A man in a dress. That was the central gag of “Mrs. Doubtfire,” the 1993 Robin Williams hit about a hard-luck actor named Daniel Hillard who loses custody of his kids and masquerades as a Scottish nanny to stay in their lives. It was the second-highest-grossing movie of the year, just behind “Jurassic Park.”
But a man in a dress doesn’t cut it as a punch line in 2019 — not without serious and necessary conversations. The new musical adaptation of “Mrs. Doubtfire” at The 5th Avenue Theatre, which features heavy-hitter talent (including Tony Award-winning director Jerry Zaks), is already slated for Broadway, but not without scrutiny and criticism.
This summer, a Change.org petition asked The 5th Ave to cancel the musical altogether, citing the film’s “tired, transphobic tropes.” Though “Mrs. Doubtfire” is not directly about transgender identity, “the central device of the plot, crossdressing as an elaborate ruse, strengthens the assumptions and misjudgments that continue to harm trans women in implicit, pervasive ways,” the petition, started by Seattle-area theater artist Eli Blodgett, says. “As trans theatre-maker and critic Brin Solomon writes, … ‘Because mainstream society, by and large, thinks of trans women as “men in dresses” instead of women, the man-in-a-dress joke perpetuates the idea that trans women are “unnatural” and fit for ridicule and scorn.'”
What advice did the producers and The 5th Ave solicit to navigate the cultural/political issues involved? The 5th Ave and the show’s producers didn’t offer specifics but released a statement: “The producers along with everyone connected with the show want to tell the story in a way that is sensitive and doesn’t misrepresent anyone,” the statement said. “They have taken feedback and notes from people representing different constituencies who have seen rehearsals as part of the process of making the show.”
So how is this “Doubtfire” landing with members of the LGBTQ community? The Seattle Times interviewed five theater artists — some transgender, some queer — in the weeks before opening night, then joined them to see the show. (The participants told us how they would like to be identified and which pronouns they use.) Excerpts from those conversations follow. (Click on “Before the show” for their thoughts and concerns about the movie; click on “After the show” to see what they thought of the stage adaptation.)
Development by Lauren Flannery