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Broadway Q&A: Lilli Cooper of ‘Tootsie’

Category Broadway

|by Jeryl Brunner |

The Tony nominee on why ‘Tootsie’ is a game-changer for her

In the hit musical Tootsie, Michael Dorsey is a struggling New York actor who is as talented as he is difficult. But since he’s no picnic to work with, he can’t get hired. So he gets creative and reinvents himself as Southern gal Dorothy Michaels. Soon, Dorothy/Michael gets cast in the Broadway musical sequel to Romeo and Juliet which also stars Julie Nichols (Lilli Cooper) as Juliet. Based on the iconic 1982 film, Cooper plays the pivotal role which starred Jessica Lange. The rest of the talented cast includes Santino Fontana as Michael Dorsey/Dorothy Michaels, Sarah Stiles as Sandy Lester, John Behlmann as Max Van Horn, Andy Grotelueschen as Jeff Slater, Julie Halston as Rita Marshall, Michael Mcgrath as Stan Fields, and Reg Rogers as Ron Carlisle. Directed by Scott Ellis, Tootsie was nominated for 11 Tony awards including a nomination for Cooper. Cooper’s credits also includes SpongeBob SquarePantsSpring AwakeningWickedSundownYellow MoonNatasha, Pierre and The Great Comet of 1812, The Good Fight, Bull and Elementary.

Lilli Cooper stars as Julie Nichols in ‘Tootsie’ (Photo: Matthew Murphy)

Lilli Cooper stars as Julie Nichols in ‘Tootsie’ (Photo: Matthew Murphy)

What went through your mind when you heard about Tootsie?
Lilli Cooper: I was really excited. I don’t think in my wildest dreams I would ever have imagined that I would play a part that Jessica Lange originally played. When I found out that I was going in for it, it was hard to even grasp. I knew that it was a really big deal. Not only for my career, but also the way the story was being told. It felt really special and unique.

What qualities does Julie have that you love?
LC: Julie is just so giddy and in love with what she does. So it feels really close to home. It's not a stretch to be playing an actress who loves what she does. That fuels her, and helps define the decisions she makes in life. It's a really wonderful quality to have.

When did you know you HAD to perform in musical theater?
: I started dancing as a kid. I didn’t really begin doing musical theater until about middle school. I did a production of Godspell in eighth grade and I sang “Oh Bless the Lord My Soul.” At that moment, I knew it was what I wanted to do. My parents were actually sort of surprised, because they'd never heard me sing before. But they came and heard me sing, and said, “Oh, I guess she's actually pretty good at this. Maybe she can actually sing?”

I had just transferred from a very rigorous academic school. That was the path I thought I was going down. But when I switched to a performing arts school, I realized that I found my tribe, my people. That is when I knew where I belonged. That is where I discovered that making art is really about relationships and the community.

Have you had people come up to you at the stage door sharing how inspired they are by you?
: Absolutely. There are a lot of young women of color who come up to me and say me how important it is for them to see someone on stage who looks like them. I felt exactly the same way when I was young and watching theater. That feels so incredibly special.  

Your father, Chuck Cooper, is a beloved Broadway veteran who is known for his beautiful voice. Is there guidance that he has given you has stayed with you?
LC: My father gives me guidance every day. We sort of feed off each other, and I ask his opinion a lot. He has always been really passionate about me being strong in my voice and making sure that I am vocal about how I feel. If I have any problems with anything, he encourages me to speak up and not be afraid or cower in the corner.

When you are not working, what do you  love to do?
LC: I love to spend time with my dog Dublin, who is a cocker spaniel. We go into the park. He's a water dog. He loves nature and the water. So I bring him up to the lake and he goes swimming.

For more of the best of Broadway this season, check out our list of the Top Shows in New York in September 2019

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