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In Broadway's 'Tootsie,' Lilli Cooper Has Powerful Message For Artists Of Color

The Tony Award nominee hopes starring in David Yazbek's musical adaptation of the 1982 film will impact a future generation of performers.

As the female lead in the musical adaptation of “Tootsie,” Lilli Cooper knew her character needed a major revamp to resonate with an audience of modern theatergoers. 

Much like 1982’s Dustin Hoffman-led film of the same title on which it’s based, Broadway’s “Tootsie” follows Michael Dorsey (played by Santino Fontana), a down-on-his-luck, middle-aged New York actor hungry for a break. Out of desperation, Michael disguises himself as a female performer known as Dorothy Michaels to land his next gig ― in the film, it’s a soap opera; in the stage version, it’s a Shakespeare-themed musical called “Juliet’s Curse.” 

As Dorothy, Michael bonds with a co-star, Julie Nichols (Cooper), and eventually, the romantic chemistry between the two heats up. The fact that Julie, who has only previously dated men, is led to believe she’s falling for another woman is one comedic point in the musical, featuring songs by David Yazbek; that Michael isn’t really a woman at all but a heterosexual man in drag is another. But in slapstick style, Michael’s gender-bending facade soon begins to crumble. 

“She’s a young, passionate actress who loves what she does and wants to create good work,” Cooper, who is the daughter of actor Chuck Cooper and whose theatrical resume includes “Spring Awakening” and “SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical,” told HuffPost of her character. “It felt really close to home.” 

Still, she and the show’s book writer Robert Horn were determined to make Julie less of a victim and more of a “fiercely independent woman,” as befitting a 2019 interpretation. The character would now simply be a working actor, and no longer a single mother in a romantic relationship with her director, as she was portrayed by Jessica Lange in the film version. 

Playing Julie has been an artistic triumph for Cooper, too, as she’s just scored her first Tony Award nomination for Best Actress in a Musical for the role. Accolades aside, the actress and singer sees her latest project as a boon for female characters of color on the Great White Way. She spoke to HuffPost about why she hopes playing Julie is relevant to ongoing discussions around women’s rights and sends a message to young artists of color. 

There’s been a lot of discussion around “Tootsie,” and specifically your character, and what both of them mean in the light of the ongoing cultural discussions around feminism and women’s rights. What’s your take?

Having a strong-minded leading lady who is able to reach the men around her is so important. If we didn’t update Julie to be a 2019 woman, I don’t think our show would’ve succeeded. One of my favorite parts of the show is the moment when she gets to tell Michael that even though he thinks he understands because he walked a mile in a woman’s shoes, he will never truly understand. That’s one of the messages in the show that I think is so poignant and honest.

"Having a strong-minded leading lady who is able to reach the men around her is so important," Lilli Cooper (right, with
"Having a strong-minded leading lady who is able to reach the men around her is so important," Lilli Cooper (right, with Santino Fontana) said of playing Julie in the musical adaptation of "Tootsie," now on Broadway. 

Julie was played by Jessica Lange in the 1982 film. As an actor of color, do you think your background changed anything about the role, or the messaging of the show at large, at all?

It’s interesting — we actually had conversations on whether or not we wanted to specify that in the script. When I was auditioning for this, I saw women of every color. They didn’t have a specific idea of what Julie should look like, which I appreciated. They were open to seeing everyone. A strong woman of any color, shape or size can play this role. I’m glad I can represent that.

Representation is so important. The ability to see somebody on stage who looks like you is so important. It allows you to feel like you belong. I hope I can be an inspiration for young actors, but especially an inspiration for young actors of color. I hope I can be an example for young women of color who want to be artists and who crave storytelling. The idols I’ve looked up to from when I was a young kid … being able to see those women onstage has helped me come to where I am today.

What challenges you most about playing Julie?

Julie has her own sense of humor and can be very funny, but … being the straight man in a comedy is really challenging. But I realized the value Julie has in the telling of the story. You need both ends of the spectrum. My biggest challenge was discovering where I stood in terms of the genre of the show, and figuring out where Julie stood next to all of these other characters who are bolder and wackier.

"I just hope I can be an example for young women of color who want to be artists and who crave storytelling," Cooper told Huf
"I just hope I can be an example for young women of color who want to be artists and who crave storytelling," Cooper told HuffPost. 

What aspects of the offstage Lilli do we see in the onstage Julie? 

She’s a goofball — a total goofball. I think of her as a theater nerd, and there’s a part of me who just loves what I do so much and just wants to tell stories for the rest of my life. I cannot connect to that more. That’s who Julie is, and that’s who I authentically am, also.

What sorts of stories are you most looking forward to telling in the future?It’s hard to really specify what kind of stories I want to tell. I want them to be fully diverse and inclusive. I’m an actor who enjoys every genre possible, so I wouldn’t want to narrow the potential of my future at all. I want to do slapstick farces, melodramas … I want to run the gamut, but I want to tell stories people can relate to, that I’m proud to tell.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

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