Sarah Stiles Makes ‘Em Laugh in ‘Tootsie’
In “Tootsie,” Sarah Stiles plays an actor who can’t seem to catch a break. Her character Sandy is codependent on her ex Michael, and she hangs on his every word, desperate for approval and validation as she prepares for yet another audition. As the story famously goes, first in the 1982 film and now in the musical, the part ends up going to Michael, dressed as a woman he names Dorothy Michaels. As Sandy self-deprecatingly says, “You’re even a better woman than I am.”
But offstage, Stiles is a bonafide star, with a Tony Award nomination to her credit for her last Broadway outing in “Hand to God” and new Outer Critics Circle Award nomination for her hilarious and heartfelt performance in “Tootsie.” While Sandy repeatedly sings “I know what’s gonna happen…” Stiles specializes in unpredictability, but one thing’s for sure: You will be laughing.
Sitting backstage in her dressing room at the Marquis Theatre, where “Tootsie” is playing, Stiles looks at home in her bespoke magical forest. Her bright pink skirt matches the orchids and tufted ottomans, and the hemp wall hanging and tree slab table complete the magical atmosphere.
While Stiles couldn’t be more different from her character in terms of where they are career-wise, she does acknowledge that some of Sandy’s insecurities have flared up during this process. After performing in an early workshop of the musical, Stiles immediately received an offer for the Chicago out-of-town production and Broadway. She almost couldn’t believe it.
“I thought I was being punk-ed,” Stiles says. “This is how I reacted: ‘Wait. Are you sure that they’re sure? Because this is like a year from now, so they’ve got a lot of time to look for other people. Do they really want to make a commitment this early on? That feels like a little crazy.’ The neurosis is so deep it made sense why I’m playing this part.”
But the minute she read the script, she couldn’t imagine not doing the role, and she says Sandy is a “younger version” of herself and “she hits close to home.” While she’d seen the movie years ago, she didn’t want to watch it before going into rehearsals.
“I remembered Teri Garr was amazing, and honestly, I didn’t want to be nervous,” she says. “It felt like that would have scared me because I knew, as people, we were very different. So I thought, just don’t even go there. Make it your own thing and revisit it later, which I still haven’t done yet. But I think I’ll be ready to do that in a good six months.”
Although Stiles is more confident and stable than Sandy, spending eight shows a week as a person with crippling self doubt can take a toil. She’s also found that the physicality of the role, both from the fast singing to the body posture, begins to wear on her. She does bodywork and physical therapy every week and yoga and stretching before every performance.
“She’s really hard on my body because my shoulders are just up in my ears and the song is so fast there’s no time to breathe,” she says. “The tantrum that I do is also physical. We had to figure out what movements to do that wouldn’t throw my neck out. It’s so crazy.”
Sandy is constantly performing — even when she’s in Michael’s living room — and she desperately wants to be liked but she doesn’t realize until the end that she really just needs to be herself.
“If she could just channel who she is naturally and be okay with that she would be great,” Stiles says. “I think she wants to be the leading lady or the ingenue, and she’s the character actress.”
Stiles is also a character actor, a role she’s embraced. Although when she was starting out, it was a little harder. Her first Broadway show was “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” and she understudied all of the female roles. However, when it came time to cast the tour, she got called in for two roles: the more mild-mannered and sweet Olive and the brassier and politically conscious Schwarzy. She got cast as Schwarzy.
“I really really wanted to play Olive,” she remembers. “I could really hold the comedy of Schwarzy in a really strong way, and that is something to be super proud of. But for me, I just wanted to sing the ballads and wear the pink overalls.”
Stiles hasn’t been back onstage since “Hand to God” and has been making television audiences laugh as the witty secretary Gladys on EPIX’s “Get Shorty” and the bro-tastic boss lady Bonnie on Showtime’s “Billions.” She’s enjoyed becoming more familiar with camera work, but the theater is where she thinks her humor really shines.
“I will never be as funny as I am onstage because the audience teaches me how to be funny every night,” she says. “They show you where to breath and how loud to talk and where to look, and really, it’s just that immediate response that you don’t get on film.”
Stiles has been making people laugh since she was little, and she and her younger brother and sister would compete to see who could be funnier. She played Annie a bunch of times (“It’s the curly hair, she says), and she always found a way to make people laugh. “There is footage somewhere. That’s horrifying,” she says.
She wore out VHS tapes of Bernadette Peters’s concerts, and she would mimic the performer. When Stiles was playing Little Red in Into the Woods in 2012, she met Peters briefly and unexpectedly – so unexpected, that she accidentally screamed out of shock and ran away quickly. So when Peters came backstage after seeing Tootsie, Stiles had to mentally prepare herself for a second encounter.
“I was like, you’re going to be cool, you’re going to be calm, and she just came running at me, wrapped me up in a hug and said that she just loved me and that I was hilarious,” Stiles says. “And then I was just speechless. I could not form sentences.”
Each night after the show at the stage door, there are probably young actors who feel the same way about Stiles or young girls watching YouTube clips trying to mimic her style (pun intended).
We know it’s gonna happen.