Theatre yesterday and today



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In 1959, director Billy Wilder, along with his long-time writing partner I.A.L. (“Izzy”) Diamond, brought their screenplay Some Like It Hot to life in glorious black and white. The film, which starred Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis and Marilyn Monroe became an instant classic, earning five Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture. In June, 2000, nearly fifty years after it premiered, it was named number one on the list of America’s Funniest Movies by the American Film Institute’s panel “of more than 1,500 leaders of the American movie community.”

In 1972, David Merrick, a producer with an enviable track record as well as a talent for alienating close to everyone he ever came in contact with, brought its musical version to the Broadway stage. Even after a dozen years, Some Like It Hot was still a fresh and hilarious memory for most of the theatre going public Merrick hoped to re-entertain with its story of two musicians on the run from gangsters; haphazard eyewitnesses to a gangland murder. Their only means of getting out of town: to hide from their pursuers by dressing in women’s clothing and joining an all-girl band. Men in drag—it’s almost always funny. Would you care to guess what film is number two on that AFI Funniest Movies list? Yup, it’s Tootsie.

Hiring Jule Styne and Bob Merrill to compose its score and lyrics, Merrick also wisely obtained Peter Stone, one of the best book writers for the stage, to adapt it. This turned out to be one of Stone’s least favorite assignments, as he was stymied at every turn. For a long time, the movie studio that produced it wouldn't give Merrick permission to the property no matter how hard he wailed or threatened them. So he ended up securing the rights from a 1930s German movie studio that produced a remake of the original French film, from which Wilder derived his initial inspiration! Confused? Everyone was.

Struggling with not being able to include some of the best things that Wilder came up with, Stone was finding it increasingly difficult to give his producer what he wanted. Somehow, through much arm twisting, Merrick finally wrested the rights to Some Like It Hot from United Artists. Now Stone was free to pick and choose what worked so beautifully in the film, but it was to no avail. No matter what this group of Broadway stalwarts did, nothing matched in purity those farcical elements that made Some Like It Hot so unique.

So what would eventually come to be known as Sugar (making Sugar Kane Kowalski, the role played by Marilyn Monroe in the film the musical's title character) opened at the Majestic Theatre on April 9, 1972. In spite of a critically-acclaimed turn by Robert Morse in the part Jack Lemmon made famous, the show was a disappointment. Even its run of just over 500 performances did little to return significant returns on its investment.

Today marks 43 years to the day that Sugar closed. I saw it early in its run and have many memories. I was even fortunate to speak with Robert Morse about everything he recalled about this troubled show and his triumphant performance.

If that's tempting enough, please catch the second part of this entry tomorrow.

If you would like to comment on any of these posts, please do so below. I look forward to hearing from you.