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‘Tootsie’ Composer David Yazbek Reveals His Lyrical and Musical Inspirations

“Let the music follow the comedy,” the Tony-nominated musician advises

'Tootsie' Broadway play opening night, After Party, Marquis Theater, New York, USA - 23 Apr 2019

MJ Photos/Shutterstock

“You know, I never thought I’d be doing this,” composer David Yazbek admits. “The fact that I’ve been translating cinematic works to the stage has just been a coincidence. … I’m still surprised. I used to feel like an outsider, like a recording artist who has a day job, but now this has become the number one thing I do.”

It’s been nearly 20 years since Yazbek wrote his first musical score. The adaptation of The Full Monty became a hit musical comedy, and he was nominated for his first Tony in 2001. But he lost the award for Best Score that year to Mel Brooks, when The Producers swept Tony Awards and won all the categories for which it was nominated. Since then, he’s composed music and lyrics for several more Broadway musicals adapted from films, including Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown and The Band’s Visit. That last one netted him yet another nomination in 2018, and this time he took home that statue for Best Original Score.

Now Yazbek’s back and once again nominated in that category for his impressive (and hilarious) efforts in adapting and updating the 1980s comedy Tootsie — which starred Dustin Hoffman and Jessica Lange — into something that can entertain a broad swath of audiences in a post-MeToo era landscape. With a book by Robert Horn, directed by Scott Ellis and starring Santino Fontana (Your Crazy Ex-Girlfriend) in the lead male who’s a frustrated actor who dons a dress to become the inimitable Dorothy Michaels, the show has been a critical fave and received 11 Tony nominations (to Hadestown’s 14).

We caught up with Yazbek to ask him to share the inspiration and background for four of the songs from the production before the original Broadway cast recording is released. Listen to 30-second cuts of the songs here, and find out how a little mambo, marimba, funk and The Odd Couple found their way into Tootsie.

“I Won’t Let You Down,” sung by Santino Fontana as character, Dorothy Michaels
“I kind of like that song, but it’s not a song I would ever write sincerely for myself. It had to sound like a song that would have been in that show, and I really knew that it had to be hooky. Also. When I was singing it and demoing it, I felt what the character should be feeling at the end of that song. So I just knew it had to end like one of those “Rose’s Turn” kind of songs. It has to feel really big and triumphant. And Santino, I don’t know how he does it, but he really delivers it. It’s the first time you see him as Dorothy and he comes in singing kind of, well, he sort of sounds like a woman — he certainly looks convincing —and then he starts singing, but it’s a little frail. Then, by the end, he’s just powering through it. I don’t know what the mechanics are of the way he sings, but he’s all over the place. He’s in his passaggio, his falsetto. It was pretty exciting to hear him do that full out for the first time.”

“Gone, Gone, Gone,” sung by Lilli Cooper as character, Julie Nichols
“To me, that song is first and foremost an old-school funk tune; it has that kind of tapestry of rhythm section. We felt like the character needed a song, and I thought it was gonna be only a piano bar song. But then you hear the whole backing track. I also knew that I wanted there to be something for backup singers. In terms of the orchestration, what you’re hearing on stage is pretty much what my demo was — with the exception of all those great horn lines that Simon Hale wrote. I played in a funk band in college, and I still love structuring that stuff: guitars or clarinet and guitar. That song wasn’t absolute delight to write.

“Jeff Sums It Up,” sung by Andy Grotelueschen as character, Jeff Slater
“I had written a song in the first act called ‘You’re 40,’ and it was one of those sort of list songs: ‘Your scrotum is sagging’; ‘your freezer is filled with cheese.’ Jeff is his buddy and roommate and is just forcing it home. It was like a swinging song that ended at a surprise 40th birthday party. We really loved the song and it was very funny. But it had to go because it was taking too much time. You know the rhythm of the story is absolutely the number one consideration. And it was slowing the story movement down even though it’s a fun song.

“For maybe a year or two, we just had no song between the two guys. And every now and then Robert would say, ‘Oh man I really missed having a song with the two guys.’ Then I realized, at the beginning of the second act, ‘Why don’t we do a recap of what happened in the first act?’ So the curtain comes up, and it’s just two guys on a ratty couch silently sitting there because things are bad and they’re in silence for a long time. Jeff is the first person who says anything, and he’s singing: ‘You fucked it up.’ I remember sitting down at my equipment and thinking about the theme and Neil Hefti’s scene from The Odd Couple. It’s that sort of groove. I even put marimba in there later on as like a tribute, like an Easter egg almost. But then it goes and it starts swinging. And I think it was kind of a callback to the song that we cut. I always imagined Jeff doing a dance or the two of them doing a dance, but Andy Grotelueschen’s spasmodic dancing was so funny. You know, we sort of cherish that moment.

“What’s Gonna Happen,” sung by Sarah Stiles as character, Sandy Lester
“She fucking nails that song. I didn’t know Sarah when I was writing it, but I knew there was someone who could do it. I tried to build in enough breaths. We have to work hard on finding where those breaths are. But the song itself wasn’t difficult once I knew what the groove was and knew that it was that fast Mambo kind of thing. I sort of, again, let the music follow the comedy in that it’s a very simple chord structure and it has to be. If you went all over the place with that song, you would stop focusing in on the lyrics. For those, all I had to do was just think of all the hours and hours I spent in those auditioning rooms and time I spent talking to actresses like that. It kind of came pretty naturally. Including the ‘rehearsal pianist with the turtleneck and the dandruff.’ All these images have just stuck in my head.”

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