Review: How one man gaslit, gatekept and girlbossed his way to Broadway

Review: How one man gaslit, gatekept and girlbossed his way to Broadway

The musical "Tootsie" showcases great talent, but has songs and plot lines that miss the mark.
Published: November 9, 2022
The cast of the National Tour of TOOTSIE.
"Tootsie" will be at the Landmark Theater from Nov. 8 through Nov. 12.

There’s a fine line when it comes to cis men dressing as women. Drag is an art form. Hot male actor wearing a dress? Breaking gender norms. But when it starts to feel like a parody, when women become the joke, then it feels passé and cheap. Unfortunately, when Tootsie walked that line, it stumbled into the antithesis of the female empowerment it was hoping to promote.

Now playing at The Landmark Theatre, Tootsie centers around Michael Dorsey, a “talented but temperamental” struggling actor in his 40s, who should probably go to therapy to find out why he is such a jerk. Instead, he decides to cosplay as a woman, a character he creates named Dorothy Michaels, and auditions for the same role as his ex-girlfriend/friend, Sandy. Michael as Dorothy, somehow, gets the role and is suddenly a respected performer who people actually listen to.

Drew Becker as Michael was very talented, but it is asking a lot for the audience to suspend their disbelief and expect that, despite the impossible standards of the entertainment industry, Dorothy has become a star. She is seen as a leader within the production and intrigues those around her, even her young, often-shirtless co-star falls in love with her.

Drew Becker as Michael Dorsey and Jared David Michael Grant as Jeff Slater in the National Tour of TOOTSIE.
Drew Becker as Michael Dorsey and Jared David Michael Grant as Jeff Slater in the National Tour of "Tootsie."

The show is quite meta because, in this musical, Michael is in a musical. He is cast as The Nurse in a terrible spin on Romeo and Juliet, where Juliet reawakens and lives to sing about it. Juliet’s Curse becomes Juliet’s Nurse when Dorothy convinces the producer that the nurse should end up with Romeo’s brother. Under the guise of a strong, older woman being the star of the show for once, it almost feels like Michael has done something altruistic. But ultimately it is self-serving, it’s not about a platform for older women to express their desires, it’s a chance for Michael to be the center of attention. The show-within-a-show premise highlighted the potential of the show with stunning costumes in quick-change sequences, fun props and well-crafted backdrops. Juliet’s Nurse was actually the more entertaining show of the night.

At some points, the show seems aware of the paradox it has created. Jeff, Micheal’s roommate and best friend says, “You’re pretending to be a woman to get a job, you know you’ll have to take a pay cut?” Yet, Michael puts on a sparkly red dress, glasses, and a ginger curly wig and is now beloved as a woman, when as a man he was deemed too difficult. This seems to imply that women have greater power to express their ideas and emotions. Which we know isn’t true even in this fictionalized version of New York City, because Sandy, played brilliantly by Payton Reilly, is consistently rebuked for being over-emotional.

Almost everyone in Michael’s world is structured to make him look like less of a tool. His director is a sexist jerk who doesn’t understand his creative genius, his self-involved ex is always on the verge of a breakdown, and his agent also doesn’t understand his creative genius. That totally rationalizes his terrible behavior, right? Except, he is still wildly unlikable. When Julie, his co-star playing Juliet, begins to bond with Dorothy, Michael decides to hit on her as himself, claiming he’s a nice guy. This line is also used by the director, who is the villain of the show. Hmm.

The cast of the National Tour of TOOTSIE.
The musical follows Michael Dorsey as he finds himself in stardom.

After Michael ruins everything with the musical and Julie, he realizes he can’t use his ambition to justify the horrible choice he’s made. He says, “Being a woman is no job for a man.” Does that undo the previous lines about women having botox and Dorothy looking “difficult to abduct?” No, but that is very much the tone of the show– sarcasm and overt sexual innuendos, mixed with some very outdated references (the term “fidget spinner” or saying “bye Felicia” should not be uttered in the year 2022.)

It should be reiterated that the show is a musical, and it’s easy to forget because most of the songs were so forgettable. As one would expect from a touring broadway production, the cast was full of talented singers and performers, but the songs seemed like an afterthought and rarely gave new insight or furthered the plot along. A special shoutout to “What’s Gonna Happen” and its reprises performed by Sandy.

While taking a movie from the 80s and turning it into a musical has worked for Hairspray and Heathers, Tootsie should have stayed in the 80s and made space for new musicals that would actually empower, not parody, women.