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A SPRINKLING OF SUGAR

In 1959, director-screenwriter Billy Wilder, along with his then-writing partner I.A.L. (“Izzy”) Diamond, brought their screenplay Some Like It Hot to life in glorious black and white on the silver screen. 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 of 2000, forty-one years later, Some Like it Hot was voted #1 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 as Josephine and Daphne in Some Like it Hot (1959).

A dozen years after its premiere, David Merrick, a producer with an enviable track record of success and an unenviable one for not playing well with others, took it upon himself to purchase the rights to create a musical version of Some Like It Hot for the stage — and it wasn’t easy. Owned by the film studio United Artists, Merrick had only recently snapped up the rights to another of their properties, The Apartment (also authored by Wilder and Diamond), which was a big Broadway hit for Merrick in 1968 titled Promises, Promises (book by Neil Simon and score by Burt Bacharach and Hal David). But Merrick was told “no sale.”

Not one to take no for an answer, he instead smartly 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, whose screenplay was off-limits. It was left to Jerry Herman and Michael Stewart, whom Merrick had hired for his smash hit Hello, Dolly!, to figure out a new setting. It was their take to make the leads 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—an excellent solution.

But with Merrick being a tenacious type, he surprised his creative team a few months later when he informed that he managed to finagle the rights to Some Like it Hot after all. He then demanded Herman and Stewart switch from their forties setting back to the twenties, only to be stymied when they balked. They argued that their new setting 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. Later, Gower Champion, the director-choreographer and creative muscle behind three Merrick hits: Carnival, I Do! I Do! and Hello, Dolly!), was hired to helm Sugar (its final title after it went through a number of name changes, including the purloining of the film’s famous last line and calling the show Nobody’s Perfect).

With the ability to now legally mine Some Like It Hot’s plot line, the new team was free to grab what they needed from Wilder and Diamond’s screenplay. 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 dressed in women’s clothing as members of 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. The re-writing out of town was constant and Merrick was even more of a wholly terror than usual, even going so far as to throwing out all the scenery between tryouts in Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia, firing the legendary Jo Mielziner and bringing in Robin Wagner (a young man at the time and later to become legendary himself). 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.

Robert Morse as Jerry/Daphne and Tony Roberts as Joe/Josephine in Sugar (1972).

This is where Merrick and company made their smartest choice: the hiring of Robert Morse to play the Jack Lemmon role of Jerry/Daphne ten years after his having created J. Pierpont Finch in Frank Loesser and Abe Burrows’ How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. When I saw Sugar early in its run, I was all of fifteen-years-old and already in full-fandom over this one-of-a-kind actor. Too young to have seen him play it on Broadway, Morse’s performance in the 1967 film version of How To Succeed enthralled me as a kid. How could it not? Over the top and completely believable at the same time, his Finch is conniving, endearing, charming and adorable. Add to that his humorously-charged voice and loose-limbed dancing abilities, Morse captivated in the role, barely leaving the screen for its two-hour running time. Now with Sugar, this was my first time seeing Morse on stage, and I was not disappointed.

When Sugar opened on Broadway forty-six years ago tonight at the Majestic Theatre it featured a relative unknown, Elaine Joyce in the title role, the one first created in the film by Marilyn Monroe. Joyce really had her work cut out for her, and though receiving good reviews, it didn’t launch her career the way someone else in the part might have been able to accomplish. Solid performances were turned in by 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. Earning mixed reviews, the show managed to do good business and run for over 500 performances. 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.

One of the reasons for the show’s surviving its tough tryout and its lack of support among critics was really due to Robert Morse. Once he 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.

Tony Roberts and Robert Morse singing “The Beauty that Drives the Men Mad” in Sugar (1972).

With Some Like It Hot’s status as a film classic undiminished over the years and always continuing to grow, there have been numerous attempts to revive Sugar’s fortunes in hopes of it maybe one day 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… which is again being attempted in a brand new version, with the Jules Styne-Bob Merrill score releagated to the dustbin. The playwright Matthew Lopez, whose The Inheritance opened on Broadway this season, is writing the book, and Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman (Hairspray and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) are composing the score. With Casey Nicholaw (Book of Mormon, Aladdin and Mean Girls) as director, it opens in Chicago (with any luck) in the Spring of next year.

Oh, and in the “dreams do come true” department, due to the vagaries of my chosen profession, I’ve found myself in the unique position of a few years back acquiring the delightful Mr. Morse as a true friend. Here we are backstage at The Front Page in 2016… buddies for life, I think.

Doin it for Sugar.

If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, available at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. Also sign up to follow me here, and feel free to email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.

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© 2016 Ron Fassler - All rights Reserved

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