Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Tootsie’s on a Roll, and Other Hollywood-to-Broadway Stories

 Not long ago, Hollywood welcomed Broadway hits with open arms, especially when it came to musical theatre. Such blockbusters of the Great White Way as Oklahoma!, The Sound of Music, My Fair Lady, and Fiddler on the Roof were rushed onto soundstages, and many of them went on to score major dividends when awards season rolled around. Though movie musicals based on stage hits are hardly as big at today’s box office as they once were, studios continue to make them from time to time. Steven Spielberg, of all people, is currently daring to redo the glorious West Side Story, which in 1961 moved from Broadway to the big screen, nabbing ten top Oscars along the way.

In recent years, however, Broadway has often found itself struggling to come up with ideas for stage musicals, especially those with appeal for out-of-towners visiting the Big Apple. So hit Hollywood romcoms have come to be a reliable source of stories ready to be musical-ized. Obviously, the idea is that familiarity breeds box-office. Not long ago, there was Legally Blonde, a forgettable stage show that racked up Tony nominations and ran for over a year. And, with varying degrees of success, Broadway folks have made musicals out of 9 to 5, The Full Monty, Kinky Boots, and Spielberg’s caper comedy, Catch Me If You Can. The current crop includes a version of Beetlejuice: it’s  now up for eight Tonys including Best Musical. Less successful by far has been last summer’s stage translation of Pretty Woman, as well as (believe it or don’t) a musical King Kong.

But the top Tony vote-getter based on a Hollywood movie has got to be Tootsie, which pulled in eleven nominations. (The prizes will be awarded on June 9, in a televised ceremony hosted by the inevitable but adorable James Corden.) Among the elements that make Tootsie sing are a dynamite performance by Santino Fontana, who follows in Dustin Hoffman’s high-heeled footsteps. There’s also the fact that this show doesn’t try to be a musicalized clone of the Hollywood original. Clever writing turns Michael Dorsey/ Dorothy Michaels from an unlikely soap opera queen into the unexpected star of a formerly lackluster Broadway musical. And the film’s take on misogyny in showbiz is smartly updated to make sense in the #MeToo era.

Among Tony nominations for acting are (as always) many Hollywood favorites, including Adam Driver and Annette Bening, Two film stars have won nominations by take the leading roles in dramatic plays based on classic films. Jeff Daniels stars in a stage adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird, while Bryan Cranston is favored to take home a Tony for playing the Peter Finch role in a Broadway production of Network. Curiously, neither of these dramas is up for Best Play. Perhaps the voters in this category are awarding points for originality, and don’t feel that adaptations measure up to entirely new works.

Whoever decided on the nominations for Best Musical obviously had no such qualms. Which means Tootsie, despite stiff competition from a very offbeat new musical called Hadestown, could well carry home the top Tony prize. (Hadestown, which leads all shows with 14 noms, is actually an adaptation of the classic story of Orpheus and Eurydice – originality only goes so far!) In honor of Broadway’s new Tootsie, I just re-watched the film original, delighting once again in its sly humor and brilliant performances. But now I can’t wait to see Dorothy put on her dancing shoes, though I can’t help wondering how men always manage to grab the best parts, even when they’re masquerading as women.

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