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: The Musical

Filichia: The Columnist notes the trend of musicals telling us they're musicals. logo

I've been seeing a lot of ads for the 28-city tour of Tony Curtis in Some Like It Hot: The Musical. The 77-year-old actor, who originally played saxophonist Joe-turned-Josephine in the 1959 classic movie, is now in Houston playing lecher Osgood Fielding III in the show that was written by Peter Stone, Jule Styne, and Bob Merrill.

But old-timers remember that Some Like It Hot: The Musical was called Sugar when it was first produced in 1972. It was one of David Merrick's more troubled productions, and one of the greatest tryout disasters I ever saw when I caught it in Toronto. By the time it reached Boston, it had changed its leading man and its sets and had markedly improved. In New York, it managed to become one of those shows that ran more than 500 performances on Broadway but only barely eked out a profit, and was one for which you could always get a pair of orchestra seats on a Saturday night.

What I find interesting, though, is that the show is returning to its original name. Not for the first time, incidentally: In 1992, when Sugar made its London debut, it also used the movie's title, adding what had become de rigeur: ": The Musical." Why? Because it wanted to ride the coattails of the classic movie. Everyone remembers Some Like It Hot. Few remember Sugar. (Fewer still remember Illya, Darling, a 1965 musical based on Never on Sunday. Anyone want to bet against me that if that show were revived today--and it shouldn't be--it'd be called Never on Sunday: The Musical? Or that if 1955's Silk Stockings got a new production--and it should--it would be tabbed Ninotchka: The Musical?

Those were the days when a Broadway musical wanted to trumpet the fact that it was a new product and, presumably, one that represented an improvement over the original property. Which is why Rodgers and Hammerstein changed Green Grow the Lilacs into Oklahoma!, Liliom into Carousel, and Anna and the King of Siam into The King and I. Granted, not every property took this route: Rodgers kept the Pal Joey title and Hammerstein retained Show Boat when each was working independently of the other. They never thought, though, to add ": The Musical."

I suspect that, in days of yore, there was a reason why authors and producers of a new musical adaptation didn't keep their source material's original title and just graft on ": The Musical" afterwards: They expected people to read and learn the new title and understand that this was a new musical version of the famous original property. I'm talking about an era when the Broadway musical was more prominent in the nation's consciousness, when Life magazine reached great popularity in the '40s and Ed Sullivan's TV show met similar success in the '50s. Those two outlets routinely included Broadway in their agenda, so when both died in the early '70s, Broadway died a little with them.

Maybe that's why, in the precarious '80s, we started seeing ": The Musical" added to shows' original titles. The first one I can recall was Roller Derby: The Musical which debuted on September 11 (honest!), 1985 in San Francisco and didn't play anywhere else. We later saw Grand Hotel: The Musical (1989) and Cyrano: The Musical (1993), each a property that had been previously musicalized. But the former was originally called At the Grand while the latter had various adaptations called Roxanne and The White Plume--and one called just Cyrano without ": The Musical."

When the Tony nominations were handed out to the press on May 7, 2001, the show that received 15 nods wasn't just The Producers or even The Producers: The Musical but, God help us, The Producers: The New Mel Brooks Musical. That's the real, official title of the show, lest we confuse it with the old Mel Brooks musicals Shinbone Alley and All-American.

I'm not saying that the new practice is a good or bad thing. In a sense, adding ": The Musical" to a property's original title does suggest that now it's time for the work to get a new incarnation--and an inevitable one at that, seeing how Broadway is an important step on the food chain. The practice does keep the words "The Musical" in the public's consciousness, which is a good thing. And, at the very least, it is truth in advertising. But it's really taken over. Funny: In the old days, when comedians wanted to joke about an unlikely musical adaptation, they simply used to add an exclamation point to a famous title--Hamlet! Medea!--and that would be the joke. Today's comedians say Hamlet: The Musical or Medea: The Musical. (The latter is actually a real show that's played in L.A., San Francisco, and Seattle, among others places.) And, of course, there's Urinetown: The Musical, which is one long in-joke itself.

So the practice shows no signs of stopping. This summer, in Bardstown, Kentucky (where they really should do Shakespeare, don't you think?), you can see Stephen Foster: The Musical. In the works (check the website) is Rasputin: The Musical. And maybe, just maybe, Tony Curtis in Some Like It Hot: The Musical will wend its way to Broadway. But if it does, it had better be a hell of a lot better than Sugar: The Bad Musical.


[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at [email protected]]

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