In 1959, director-screenwriter Billy Wilder, along with his long-time 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 six 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."
Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon in their female guises in Some Like It Hot (1959).
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, was the man behind figuring out a way to bring a musical version of Some Like It Hot to the Broadway stage—and it wasn't easy. Getting the rights from the film studio, United Artists, proved impossible, even though he had recently been successful with another of their properties, one also authored by Wilder and Diamond. That was The Apartment, which Merrick produced in 1968 to great success as the musical Promises, Promises, with a book by Neil Simon and a score by Burt Bacharach and Hal David.
So instead, Merrick optioned Fanfaren, the German screenplay upon which Wilder and Diamond based Some Like It Hot. Unfortunately, this wouldn't allow for Merrick to set the show in the Roaring Twenties, perfect for a musical, as that was an idea of Wilder and Diamond's. Now it was up to Jerry Herman and Michael Stewart, who had collaborated on Merrick's smash hit Hello, Dolly!, to figure out a new setting while writing its score and book. It was their take to write the leads as a pair of G.I.'s fighting their way back into the world of post-World War II, with the 1940s swing era providing an appropriate musical backdrop for Herman's songs.
But with Merrick not being the type to give up without a fight, he eventually nabbed the rights from United Artists to use Wilder and Diamond's screenplay as the source for his musical. He then demanded that Herman and Stewart switch from their 40s setting back to the 20s, only to be stymied when they balked. First, they felt their way wouldn't force a direct comparison with Some Like It Hot, which was smart thinking. Also, Herman and Stewart genuinely liked what they had come up with. So what did Merrick do to solve this conundrum? He fired Herman, replacing him with the team of Bob Merrill and Jule Styne (words and music), and let go of Stewart as well, hiring Peter Stone in his stead.
Now being able to base the show directly on Some Like It Hot's plot line provided a definite plus. In case you don't recall, it's about two musicians on the run from gangsters—haphazard eyewitnesses to a gangland murder—who then come up with the half-baked scheme of getting safely out of town by hiding from their pursuers dressing in women’s clothing, joining an all-girl band. Men in drag—it’s almost always funny. As proof, the number two on that AFI Funniest Movies list is none other than Tootsie.
Even with Stone as the book writer, free to pick and choose what worked so beautifully in the film, nothing came easy. Merrick was a wholly terror, even going so far as to throwing out all the scenery between tryouts in Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia, firing Jo Mielziner and bringing in Robin Wagner. But the biggest challenge the show faced was how to match, in purity, the farcical elements on stage that made Some Like It Hot so unique on film. And so funny!
When Sugar opened on Broadway forty-seven years ago tonight at the Majestic Theatre, it featured a relative unknown, Elaine Joyce in the title part, the one first created by Marilyn Monroe in the film. There were solid performances from Tony Roberts in the Tony Curtis role of Joe/Josephine and Cyril Ritchard, bringing his usual fey elegance, to the role of the Osgood Fielding III, played so memorably in the film by Joe E. Brown. Yet the show remained a bit of a disappointment creatively, even though it did good business. In fact, many years later, Peter Stone told an interviewer "It's probably the most successful stock and amateur [property] I've ever done—especially foreign [licensing]." This from a man whose credits include 1776, Woman of the Year, My One and Only and Titanic.
As a teenager, I saw Sugar early in its run, and though intermittently entertaining on its own merits, the show was really all about the comedic skills, dazzling energy and one-of-a-kind charisma of Robert Morse. As Jerry and his female alter-ego, Daphne, Morse was the real deal. This was my first time seeing him on stage, although I already kind of worshiped from his performance as J. Pierrepont Finch in the 1966 film version of his earlier stage triumph in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.
Robert Morse and Tony Roberts as Daphne & Josephine in Sugar (1972).
Once Morse entered as "Daphne," he owned the rest of the evening (or afternoon, as I saw a matinee). His reviews were stellar—the kind every actor dreams about—like this one from Marilyn Stasio, then reviewing for Cue Magazine: "Robert Morse is a dimpled talent bliss. He’s the jimmies on an ice cream cone. A winning lottery ticket. A homer in the bottom of the ninth."
It doesn't get better than that.
And how great is it that Morse was able to make a triumphant return in 2016 to West 44th Street, when he appeared at the Broadhurst Theatre in the all-star revival of Ben Hecht & Charles MacArthur's The Front Page. Here he is taking a bow, as John Slattery and Nathan Lane look on in admiration. Morse turns eighty-seven next month, and just took part in a show I produced and performed in Los Angeles only last week! Naturally, he killed it.
Robert Morse taking his bow in the The Front Page (2016).
With Some Like It Hot's status as a film classic not only undiminished over the years, but continuing to grow, there have been numerous attempts to revive Sugar's fortunes, in hopes of it maybe one day of finding its way back to Broadway. One was a 1992 London version with British favorite Tommy Steele, and another was a U.S. touring production in 2002 with Tony Curtis, this time in the Joe E. Brown role of Osgood, the randy millionaire.
Of course, both productions took on a new title: Some Like It Hot.
If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, now at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. Email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.