Saw Some Like It Hot: The Musical at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark. Hard to believe that 31 years have passed since I last caught the show, which I saw twice in two months: First in Toronto in February 1972, then in Boston on the Ides of March.
It was called Sugar then, and producer David Merrick originally had no plans to come to Boston. But when the reviews in Washington and Toronto were putrid, Merrick knew he couldn't just waltz into the Majestic, so he booked Philadelphia and Boston to give the show more time. He replaced the orchestrations and even the sets. Meanwhile, director-choreographer Gower Champion got rid of former pop singer Johnny Desmond as the gangster because Champion had the better idea of having the mobster tap dance to simulate gunfire.
In Toronto, the show opened with an all-girl band, Sweet Sue and Her Society Syncopators, playing the final night of their Chicago engagement. Sue established that her saxophonist and bass fiddler were leaving to start their own orchestra. Droned Sheila Smith, "Break a leg, girls -- and I really mean that." Then out came Sugar Kane to sing "The Girls Who Play in the Band," and when she finished, all the girls sang "Wish We Could Turn Back the Clock" -- a nice, nostalgic song -- as the bandstand receded into the background so we could meet Joe (Tony Roberts) and Jerry (Robert Morse), soon to become Josephine and Daphne.
By the time the show reached Boston, this scene was gone. So why do I bring it up now? Because it's back, minus the "Break a leg" line. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Granted, it's not the opening scene anymore; that now consists of two cardboard cut-outs of cars being feebly maneuvered around the stage by the unseen people behind them. (Another el cheapo touring production has begun.) Then we segue to the speakeasy where Joe and Jerry play, at least until the place is raided (as in the original 1959 film). The scene that follows uses "The Girls Who Play in the Band," albeit sung by Sue -- played by Lenora Nemetz, whose name will live forever because of Nunsense. And while "Wish We Could Turn Back the Clock" hasn't been restored with lyrics, the melody is there as the girls recede.
Newark, New Jersey is the closest that this Some Like It Hot: The Musical will get to Broadway, and it's easy to see why. First off, set designer James Leonard Joy and costume designer Suzy Benziger decided to go black-and-white for the show's opening scenes, which makes things deadly dull. Then, after mobster Spats Colombo rubs out his enemies -- which Joe and Jerry witness before scooting away -- there's an astonishingly long production number by director-choreographer Dan Siretta wherein all the gangsters tap-dance. And when they finish, they do a reprise! Is this much time needed to get Joe and Jerry into their dresses? The problem is that the longer this number goes on, the more joyous it seems -- and joy is not what Spats is feeling, considering that the two witnesses slipped out of his hands (and feet).
Yet the major problem is that the musical itself just isn't good enough. The American Film Institute judged the 1959 movie as the funniest comedy of all time, but would anyone rank this show in the top 500 musicals? When a musical doesn't surpass the original, it's almost always in serious trouble; there's no fresh spin on the esteemed source material. Frankly, if I were librettist Peter Stone, I'd be ashamed to cash the checks, for he took an inordinate amount of dialogue from the film verbatim. (An aside: I've always had one problem with the film as well as the musical, a glitch that seems to bother no one else. Joe and Jerry talk endlessly about how broke they are, and yet when they decide to dress as women, they suddenly acquire an extensive female wardrobe. How? From where? It's never explained in either property. They even have pajamas! It seems that whenever they need something, they come across it as easily as Wile E. Coyote finds Acme equipment when he's pursuing the Road Runner.)
Anyway, back in 1972, Sugar seemed amiable enough for its first half-hour because its Jule Styne-Bob Merrill score started out wonderfully. "Penniless Bums," "The Beauty That Drives Men Mad," and "We Could Be Close" are wonderful songs, with "Sun on My Face" only a bit behind them. But the score didn't sustain its high level. When the cast album came out in May 1972, I found myself endlessly playing side one (in those days when discs had sides) and only ventured to side two for the title song before taking the record off the turntable. One of the biggest problems was that Joe had a song, "It's Only Love," that was far too serious for this lightweight piece. It's still there, and what's worse, Sugar has an equally doleful ballad called "People in My Life" that is new to me.
Although "The Beauty That Drives Men Mad," is terrific, it does represent a profound flaw in the show. This is the song wherein we see Joe and Jerry in drag for the first time, at the train station where they're ready to embark on their new jobs. In front of dozens of people they proudly sing, "Hello, world, they call us Daphne and Josie! A thousand pounds of paradise from head to toes-y!" Yeah? If you were trying to leave town unobtrusively -- with your lives at stake -- would you sing in a train station and draw attention to yourselves? Of course not. You would, as Curtis and Jack Lemmon did in the movie, sneak onto the train and mind your own business.
Still, I'd hate to lose "The Beauty That Drives Men Mad" because it's a good song. I think it could be used to much better advantage without changing a word and that the show would be improved with the new twist it so woefully lacks. What if Joe/Josephine entered in drag, as scared and unsure as could be -- but Jerry/Daphne emerged positively thrilled to be finally in the women's clothes he's coveted, either consciously or unconsciously, all these years? Then he could unabashedly sing the song as Joe/Josephine is frantically trying to silence him because he's afraid they'll be found out. That would add some tension to the number, too.
By the time Osgood made his attentions known, Daphne/Jerry could be intrigued with the attention but fearfully aware of what the man would think if he knew the truth. That would be his internal struggle throughout the show. Sometimes he'd flirt with Osgood because he thinks he must appear feminine to him, but sometimes he'd come onto him because he's genuinely interested in the man. Frankly, it's a nicer motivation than the one Jerry has in the film and the musical: He says he's going to marry Osgood for his money and only then divulge his masculinity so they can get divorced and he can collect alimony for the rest of his life.
With these changes, when Osgood learns the truth at the end of the show and says, "Nobody's perfect," Daphne (forget the Jerry) could blissfully put his head on Osgood's chest and display a beautiful expression of contentment. Osgood would return the embrace, because he knows he's been dealing with a guy in drag all along. They're going to live happily ever after, as might future productions of Some Like It Hot: The Musical.
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