The temptation to take a film classic and turn it into a Broadway musical is a road fraught with peril. How do you take something perfect and make it better? This was the question posed in 1972 when producer David Merrick decided to musicalize the uproarious 1959 farce Some Like It Hot. The result was Sugar, which enjoyed a respectable 14-month run on Broadway (505 performances) and received four Tony nominations, including one for lead actor Robert Morse, who played Jerry/Daphne. The 86-year-old Morse was on hand at the Alex Theatre in Glendale Sunday night as Musical Theatre Guild presented a rousing staged reading of the musical. Morse and the audience clearly enjoyed the show (he could be seen doing a virtual karaoke act of the score from his seat), but most of what works for the show is what worked for the film, with little new of substance added to the musical.
Some Like It Hot was a perfect film, maybe the best movie comedy ever made. It starred Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis, and Jack Lemmon in a story concerning two musicians in 1920s Chicago who witness the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre and go on the lam to Florida, hiding out from hoods by dressing as women in an all-girl band. The genius of the 1959 film was in its frenetic pace; witty dialog, and memorable characterizations, with the non-stop zaniness never letting up. So with all of this, what did we need songs for?
Sugar had a troubled genesis. Merrick, still glowing from the successful transition of Billy Wilder’s The Apartment into the Broadway hit Promises, Promises, decided to do the same thing to the even funnier and more riotous Some Like It Hot, which Wilder also directed. Initially, Merrick hired his Hello, Dolly! production team: playwright Michael Stewart, composer Jerry Herman, and director/choreographer Gower Champion, who put together a show called “One of the Girls,” which Merrick hated. Stuart and Herman eventually resigned and Merrick replaced them with playwright Peter Stone and composers Jule Styne and Bob Merrill (Funny Girl). Despite a troublesome book, the show was carried by its stars: Robert Morse and Tony Roberts as the fleeing musicians, newcomer Elaine Joyce as Sugar, and Cyril Ritchard in the Joe E. Brown role of millionaire Osgood Fielding.
Musical Theatre Guild’s staged reading of Sugar retains much of the hilarity of the 1959 film, with fabulous performances pulled off by its trio of stars: Zachary Ford as Joe/Josephine, Matthew Patrick Davis as Jerry/Daphne, and Melissa Fahn as Sugar Kane. It was decided that Ford would not try and duplicate Tony Curtis’s impeccable Cary Grant impression as Junior, the Shell Oil millionaire who romances Sugar. Instead, Ford plays it like a stolid English butler, but it works well just the same. The towering, 6-foot-8-inch Davis, who is as tall as the bass fiddle Daphne lugs around, was paired with the diminutive James Gleason, who plays Osgood. Their midnight date (“Beautiful Through and Through”) is like watching Billy Barty dance with a stork. It’s not as funny as Joe E. Brown and Jack Lemmon’s tango to “La Cumparsita” but the cheek-to-navel tête-a-tête provided the biggest laughs of the evening. Jerry’s announcement to Joe of his betrothal to Osgood is still funny (Joe: “Who’s the lucky girl?” Jerry: “I am!”) although Joe’s subsequent query – “You’re a guy – why would a guy want to marry a guy?” – falls flat, due to societal changes that have taken hold since Some Like It Hot came out. (Ford and Davis cast knowing glances at the audience after reading this exchange).
Gleason’s performance is probably the weakest of the main characters, making one realize how essential Joe E. Brown was to the film version. To work, Osgood has to be old, but adorable, and try as he might, Gleason just couldn’t pull both off. Melissa Fahn was wonderful as the dim but darling Sugar, playing her more as a sexy Kewpie doll than Marilyn Monroe’s memorable bombshell. The seduction scene aboard Osgood’s yacht, in which Joe (as Junior) feigns impotence to encourage Sugar to seduce harder, has all of the film’s verbal and visual gags in place. (Conspicuously missing is the line that inspired the film’s title – “I guess some like it hot, but personally, I prefer classical music.”)
The best element of the stage version was the brilliant concept of having the hoods who are chasing Joe and Jerry tap dance all of their scenes. Bryan Chesters (as Spats Palazzo), Eric B. Anthony (Dude), and Chuck Bergman (Knuckles) are excellent in this regard, as are Kelly Lester as the anything but sweet Sweet Sue, leader of the Society Syncopators, and Glenn Rosenblum as her flunky band manager, Bienstock.
The weakest part of Sugar, surprisingly, is Styne and Merrill’s undistinguished score. Some Like It Hot already had its share of music, period songs such as “By the Beautiful Sea” and three numbers sung by Sugar: “Running Wild,” “I Wanna Be Loved By You,” and “I’m Through With Love.” These are missed, especially when replaced by such forgettable songs as the excruciatingly clunky “What Do You Give to a Man Who’s Had Everything?” which nearly ruins the comical love scene aboard Osgood’s yacht. “November Song,” sung by Osgood and a chorus of cane-wielding coots, reminding us that even naughty old men need love, is probably the most pathetic addition to the score. It would be three decades before Mel Brooks showed us how to do this right, with his hilarious “Little Old Lady Land” number from The Producers, the memorable production number featuring elderly dowagers tap dancing with walkers.
Musical Theatre Guild’s production featured a nearly all female team, from director Kirsten Chandler and choreographer Wendy Rosoff to musical director Jan Roper, who led the excellent all-girl five-piece band that performed upstage. The costumes and wigs provided for Ford and Davis were well designed, especially for Davis (“size 40, extra, extra long”), while Fahn’s flapper outfits were sexy and appropriate to the period.
Sugar may not be the best stage musical adapted from a film, but, as MTG showed, with the right director and a good cast, it can still result in an enjoyable evening at the theater.