Lilli Cooper Reinvents Classic Film Role On Stage In Tootsie The Musical

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Lilli Cooper reinvents the role of Julie Nichols for the Broadway stage.
Lilli Cooper reinvents the role of Julie Nichols for the Broadway stage. (Photo by Matthew Murphy)

Sydney Pollack’s ’80s classic Tootsie has been revamped for Broadway and in many ways outshines the original. It’s not just a musical comedy, it’s a “comedy musical” according to the marquee, critics and audiences. Adapted by David Yazbek (The Band’s Visit) and Robert Horn (13), Tootsie stars Tony-winner Santino Fontana (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend) in the title role first claimed by Dustin Hoffman and Tony-nominated Lilli Cooper as successful working actress Julie Nichols.

The role played by Jessica Lange on film has been completely reimagined. Between readings, workshops and the out-of-town production in Chicago last year, Cooper and the creative team worked on the Julie character to ground her in reality and make viewers care about her.

“I think I had a lot to do with the development of the role because the creative team was really open to talking about Julie’s journey in the show,” Cooper said. “I worked pretty one-on-one with Robert Horn, our book writer, to fully flesh her out.”

Cooper loves her character and relates to her on several levels.

“We are both really passionate about our craft and our career, and she is a strong independent woman who supports herself and makes her opinion known,” Cooper said. “I also think she’s sort of a goofy theater nerd at heart.”

Lilli Cooper and company sing jazzy number “Gone, Gone, Gone.” (Photo by Matthew Murphy)
Lilli Cooper and company sing jazzy number “Gone, Gone, Gone.” (Photo by Matthew Murphy)

The musical is populated with relatable characters in the theater world. Fontana’s self-destructive Michael Dorsey is so desperate to land a role, he dresses as a woman named Dorothy Michaels to fool a director into hiring him. Sandy (Sarah Stiles), Michael’s neurotic ex and aspiring actress, is also her own worst enemy. In the vein of Company’s “Not Getting Married Today,” Sandy’s “What’s Gonna Happen” patter song lays out all the reasons she will fail at her next audition. Jeff (Andy Grotelueschen), Michael’s sardonic playwright roommate who’s dragged on the wild ride that Michael’s deception creates, gets the opportunity to deliver the best musical ‘I told you so’ ever written, in his gleeful, gloating rendition of “Jeff Sums It Up.”

Cooper enjoys the meta aspect of the show that allows the actors to poke fun at themselves, while also showing the audience the crazy backstage life of actors.

“I sing a song in Act 1 that’s really all about the sacrifices that we make to do what we do and it feels so honest because it’s really true to the lifestyle of an actor,” Cooper said about her favorite song of the show, “There Was John.”

David Yazbek, who has scored several successful screen-to-stage adaptations, infused Tootsie with a variety of genres and tunes specific to each character. Cooper’s “Gone, Gone, Gone” in Act 2 has rhythm and funk and stands apart from a typical Broadway show tune.

“He [Yazbek] wanted it to sound like it could be a single on somebody’s pop album,” Cooper said. “The way that he orchestrated it and the way that we worked together figuring out how to navigate singing that song, it felt a lot like that.”

The show overall is an homage to old-school musical theater, starting with an overture and entr’acte, which have fallen out of fashion of late.

“We are a big, brassy musical and David Yazbek was really excited to push into that quality of the show,” Cooper said. “We don’t see [overtures] very often anymore and it gets to hint at what the musical stylings are going to be, how big the orchestra is and how grand the scale of the show is, so it’s a perfect introduction.”

The costumes too, by William Ivey, hearken back to a vintage glam, from Dorothy’s signature red sequin gown to charming full-skirted numbers straight out of a ’50s Fellini film.

“They’re gorgeous. They’re stunning. I’ve never felt so flattering in something,” Cooper said about the costumes. “They’re so intricate too. You see the beauty from the audience, but when you really look up close, there are so many incredible details that William put into the design of these dresses.”

Santino Fontana and the company of Tootsie give it their all in the musical within the musical, Juliet’s Nurse. (Photo by Matthew Murphy)
Santino Fontana and the company of Tootsie give it their all in the musical within the musical, Juliet’s Nurse. (Photo by Matthew Murphy)

Flattering is the only way to describe the costumes for Dorothy as well. Ivey went for wide necklines and cinched waists, drawing inspiration from unlikely places such as Meghan Markle’s rehearsal dinner dress. The final transformation from Fontana to Dorothy was nothing short of magical for the cast, despite seeing all the steps in between.

“We saw it unfurl slowly in the rehearsal process because there would be days where he wore heels, but he was also wearing a baseball cap,” Cooper explained. “And there would be days when he added a skirt, but he was in his sneakers, and there would be days when he would put lipstick on.”

Cooper recalls a conversation with the writers in which they place the exact moment they knew they were onto something special with Tootsie.

“They’d been working on the show for years and…when Dorothy walks out into that audition for the first time and when we first had an audience, they erupted into applause and they knew in that moment the show was going to work,” Cooper said. “It’s because of that transformation.”

The transformation of Michael’s personality to Dorothy’s is equally fascinating. Like the film, Michael is narcissistic and arrogant, but unlike the film he’s not saving his female costars or teaching them anything about femininity. If anyone is learning any lessons, it’s Michael.

From left: Julie Halston, John Moye, Santino Fontana, Lilli Cooper and John Behlmann (Photo by Matthew Murphy)
From left: Julie Halston, John Moye, Santino Fontana, Lilli Cooper and John Behlmann (Photo by Matthew Murphy)

“He learns a lot from pretending to be somebody he’s not, but he also learns a lot from the people around him, particularly Julie,” Cooper said. “She’s a bit of a mirror to him, but she is able to go through the world successfully and without burning bridges.”

Michael is not very endearing, but Dorothy is, and wins the admiration of Julie and others he works with.

“Once Dorothy walks out, she’s so incredibly likable and so easy to fall in love with, but then you realize Michael is the one who created this person,” Cooper said. “By creating this character he allows his positive, relatable characteristics to come through so we see both sides of him.”

Ultimately, the DNA of the original story remains, but it is updated for the present day from all angles.

“There are a lot of tricky subjects and the movie itself is pretty problematic nowadays,” Cooper said. “We’ve taken today’s climate into account and I don’t think we would have been so successful with the show had we not.”

Fresh off a too-short stint as Sandy Cheeks in SpongeBob SquarePants the musical, Lilli Cooper has enjoying interacting with fans through different avenues.

“I’ve always liked the immediacy of the Broadway fandom because of the stage door and signing autographs,” she said. “One of the coolest things I think I’ve experienced in the last few years with SpongeBob and with this show is the artwork that fans make and the breadth of their talent is just so exciting.”

Cooper began her Broadway career at age 16 in the original run of Spring Awakening, which she calls a “challenging time management learning experience” and also credits those formative years with teaching her how to form and maintain professional relationships in the industry. Since then, she has starred in Jonathan Larson’s Tick, Tick… Boom!, the Off-Broadway Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812, as Elphaba in Wicked, in addition to several TV roles and, a few years ago, created a hilarious web series with her film school pals that was picked up by Glamour.

The premise of It’s Not OK, Cupid is simple: Women read real messages received from men through dating platforms like OkCupid, Match.com and Tinder. Spoiler alert: The messages are simultaneously gross and hilarious. Cooper hopes to make another episode and has plans for another web series in the future.

When she’s not starring as a leading lady on Broadway or creating a web series, the talented Lilli Cooper can be found whistling across the stage at the 92nd Street Y.

Tootsie picked up two Tony Awards this year—Santino Fontana for Best Actor in a Musical and Robert Horn for Best Book. Catch Tootsie at the Marquis Theatre, 210 W 46th St., NYC. For tickets, visit tootsiemusical.com.

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