Broadway’s Big New Smash Is the Jokebox Musical

(Bloomberg) -- “My yoga teacher says I’ve literally created a new position,” says Sandy, a struggling young performer. It’s called “downward spiral.”  

The anxious actress is complaining to her friends about how she never gets work.

“I live in an apartment so small I count the litter box as a guest bathroom,” she adds. “My phone no longer recognizes my face ID unless I’m crying.”

Zing! Zing! Zing! One-liners fly so fast and furiously, you’d think it’s a comedy slam. But no. It’s the new Broadway musical Tootsie, and Sandy’s lines—delivered with blistering timing by stage vet Sarah Stiles—feel like they could be part of a stand-up act.

They’re written that way; Tootsie’s great strength is its humor. The new production, which stars Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s Santino Fontana in an update of the iconic, gender-bending Dustin Hoffman vehicle, is more hilarious than its tunes are hummable. In fact, it packs so many punchlines, it could be called a “jokebox” musical.

Broadway’s Big New Smash Is the Jokebox Musical

“Sandy’s dialogue speaks to her stream-of-consciousness neuroses,” says Tootsie writer Robert Horn. “I can’t do science, I can’t do math, but I can see and hear the world through a comedic prism.”

Horn’s adaptation of the 1982 Oscar winner made plenty of “room for new jokes that come out of who these characters are,” he says. “I’m a huge fan of Neil Simon. He knew how to put comedy into characters’ mouths.” So does Horn.

Comedic Cues

While jokes are hardly a new phenomenon, they’re now enjoying a Broadway boomlet. Lines blur, in varying degrees from show to show, between comedy club and Broadway stage. And while shows such as Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus, a new play, have received middling reviews, both are up for top awards at the Tonys on June 9. Nominations work in mysterious ways, but there’s a chance Gary’s fleet of fart jokes helped land it the nod.

In Beetlejuice, the potty-mouthed poltergeist is a wisecracker just like in the Michael Keaton movie. The demonic quipster addresses the audience at the Winter Garden Theatre like a comedian who could’ve drifted in from Carolines a block away.

Broadway’s Big New Smash Is the Jokebox Musical

“You know how it feels to get everything you thought you ever wanted and still feel like no one will ever love you?” asks Alex Brightman, the Tony-nominated actor in the title role, breaking the fourth wall and pointing to a hapless audience member. “This guy knows what I’m talking about.”

It’s Stand-Up 101, and this straight-to-the-crowd delivery is cropping up all over the Great White Way.

Beetlejuice isn’t the only jokester in Scott Brown and Anthony King’s script. Delia, a dim but daffy life coach, also gets in on the (stand-up) act. “I had a vision once. I was in a sweat lodge,” she says. “Actually, it was just a very hot apartment in Queens with the doors locked from the outside.”

Funny and Feel-Good

Meanwhile, The Prom, a musical romp about self-serving Broadway actors on a crusade to Middle America, also dishes out plenty of one-liners. Wails Barry, the self-obsessed thespian played by Brooks Ashmanskas: “So talking about yourself nonstop suddenly makes you a narcissist?”

Plays, too, are making room for jokes. In the opening moment of her politically charged memoir, What the Constitution Means to Me, author and star Heidi Schreck unleashes an anecdote she’s also told on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert. “When I was 15 years old, I traveled the country giving speeches about the Constitution at American Legion halls for prize money,” says Schreck. “I was able to pay for my entire college education this way.” She pauses for applause. “Thank you—it was 30 years ago, and it was a state school, but thank you.”

It begs to be followed by “Don’t forget to tip your servers”—but this is Broadway, not a club. 

Broadway’s Big New Smash Is the Jokebox Musical

Even Aaron Sorkin’s sincere drama To Kill a Mockingbird lets its brand of jokes fly, including some gallows humor when a sheriff tells Atticus Finch (Jeff Daniels) and his housekeeper, Calpurnia (LaTanya Richardson Jackson), that some men are so rotten they’re not worth shooting. “Oh, no,” Calpurnia deadpans, half toward the audience. “They’re worth the bullet.”

Veteran director Jerry Zaks, a four-time Tony winner, puts this funny business in context: “The sound of laughter in an audience is the sound of people falling in love with the characters,” he says. “That’s why you try to get your first laugh as soon as possible. We’re living in a time where people need to laugh as much or more than ever.”

Taylor Mac’s otherwise hapless comedy Gary lands its share of punchlines, like when a lightbulb goes off in an historical midwife’s head as she grouses about her lack of status. “I’m used to being ignored, stuck in the middle like I am,” she says. “Not rich. Not poor. They don’t even have a word for my class. Just sort of middle … class.” She brightens. “I just invented a class!”

With the headlines going from grim to grimmer, ticket buyers could use the levity. “People want to laugh,” says Horn, who also uses his talents to polish punchlines in other writers’ scripts. “I do it a lot, all the time,” he says. “I’m just not allowed to say on what.” 

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.