BWW Album Review: TOOTSIE (Original Broadway Cast Recording) Wraps Transphobia in Sequins
In 2019 there have been surprisingly few progressive Broadway musicals that expand the creative theatrical vocabulary and expose audiences to new ideas, new stories, and actually do that thing art is so good at doing: challenging audiences. Tootsie, a stage adaptation of the well-known 1982 Dustin Hoffman vehicle, missed its opportunity to engage in poignant conversations on gender, feminism, and trans identities. Instead, David Yazbek's lyrics and music stay stuck in the bygone era of the early 1980s, leaning heavily on the tired and inherently transphobic "man in a dress" gag and a rather generic sounding Broadway score rooted firmly in the most rudimentary basics of musical writing.
Quickly, listeners realize that Yazbek's music and lyrics make no apologies for being a big, splashy classic Broadway musical set in the modern era. But, don't be fooled. This is no IN THE HEIGHTS. The classic musical idioms are not being keenly fused with modern notions of contemporary music to appeal to underrepresented voices or to tell their stories with empathy and authenticity. None of that is happening on this album, and, not having seen the show, I presume it isn't happening on the stage either.
Early on Tootsie (Original Broadway Cast Recording) gives us the tarnished yet gooey gem "I Won't Let You Down." Here Santino Fontana impresses vocally all while seemingly making his debut as his alter ego Dorothy in an audition. My review materials included neither liner notes nor a synopsis. But, the song's self-aware, 'woke' lyrics about a 'woman' begging men or a man to give her a job, love, and attention don't ring with the feminist sentiments they seem intended to. The number - like the score itself - winks at itself and panders to the audience, begging to be seen as progressively poignant all while entirely missing that mark. Instead of being thought-provoking, it's just bland, albeit fun, entertainment resting on the laurels of nostalgia to make the audience connect to the material.
Then, totally turning a blind eye to the implausibility of its plot, the musical's first act ends with the toe-tapping production number, "Unstoppable." On the track, Fontana's Michael sings the praises of Dorothy because through her he - a cisgender, white, heterosexual male - has been able to get the part, the adoration, and even nab artistic control of the show Dorothy is cast in. On top of all of this, Michael has fallen madly in love with an actress who looks up to Dorothy as a big sister. This largely celebratory number's lyrics totally sidestep issues that women in any profession face, by making it seem like all one has to do to truly succeed is simply present as a woman through wearing a dress, a wig, and heels.
Highlighting the transphobia of the show's conceit, the second act opens with "Jeff Sums It Up," which uses lowbrow humor centered around the body - especially genitalia - and the accoutrements of women's clothing to discuss how Michael has "f***ed it up." The same is true for "Whaddaya Do - Reprise." Both of these lively numbers' lyrics silently place trans women at the butt of every joke, asking the audience to find it odd, unnatural, and - most damagingly - humorous for a 'man' to wear a dress and heels. When, truly, the only odd, unnatural, and humorous aspect of these songs is the idea that a cisgender, heterosexual, white male would abandon the privileges his identity offers him to dress as an older woman and take on all the hardships, prejudices, and dangers that women, be they young or old, and trans women face daily.
Lastly, to add insult to injury to the trans community, the final line of Tootsie (Original Broadway Cast Recording) is "I was a better man with you, as a woman, than I ever was with a woman, as a man. I just have to learn how to do it all without the dress." This eye-roll inducing utterance, one of the few spoken lines of dialogue on the disc, is underscored with saccharinely emotional schmaltz to ensure it comes across as revelational. Thus, the final parting shot of Tootsie - in a track ironically titled "Thank You" no less - is a reminder that a man in a dress is nothing more than a faker, a liar, a pretender. This pejorative way of thinking is something the trans community has been actively battling for decades. Therefore, Tootsie's lyrics, which could have engaged in the important conversations surrounding gender and gender identity in 2019, play fast and loose with superficiality and ultimately support and even uplift transphobic ideologies through their humor.
Despite Yazbek's problematic lyrics and score, the silver lining of the album is the stunning vocal performances offered by the cast. Fontana's enthusiasm and charm radiates across the album. Lili Cooper's performances are lovely and filled with resplendent emotionality, proving her to be more than capable and deserving to be a distinguished leading lady on Broadway. Likewise, John Behlmann's is nothing short of delightful on "This Thing."