With a number of movie adaptations playing on Broadway over the last decade, the industry has been deep in discourse about the balance of shows that are stage adaptations of existing properties versus new material created specifically for the stage.
Within that conversation, there has been rigorous examination of what types of existing properties make their way to Broadway, especially if they are derived from a property that was created decades ago and may not fit with 2022 sensibilities. Questions are being asked such as: What do these stories add to the larger cultural landscape when they are put on Broadway? Is the story still relevant? Can these shows be updated for a contemporary audience?
It’s a challenge Tony-winning playwright Matthew López and late-night talk-show host and writer Amber Ruffin confronted head-on in cowriting the book for the stage musical adaptation Some Like It Hot, which will begin previews November 1 at Broadway’s Shubert Theatre.
“I originally said no,” remembers López. “I said, ‘If I have permission to work on it in such a way that would make purists gasp, I’ll do it.’ And they said, ‘Sure, do that.’”
Based on the 1959 film of the same name, the story follows Joe and Jerry, two musicians who disguise themselves as women after witnessing a crime during Prohibition in Chicago. They join up with an all-female band as Josephine and Daphne, and Joe falls in love with Sugar, who is the singer in the band. Jerry attracts his own male suitor, leading both Joe and Jerry to navigate life with their double identities. On Broadway, the pair is played by Tony winner Christian Borle and J. Harrison Ghee, respectively.
“The movie is about, ‘Let’s get through this thing and then be the same people we always were,’” says López. “For our show, it’s about chrysalis, about change, rebirth, and redefining ourselves. I think that everybody who wasn’t in a coma for the last two years can identify with some part of that.”
As society’s understanding of gender continues to evolve, so do its critiques of men-in-dresses tropes. Some Like It Hot arrives on Broadway following two musical adaptations featuring men dressing up in women’s clothing. J. Harrison Ghee has been an essential part of expanding the role of Jerry, Daphne, and the idea of gender for this production.
Ghee, who uses he/they pronouns, told The New York Times, “After reading the draft of the script, I saw an opportunity for me to be pushed as an entertainer by playing Jerry and the opportunity to bring my own nonbinary identity onstage.” Ghee is no stranger to barrier-breaking performances, having played Lola in Kinky Boots on Broadway and Velma Kelly in Chicago at St. Louis’s The Muny. López and Ruffin prioritized conversations with Ghee to bring authenticity and nuance in exploring gender with Jerry and Daphne.
“We got to talk to J. about exactly who J. is and exactly how J. feels, and that made me realize J. and this character are in the same boat,” says Ruffin. “So if we stay true to J., then we will not have told a lie.”
López adds, “J. has been involved with the show for a long time, and when an actor is that magnetic and unique, it affects the way you write the role. You write for J. We chased after their ideas, their instincts, their spirit, their soul.”
Also an update from the original source material is Sugar, who was played by Marilyn Monroe in the film. In the Broadway musical, she’s played by Adrianna Hicks. Sugar being specifically written as a Black woman from the beginning unlocked musical opportunities for Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, who are writing the score. The songwriting duo looked to inspirations including Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Lena Horne, and Ethel Waters. For Ruffin, it opens up a whole new Broadway audience.
“It feels nice when you walk past a poster and the lady looks like you,” says Ruffin. “It’s cool. We hope that it will speak to people that Broadway shows normally don’t speak to.”
The team has also updated the year the story is set in. In the film, the year is 1929 — just before the initial stock market crash that served as the Great Depression catalyst. For the Broadway musical, it’s 1933, deep in the Depression and six months before Prohibition ended. López and Ruffin worked with dramaturg Elizabeth Williamson to dive into research for historical accuracy.
“Maybe you need to mention a chandelier or what the fanciest type of yacht is,” says Ruffin. “I was like, ‘What even was that at that time?’ There were a couple of moments where I was like, ‘Oh gosh, I think I might be talking about something that doesn’t exist.’”
“You do realize you can’t be too beholden to your research at the time period, or you can really sort of get really stuck in details that don’t really matter to the audience,” adds López. “They care about the characters, plot, and the story. Why I was attracted to the show, and what we want to accomplish with this show, is the idea of reinvention, the idea of rebirth, the idea of shedding your old skin and creating new ones, creating new identities, creating new ways of living.”
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