Ron Fassler
7 min readApr 9, 2024
Robert Morse as Jerry/Daphne and Tony Roberts as Joe/Josephine in “Sugar” (1972). Photo by Martha Swope.

April 9, 2024: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler.

Fifty-two years ago tonight, the first musical incarnation of Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond’s 1959 classic comedy Some Like it Hot opened on Broadway. Shot in glorious black and white, the film starred the extraordinary combination of Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis and Marilyn Monroe and earned six Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture. In June of 2000, forty-one years later, it was voted #1 on the list of America’s Funniest Movies by the American Film Institute’s panel “of more than 1,500 leaders of the American movie community.” Today, due to many who feel it’s no longer intrinsically funny to have men run around in dresses, it would score far lower. No judgment. Times change.

Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon as Josephine and Daphne in “Some Like it Hot” (1959).

A dozen years after the film’s premiere, David Merrick, a producer with an enviable track record of success and an unenviable one for not playing well with others, purchased the rights to create a musical version of Some Like It Hot for the stage — and it wasn’t easy. The film was owned by United Artists, from whom Merrick had only recently snapped up the rights to another of their properties, The Apartment (also authored by Wilder and Diamond), which was a big Broadway hit for Merrick in 1968 titled Promises, Promises (book by Neil Simon and score by Burt Bacharach and Hal David). But Merrick was told “no sale.”

Not one to take no for an answer, he instead smartly optioned Fanfaren, the German screenplay upon which Wilder and Diamond based Some Like It Hot. Unfortunately, this wouldn’t allow for Merrick to set the show in the Roaring Twenties (perfect for a musical), as that was an idea of Wilder and Diamond’s, whose screenplay was off-limits. It was left to Jerry Herman and Michael Stewart, whom Merrick had hired for his smash hit Hello, Dolly!, to figure out a new setting. It was their take to make the leads a pair of G.I.’s fighting their way back into the world of post-World War II, with the 1940s swing era providing an appropriate musical backdrop for Herman’s songs — an excellent solution.

But with Merrick being a tenacious type, he surprised his creative team a few months later when he informed them he managed to finagle the rights to Some Like it Hot after all. He then demanded Herman and Stewart switch from their forties setting back to the twenties, only to be stymied when they balked. They argued that their new setting wouldn’t force a direct comparison with Some Like It Hot, which was smart thinking. With Herman and Stewart liking what they had already produced, they wound up taking a walk. Merrick replaced them with the team of Bob Merrill and Jule Styne (words and music) and Peter Stone, who got final book credit book after an attempt by George Axelrod. Later, Gower Champion, the director-choreographer and creative muscle behind three Merrick hits: Carnival, I Do! I Do! andHello, Dolly!), was hired to helm Sugar (its final title after it went through a number of name changes, including the purloining of the film’s famous last lineand calling the show Nobody’s Perfect).

The girls getting ready to settle in for the night on the train from Chicago to San Diego (photo by Martha Swope).

With the ability to now legally mine Some Like It Hot’s plot line, the new team was free to grab what they needed from Wilder and Diamond’s screenplay. In case you don’t recall, it’s about two musicians on the run from gangsters — haphazard eyewitnesses to a gangland murder — who then come up with the half-baked scheme of getting safely out of town by hiding from their pursuers dressed in women’s clothing as members of an all-girl band.

Even with Stone as the book writer, free to pick and choose what worked so beautifully in the film, nothing came easy. The re-writing out of town was constant and Merrick was even more of a holy terror than usual, even going so far as to throw out all the scenery between tryouts in Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia, firing the legendary Jo Mielziner and bringing in Robin Wagner (a young man at the time and later to become legendary himself). But the biggest challenge the show faced was how to match, in purity, the farcical elements on stage that made Some Like It Hot so unique on film — and so funny.

Robin Wagner’s train compartment set (closely duplicated by Wagner again in 1980 for Merrick’s “42nd Street). Photo by Martha Swope.

This is where Merrick and company made their smartest choice: the hiring of Robert Morse to play the Jack Lemmon role of Jerry/Daphne ten years after his having created J. Pierpont Finch in Frank Loesser and Abe Burrows’ How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. When I saw Sugar early in its run, I was all of fifteen-years-old and already in full-fandom over this one-of-a-kind actor. I was too young to have seen him play it on Broadway, but viewing Morse’s performance in the 1967 film version of How To Succeed enthralled me as a kid. How could it not? Over the top and irresistible, his Finch is conniving, endearing, charming and adorable. Now with Sugar, this was my first time seeing him on stage, and I was not disappointed.

When Sugar opened on Broadway fifty-two years ago tonight at the Majestic Theatre, Elaine Joyce played the title role. Though receiving good reviews, it wound up her one and only Broadway show and didn’t launch her career in the way she must have hoped. Later, she married Neil Simon and was with him the last nineteen years of his life. Solid performances were turned in by Tony Roberts in the Tony Curtis role of Joe/Josephine and Cyril Ritchard, bringing his usual fey elegance to the role of Osgood Fielding III, played so memorably in the film by Joe E. Brown. The show managed to do good business in spite of mixed reviews and run for over 500 performances. In fact, many years later, Peter Stone told an interviewer “It’s probably the most successful stock and amateur [property] I’ve ever done — especially foreign [licensing].” This from a man whose credits include 1776, Woman of the Year, My One and Only and Titanic.

Elaine Joyce dancing as Sugar (1972). Photo by Martha Swope.
Cyril Ritchard as Osgood in “Sugar” (1972). Photo by Martha Swope.

One of the reasons for the show’s surviving its tough tryout and its lack of support among critics was really due to Robert Morse. Once he entered as “Daphne” he owned the rest of the evening (or afternoon, as I saw a matinee). His reviews were stellar — the kind every actor dreams about — like this one from Marilyn Stasio, then reviewing for Cue Magazine:“Robert Morse is a dimpled talent bliss. He’s the jimmies on an ice cream cone. A winning lottery ticket. A homer in the bottom of the ninth.”

It doesn’t get better than that.

Roberts and Morse singing “The Beauty that Drives the Men Mad” in “Sugar” (1972).

Attempts were made to revive Sugar’s fortunes over the last five decades in hopes of it finding its way back to Broadway. One was a 1992 London version with British favorite Tommy Steele, and another was a U.S. touring production in 2002 with Tony Curtis, this time in the Joe E. Brown role of Osgood, the randy millionaire. Of course, both productions took on a new title: Some Like It Hot… which was what it was called when a brand new version opened on Broadway last season, with the Jule Styne-Bob Merrill score relegated to the dustbin. Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman (Hairspray and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) composed the new score and the book was now co-written by Matthew López, whose The Inheritance (2019) won the Tony for Best Play, along with comedian Amber Ruffin. It had its fans and its detractors, though at 441 performances it didn’t manage to run as long as Sugar, a disappointment by any measure.

Lastly on this Sugar anniversary, in the “dreams do come true” department, due to the vagaries of my chosen profession, I found myself in the unique position about a dozen years ago of acquiring the delightful Mr. Morse as a true friend. Here we are backstage at The Front Page in 2016, his final triumph (oh, he was soooo good in it). He died in 2022, a month before his eighty-ninth birthday. Gone, but never forgotten.

Doin’ it for Sugar.

If you enjoyed this, follow me on Medium and also check out my book Up in the Cheap Seats: A Historical Memoir of Broadway, available at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book.



Ron Fassler

Author, playwright, director, actor, theatre critic and historian, his book, “Up in the Cheap Seats,” is available at Amazon.com.