“Let’s get the dirty work out of the way: It might not be a great idea to adapt Some Like It Hot into a Broadway musical. Those who know the original 1959 Billy Wilder film often adore it: the romp, the caper, the costumes! It’s a farce with a heart of gold … But never mind the improbable plot (film critic Manohla Dargis once wrote that the entire movie feels as though ‘it was directed inside gigantic quotation marks’); the film is really all about the performances. There’s Marilyn Monroe as the bruised bombshell Sugar ‘Kane’ Kowalczyk, a bourbon-sipping singer (‘not much of one,’ she admits) attempting to outrun her bad decisions … ‘What happens after Joe E. Brown says “Nobody’s perfect?”… People ask me that,’ Billy Wilder once said. ‘The American public wasn’t ready for that in 1959.’
Nominated for six Academy Awards, Some Like It Hot took home the award for best costume design. It was lauded by critics and banned in Kansas, which took offense not at the cross-dressing or suggestions of same-sex love but at Monroe’s sultry seductions. The American Film Institute has deemed it the funniest movie of all time. To some, it spans no less than all of life: sex, money, romance, violence, wit. On-set antics have become a kind of lore … Tony Curtis soaked his feet in buckets of ice to relieve the pain of standing for hours in three-inch heels, waiting for the notoriously unpunctual Monroe to make it to set. (‘She had great comic timing but no sense of time,’ Curtis wrote in a memoir.) And a reinvention has been attempted before: Sugar, a musical that paid new attention to the singer first played by Monroe, opened in 1972. That version has not, it’s safe to say, had a shelf life comparable to the movie.
All this is before you get to the question of drag. Two men dressing up as women had a very different valence in 1959 than it does today. If back then it was ostensibly a good-natured joke, today it might seem a tired trope or just far more unremarkable in the post–RuPaul’s Drag Race era. ‘Some Like It Not,’ ran a headline in The New York Times in the run-up to the opening of Some Like It Hot: The Musical at Broadway’s Shubert Theatre —quoting from a chorus of dubious voices from the theater world … ‘Do better’ is not quite the mantra of this reinvention, which is acutely aware of all the challenges its source material presents—but it’s close. ‘Yesterday’s ahead of the curve is today’s behind the curve,’ as playwright Matthew López, who wrote the book for this iteration along with comedian Amber Ruffin, put it to me. In other words, ‘We know where the jokes aren’t,’ says actor Christian Borle, who plays Joe/Josephine. Many of the people involved in this production, in fact, were at pains to explain just how different the musical will be. ‘There’s not a lot on stage that resembles the original,’ says López. ‘I’m not interested in being a photocopier.’
First, of course, there’s the music—by composing team Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman (Hairspray)—with its buoyant, big-band compositions. While the original film featured a few songs, including a performance of ‘I Wanna Be Loved by You’ by Monroe in which she gives Betty Boop a run for her money, the actors are not singing torch songs; the music is a punctuation, not a crucial part of the fabric of the production.
The time frame has also been shifted forward a few years so that the story unfolds in the 1930s rather than the mid-’20s, which heightens the jazziness of the proceedings while also offering the stark contrast of the Depression. Certain plot- and structure-related details have also been changed: There’s a fantasy section, meant to evoke the glamour of 1930s Hollywood, and a trip to Mexico. In a winking nod to the film, the band travels across the country to San Diego (rather than Florida) to the Hotel del Coronado (where the Florida scenes were actually shot in the film). ‘Part of that thinking was, If we’re going to have an interracial band,’ says director Casey Nicholaw, ‘let’s not point out that they’re going through the South.’
That sentiment—to both embrace greater diversity while not wading too deep into the choppy waters of identity and gender politics—encapsulates both the promise and the challenge of the musical, which has cast a Black woman, Adrianna Hicks, as Sugar and a nonbinary Black individual, J. Harrison Ghee, as Jerry/Daphne. Both actors were, perhaps to their mercy, unacquainted with the film when they began to work on the production but quickly felt the impact of their casting in terms of basic representation. ‘It has been really special to understand that I’m creating a new role for Black women,’ says Hicks. ‘It’s important to me to widen the spectrum of roles that we can play.’ This Sugar has been written to be a Black woman, and the role engages with what a Black woman would have experienced at that time. ‘She comes from different struggles,’ says Hicks. ‘It’s different from the movie in that way.’
Although Hicks has tried not to compare herself to Monroe, certain distinctions were necessary to articulate. Monroe’s Sugar is a woman who has suffered—a woman who, as a famous line from the script has it, always got the fuzzy end of the lollipop. Pregnant with a child she would ultimately miscarry and struggling with drugs and alcohol, Monroe evinced an air of unhappiness that gave her Sugar a note of quiet desperation. (Monroe’s then husband, Arthur Miller, would later blame Wilder for overworking Monroe on set and causing her miscarriage, to which Wilder responded: ‘Had you, dear Arthur, been not her husband but her writer and director and been subjected to all the indignities I was, you would have thrown her out on her can, thermos bottle and all, to avoid a nervous breakdown. I did the braver thing. I had a nervous breakdown.’)
Sugar may think she is doing the seducing of her phony millionaire, but she reads at least in part as a victim—not least because of the old-fashioned sexism of the source material. ‘For someone to pose as a millionaire and lie in order to get a woman into bed—that’s not going to fly now,’ says Nicholaw. ‘It shouldn’t have flown then.’ López too was drawn to the idea that the new Some Like It Hot might complicate its slightly twisted legacy when it comes to women: They are the saviours and the butt of the jokes, the objects of admiration and conquests in waiting. In López’s rereading of the show, it can be seen as a show about ‘the options women are given and the choices they have to make in relation to their options,’ he says. Why would a woman in the 1930s join a traveling band? ‘Maybe it’s not great to be a female musician in Chicago. Maybe there are no jobs for women. Who’s going to hire a female saxophonist?’ The updated approach, Nicholaw says, ‘gives Sugar the upper hand.’ Hicks doesn’t quite reach for a 21st-century vocabulary of agency and validation, but she too sees a different path for her character: ‘She chooses a different mode of life. It’s one that shows her power and her choice to start anew and take on a different mindset when it comes to men, music, and her dreams.'”
If the idea of transformation is not the heart of Some Like It Hot, it is one of them. ‘The movie’—with its gangsters, its moonshine makers, its down-and-out jazz musicians, its struggling girl band, its lonesome heroine, its accidental cross-dressers, its unconventional millionaire—’seemed to me about people who are nonconformist in their nature,’ says López. It was this realization that led him from the instinct that an adaptation would be a fool’s errand to an inclination that it could be something quite special and exciting. ‘I thought, Let’s take something that always had the patina of being vaguely queer and let’s queer it up and make it a celebration. Let’s make it about people who don’t fit into society and what they do in order to survive. It’s about rule breakers.’ Billy Wilder just might agree.”