Tony-winning Hairspray songwriting duo Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman aren’t playing it easy. Their newest Broadway musical, an adaptation of the 1959 film Some Like It Hot now running at the Shubert Theatre and set to open December 11, dives into some tricky and potentially incendiary territory.
The original film follows two male musicians who, after witnessing a mob hit, disguise themselves as women in an all-female band conveniently headed out of town. Considered a masterpiece of comedic cinema, the film gets a lot of easy laughs at the concept of men wearing dresses and their supposed horror at perhaps being hit on by men, ideas that are decidedly less funny to society at large 63 years later (in a world that is much more hospitable to queer and trans people).
Progressive critics have raised concerns about the frequent appearance on Broadway of musicals that mine humor from men pretending to be women—Tootsie and Mrs. Doubtfire had similar themes. These critics have called those prior musicals “transphobic,” citing the ways such stories can give oxygen to false and damaging narratives: In a world in which trans people are being targeted by laws that prevent them from getting medical care, maybe Broadway doesn’t need stories that give credence to the notion that gender identity in any way intersects with a cis man tricking people into thinking he’s a woman.
But according to Shaiman and Wittman, they knew exactly what they were getting into.
“I started my life in New York in the world of [trans artists] Jackie Curtis, Holly Woodlawn, Alexis del Lago, International Chrysis—all these famous pioneers of that world,” says Wittman of the duo’s early career. “These are people that were living their lives as women, and who were arrested for it constantly. They were very much part of our world. I think of them often when I’m writing this. In a very loving way, this is a tribute to them.”
The new stage musical, which features a book by The Inheritance Tony winner Matthew López and comedian Amber Ruffin, shifts the interpretation of the show’s plot, and specifically how the characters react to it. According to Shaiman, these updates came from a modern viewing of the source material. “Jack Lemmon’s character in the movie [Jerry] really enjoys being a woman and he has absolutely no qualms when he’s proposed to by a man. In the movie, it’s all played for comedy, but we as a group of collaborators—including our actors—just said, ‘Well, if he is feeling wonderful as a woman, maybe he’s discovering something about himself.’” Jerry in the musical is now played by J. Harrison Ghee—himself no stranger to heels as a former Lola in Broadway’s Kinky Boots.
Adds Wittman, “Matthew wrote a beautiful line in the script: ‘The world only reacts to what it sees, and in my experience the world doesn’t have very good eyesight.’ That’s a big part of the story for us.”
That concept of visibility also applies to the other big change this Some Like It Hot has made on the journey to the stage. The original film starred Marilyn Monroe in one of her most iconic screen performances as Sugar Kane, the band’s bombshell vocalist and ukulele player—but don’t expect to see a Marilyn stand-in onstage at the Shubert.
Shaiman says that it was producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron who had the idea to adapt Some Like It Hot for the stage, and for Sugar to be played by a Black actress. (The Broadway bow is dedicated to the memory of Zadan, who passed away in 2018.) “That changed everything for Scott and I,” says Shaiman. “Suddenly we were in the world of thinking of Sugar as Ella Fitzgerald or Billie Holliday traveling with a band, the way you think of Lady Sings the Blues." Instead of Marilyn Monroe, this new Sugar is modeled after Lena Horne (who fittingly just had a Broadway theatre named after her). Sugar is played onstage by Adrianna Hicks, of Six fame.
It should be noted that Shaiman and Wittman are both white. But according to Shaiman, in writing the music for Some Like It Hot, he channeled the spirit of Harold Arlen, a Jewish songwriter who wrote the songs “Stormy Weather,” “Over the Rainbow,” “Come Rain or Come Shine,” and other weather-related hits made famous by legendary Black singers.
“Our Sugar’s 11-o-clock number is called ‘Ride Out the Storm,’ and it certainly was inspired by this great era where Black people and white people were starting to be in the same room with each other,” explains Shaiman, who is Jewish. “There was still a long way to go as far as segregation was concerned, but behind the scenes it was very integrated. That’s where we are with our show.”
Likewise, the creative team behind Some Like It Hot is diverse. The show, originally announced as a collaboration between Shaiman and Wittman with López (who is Latiné), added Ruffin to the roster last year to bring a Black creative voice to the team.
With Ruffin’s input, this new Some Like It Hot has a much more meaningful backstory for Sugar. “One of our favorite songs that we got to write for the show is a moment where Sugar shares what it was like to grow up in Georgia and how she loved going to movies but didn’t see anyone like herself up there,” Shaiman explains. “That’s become this character’s goal. She joins the band going to California because she wants to go to Hollywood. And she wants some little [Black] girl to go to the movies and see someone who looks just like her.”
The duo insists that though they worked hard to get this story right for the marginalized communities with which it intersects, they also want the musical to be funny—for everyone. Says Shaiman, “I really hope that peoples’ arms are going to relax and they’re going to see that we have taken it very seriously—and it’s also really fucking funny.”
For Wittman, getting people of different backgrounds in a room together, and laughing together, is particularly important—especially now. “I hope it makes [audiences] feel good after the last two years of absolute sadness, isolation, and misery—that they walk out of the theatre on air,” he says. “It’s a big, beautiful show that has some thought behind it. And in the end, it should make you feel good about who you are.”