There’s more to a Broadway musical than dressing up a well-known story with singing and dancing — even when the story is all about dressing up. “Mrs. Doubtfire” is an example of a show that continues to inspire its creators and performers.
The national tour of “Mrs. Doubtfire” hits The Bushnell Oct. 3-8 after going through several updates and rewrites since it was first performed five years ago. The show had a compromised Broadway run that kept audiences eager to see what this adaptation of the popular Robin Williams movie could be like. The show was retooled for a London run, which began in May of this year. Now the show’s North American tour is happening, and one of its first stops is in Hartford with its original Broadway star, Rob McClure.
Despite its proven popularity and the consistency of bringing its original star back for the tour, the musical’s creators have continued to tinker with it. This includes legendary director Jerry Zaks, who has a reputation for fine-tuning shows until they’re as good as they can be. When he spoke to the Hartford Courant last week, he had just emerged from giving notes on the previous night’s performance and said the month-long rehearsal period for the show involved rewrites and new ideas.
“There is no production that isn’t better the next time around,” he said. “It’s a privilege to work on a piece and make it better.”
Zaks came to directing after years as an actor on Broadway and in the regional theater. He appeared in a workshop production of Christopher Durang’s “A History of American Film” at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford in 1976, and then in that comedy’s world premiere at Hartford Stage in 1977. Some of his first hits as a director were with Durang’s “Beyond Therapy” and “Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You.”
“I loved making theater as an actor,” he recalled, “but when I made my evolution from acting to directing, I had a kind of arrogance that had to do with my belief in the actor. I didn’t appreciate how great the writers are.”
His mistaken belief that actors or directors could salvage weak scripts caused him, he said, to “make some terrible decisions” despite having what he calls “a great first act.” Whatever he may consider his stumbles, he’s certainly on a streak now with his Broadway revivals of “Hello, Dolly!” (which played The Bushnell on tour) and “The Music Man” and the continued interest in “Mrs. Doubtfire.”
Zaks’ Broadway triumphs of the 1980s and ‘90s — which ranged from the John Guare plays “House of Blue Leaves” and “Six Degrees of Separation” to the frantic comedies “Lend Me a Tenor” and “Laughter on the 23rd Floor,” the jukebox musical “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” and acclaimed revivals of “Guys and Dolls” and “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” — were all carefully calibrated for maximum entertainment value, big laughs and emotional intensity. His 1986 revival of the classic journalism play “The Front Page” was a model of a fast-moving frenzy that also had heart and meaning.
“Mrs. Doubtfire” has a similar need for emotional connection plus slapstick comedy. It is about the somewhat irresponsible but extremely likable Daniel Hillard (McClure), who is freshly divorced from his overworked wife and desperately misses being with his kids. He disguises himself as a woman and applies to be their nanny. Quick-change antics ensue, and everyone discovers a little more about their inner selves and how to get along.
The musical was a regional theater hit in Seattle in 2019, extending its run there and assuring that it could move on eventually to Broadway. Its New York run was ruined by the COVID shutdown and it only managed 126 performances between March 2020 and its closing in June 2022.
“Mrs. Doubtfire” arrives amid a national debate about gender identity as well as a surge in musical theater shows about men masquerading as women (one of which, “Tootsie,” played The Bushnell last season).
Zaks doesn’t see “Mrs. Doubtfire” as a vortex for discussing contemporary social issues, however. He sees the key to the story elsewhere. “Is there anything you wouldn’t do to be with your kids? In his world, he pretends to be a nanny. This device has been used for millennia when it comes to telling stories. If you try to find meaning in this, you’ll pull a muscle.”
The director said his decisions about what shows he directs can be “deeply personal,” and that he never dismisses a show because of “the politics of the material.” He chose to work on “Mrs. Doubtfire” largely because “I love comedy. I love making people laugh. I was sent a few scenes from this show in 2019. I had always loved the movie. I thought, ‘I like this!’”
McClure is co-starring on tour with his real-life wife Maggie Lakis, who’s playing his stage character’s ex-wife (a role played by Sally Field in the film). “We’re really lucky Rob decided to reprise his role for the tour,” Zaks said, “and Maggie is fantastic, too.” Several other cast members also appeared in the show on Broadway.
This is not the first time McClure, whose New York theater credits range from “Avenue Q” to “The Addams Family” to “Little Shop of Horrors” and the title role in “Chaplin,” has reprised one of his Broadway roles on tour. He was last at The Bushnell with the national tour of the Shakespearean farce “Something Rotten” in 2018.
Zaks said he, McClure, the other veteran cast members as well as the show’s writers and composers Karey Kirkpatrick, Wayne Kirkpatrick and John O’Farrell, have all been invigorated by the chance to revisit “Mrs. Doubtfire” again. “This production,” he insisted, “is better than what we opened with on Broadway.”
“Mrs. Doubtfire” runs Oct. 3-8 at The Bushnell, 166 Capitol Ave., Hartford. Performances are Tuesday through Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m. and Sunday at 1 and 6:30 p.m. $34-$148. bushnell.org/shows-concerts/mrs-doubtfire.