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Tony nominee Santino Fontana talks about the challenge of playing a woman

Santino Fontana had to learn more about his

Santino Fontana had to learn more about his feminine side to star in "Tootsie." Credit: Getty Images for Tony Awards Productions / Ilya S. Savenok

Santino Fontana, star of the new Broadway musical “Tootsie,” knows that playing a woman — in 2019 — takes a lot more than just learning how to walk in high heels. Though acing the heels part helps.

He got pointers from his wife and women in the cast on how to walk, talk and apply lipstick. And from his vocal coach on how to sing — high — eight times a week. All of which paid off. He just earned a Tony Award nomination for best actor in a musical (one of 11 Tony nominations for the show).

“Tootsie,” which recently opened at the Marquis Theatre, with music and lyrics by David Yazbek and a clever book by Robert Horn, updates the 1982 hit movie without losing any of the laughs. The premise is the same — an egotistical actor, Michael Dorsey (Fontana), dresses up as a woman, Dorothy Michaels, to score an acting gig. But the role Dustin Hoffman made famous is trickier in today’s more woke and #MeToo-messaged world.

Fontana, 37, is a Broadway vet (“Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella,” “The Importance of Being Earnest”) who’s also starred in TV’s “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” and voiced Prince Hal in Disney’s “Frozen.” He spoke with Newsday contributor Joseph V. Amodio.

Dustin Hoffman was swell in “Tootsie” but he only had to act — you have to sing and dance, too.

Yeah. And he got a lot of time with makeup. That’s the thing I’m most jealous of.

Has your wife, Jessica, helped you with …

Everything.

… makeup tips or …?

Everything, everything, always. There have been some funny superficial things — she’ll wear something and I’ll say, “Oh, I wish Dorothy could wear that, but my arms are too big.”

Playing Dorothy is obviously a challenge. But what about your other character — how similar are you to Michael Dorsey?

Thankfully, not too much. The drive and passion are the same. But Michael has zero emotional intelligence at the beginning of the play. Zero.

He’s a huge perfectionist. And you?

Yeah. But here’s the thing — there’s a difference. I don’t think Michael ever believes anything’s his fault. Like last night, I came home saying, “I think I blew this moment [onstage].” And Jess was like, “You’re getting obsessed. The show just opened. Enjoy it.” And I am enjoying it. But … I’m also …

A perfectionist.

That’s … [his tone changes, as if finally confessing] true — 100 percent true. I mean, I was texting Scott [Ellis, “Tootsie’s” director], saying, “I have an idea. …” And he was like, “I’m on vacation — go away.” [He laughs.] So, um … yeah, there are similarities. Definitely.

Let’s talk basics: What part of Dorothy’s wardrobe drives you crazy?

Well, the corset and I have a very complicated relationship. I’ve learned to respect it and I’m thankful for what it does. The funny thing is, I haven’t seen myself much in any of the costumes. When we do fittings, I don’t have the makeup, wig or jewelry on. Once the show starts, [I change into Dorothy backstage] in the dark in like 10 seconds, so I have no idea what I look like. I’ve told everybody in the cast, if my wig or dress is screwed up, you need to fix it.

Oh, right, women who wear dresses are more likely to know instinctively if something’s askew. But not you.

Absolutely. [Castmate) Leslie Flesner helped me walk in heels for the first time. The first thing she had me do was stand as a dude in those shoes — the high heels. And I did. And it was frightening. Or she’d say, “Don’t forget, if you’re going to sit, you hold your bag like this.” So it’s been an amazing lesson and opening up of my awareness. But it’s not just the superficial stuf f — the dress and makeup. A friend suggested I reach out to [feminists like] Gloria Steinem or Rebecca Traister. [Steinem’s schedule was too packed, but he met with Traister to discuss what it’s like being a woman today.] I said flat out, “I don’t know what I don’t know.”

And she said …

The biggest difference is what women are dealing with — the power struggles at the workplace, and how women have to worry about if it’s late at night walking to the subway alone. And men don’t. And women still do not have equal pay under the law. It’s nuts. As a woman, you can’t avoid that. It’s not about appearance. There’s every type of woman out there, in [terms of] how they look. What’s different is how they’re treated. And that’s always there. In any scene where I’m tired, or I’m beating myself up over a certain moment [that didn’t go right], I remember that, and it kind of reminds me what we’re doing this for.

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