but the musical’s book was a raucous farce with hilarious dialogue, superb physical comedy and a marvelous comic star turn by Santino Fontana in the lead. Fontana hasn’t garnered the stardom he deserves (and this show’s failure probably isn’t going to help), but you’re most likely to recognize him as the voice of Prince Hans in Frozen, and he also had a major role on the cult musical sitcom Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.
Some people, including the authors of the book Musical Misfires (a disappointing would-be successor to Ken Mandelbaum’s iconic Not Since Carrie), have insinuated that this show closed primarily because of the outrage of Transgender rights activists who misinterpreted its premise (presumably without actually having seen either it or the movie on which it’s based). Indeed, in the musical, it is specifically pointed out that Michael faking a gender purely to salvage his acting career is at least as offensive to actual Transwomen as it is to all other women (which is a hard point to dispute, actually).
But while it’s true that misguided politically-fueled outrage on social media platforms is capable of closing a Broadway show under the right circumstances (Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet being the obvious example), I still think, the effective comedy elements notwithstanding, that there were enough holes in this particular craft that it probably would have sunk notwithstanding any bad press it may have gotten on Twitter.
What really did the show in was its relentlessly mediocre score. That Tony number had been no fluke, which is surprising given that composer David Yazbek’s most recent work for Broadway prior to this had been the best of his career. Not only does this score not remotely approach the level of Yazbek’s ravishing score to The Band’s Visit, it isn’t even comparable to his earlier scores for The Full Monty or Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Granted, this isn’t Yazbek’s first weak score, but even its predecessor in that field, the musical version of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, was if nothing else memorably terrible. By contrast, on the night I saw Tootsie, I could not remember a single individual song by the time I got home from the theater.
From listening to the cast album, that result is not really all that surprising. Michael’s two introspective solos, “Whaddaya Do” and “Talk to Me, Dorothy”, are effective enough as character material, but they both sound more like sung monologues than actual songs (there’s a reason most major numbers in musicals that deviate from the standard song form usually go for showstopper-level intensity, which these two definitely do not). The rest of the score vacillates between tolerable but bland ballads (the best of them, “There Was John”, sounds like a B-list imitation of Cathy’s numbers from The Last 5 Years), big, empty production numbers that fill the stage with noise and motion but ultimately accomplish nothing, and comedy songs that don’t remotely match the humor level of the dialogue and are generally either heavy-handed (“Jeff Sums It Up”, “This Thing”) or annoying (“What’s Gonna Happen”). I appreciate that they didn’t interpolate the hit Pop song written for the film, “It Might Be You” (that tactic tends to reek of desperation, as it did in the otherwise admirable Rocky musical), but frankly, in this case it might have been an improvement: at least then the show would have featured one memorable song.
There were, admittedly, some other minor flaws…the feminist message, regardless of its validity, was poorly handled and frequently came off as heavy-handed and preachy, and the ambiguous ending, while probably more honest than that of the film, was still not entirely satisfying.
Also, there was a sort of hole in the show’s central proposition. There are, without question, many, many fields where the best jobs go to men, and women are at a professional disadvantage: Broadway acting is not one of them. On some behind-the-scenes jobs like composing and directing, the narrative of a male-dominated field that women are prevented from breaking into holds sadly true, but in the acting pool, at least since Broadway switched most of its focus from straight plays to musicals, women are if anything at an advantage. Moving the story from Hollywood to Broadway certainly didn’t eliminate the core issues of sexism the show deals with, but it did make the primary stated reason that Michael’s impersonation was supposed to be reprehensible (that he was taking jobs away from real women in a supposedly male-dominated field) seem rather absurd.
Indeed, the heavy changes made to the setting and characters from the original movie, while probably the right choice in theory (Yazbek made much of this in the pre-Broadway promotion stages, pointing out—not without accuracy—how excessive fidelity and perceived redundancy had done a number of stage adaptations of iconic movies), may have alienated fans of the film, thus depriving the show of its most obvious built-in audience. Again, I admire their integrity, but in practice, they may have wound up choosing their principles over success or even actual quality.
But I suspect the show was funny enough to overcome those secondary problems if the music had been stronger. With a first-rate score, Tootsie might well have been a hit. But a musical with a truly weak score has to have an absolutely genius-level book to achieve any long-term success. Look at 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee…apart from two or three standout numbers, its score was only marginally better than Tootsie’s, but it was a one-of-a-kind stroke of inspiration and utterly hilarious (not one or the other, which might explain why Be More Chill, which had a similarly weak score, didn’t last long on Broadway despite its significant cult following). Hell, even momentary success with a weak score usually depends on a presold fanbase (Spamalot, The Addams Family) or a star so big that people will pay for a theater ticket purely for the privilege of seeing them in person (Applause).
This was definitely a missed opportunity, a disappointing treatment of an idea with not-insignificant potential, but it still doesn’t qualify as one of the sublime heartbreaker flops of recent years in the way that, say, Big Fish or Groundhog Day or Spongebob Squarepants: The Musical do. For all its laughs, its forgettable score ultimately renders it little more than a pleasant mediocrity, and I can’t really see it succeeding even at a more economically prosperous time for Broadway (or indeed, with or without any of the controversy it may or may not have stirred up being a factor).