Broadway Blip: Sugar
The 1959 Billy Wilder film Some Like it Hot is regarded by many to be one of the greatest film comedies of all time. Certainly the ingredients were in place for that to be so: a hilarious, comedy of errors screenplay, Wilder’s always spot-on, direction with carefully chosen tempoes, and a cast that featured Jack Lemmon, Marilyn Monroe and Tony Curtis. There was also a lot of cross-dressing and that, coupled with the film’s final moment, made Some Like It Hot about as risqué and saucy as a film could be in 1959 and still get away with it. The idea of turning Some Like It Hot into a musical, on paper, certainly makes sense. You have larger-than-life characters who play in a band, an exotic locale (a Floridian resort hotel), and a situation that is guaranteed to make audiences laugh. It makes sense that Bob Merrill would come together with Jule Styne, as well as librettist Peter Stone, to try to make this property sing for the musical stage.
Some Like It Hot is the story of two down-on-their-luck musicians who play instruments in a Chicago speakeasy. When the place is raided, they end up being unwilling witnesses of the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre and are targeted to be “silenced”. In an effort to hide themselves, they dress up as females and get jobs as musicians in a traveling women’s band, featuring the sexy performer Sugar Kane. They end up in a Florida hotel, playing for a gig. The two men, still dressed as ladies, both fall for Sugar and the game is on to see which of them can woo her first. When the gangsters from Chicago show up at the hotel, everything spins out of control.
Some Like It Hot is a farce, and farces seldom make good musicals. Musicals require time to slowly build and establish plot and character development while farce is built entirely on growing momentum that must keep the situation spiraling out of control to achieve its manic hysteria. They are very different beasts and farce is seldom utilized as the template for musical comedy. It has occasionally worked: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is a delightful musical comedy farce, but even that piece opts for situation over music in its second act, keeping the songs to a minimum so that the situation can keep its frenzied pace. Perhaps it was a mistake for Merrill and company to attempt to adapt Some Like It Hot for Broadway?
Sugar opened at Broadway’s Majestic Theatre on April 9, 1972 and ran for a little over a year (505 performances). The critics were lukewarm about it, but audiences generally found it entertaining. This was, however, a time where Broadway was evolving toward more challenging, complex musicals and, for many, Sugar (despite its premise) was a throwback to old-fashioned musical comedy of yesteryear. Robert Morse was nominated for a Tony Award, as was Gower Champion doubly nominated for Best Direction and Best Choreography. Neither man won, nor did Sugar win Best Musical, despite being nominated. This was a year where A Little Night Music and Pippin, both very unconventional shows that were stretching musical theatre in new directions, had the biggest successes at the Tonys and absconded with most of the prizes.