Peter Stone Talks About the Creation of Sugar, Now Touring As Some Like It Hot

News   Peter Stone Talks About the Creation of Sugar, Now Touring As Some Like It Hot Despite the title change, some newly added songs and a fresh staging by director-choreographer Dan Siretta, there wasn't much for librettist Peter Stone to do for the new national touring production of Some Like It Hot, a property once known as the 1972 Broadway hit, Sugar.
Tony Curtis and the nurses of Some Like It Hot.
Tony Curtis and the nurses of Some Like It Hot. (Photo by Photo by Carol Rosegg)

Despite the title change, some newly added songs and a fresh staging by director-choreographer Dan Siretta, there wasn't much for librettist Peter Stone to do for the new national touring production of Some Like It Hot, a property once known as the 1972 Broadway hit, Sugar.

The musical is criss-crossing the nation starring Tony Curtis, star of the non-musical Billy Wilder film, who now plays the role of the aging millionaire rather than a musician who dresses in drag with his buddy in order to escape the mob.

Although Curtis is the headliner, the choice roles of Joe and Jerry go to Timothy Gulan and Arthur Hanket, respectively. They play the roles of Depression-era musicians who flee the Chicago mob in 1931 by disguising themselves as women in an all-girl band. Curtis and Jack Lemmon originated the roles in the Billy Wilder film comedy, "Some Like It Hot." This is Curtis' musical stage debut, at the age of 77.

"I restored a few lines of the movie for Tony because it made him happy," Stone told Playbill On-Line. "They wanted a couple songs resuscitated, a couple that were written and taken out. The title song was written for it, and not used. It's not really used now, except it's in the curtain call. There are some things from the original show that are back that weren't in the picture."

Why isn't Sugar, with a score by Funny Girl team Jule Styne and Bob Merrill, better known today? Some say it's because producer David Merrick didn't get rights to the film title. Who knows what a musical called Sugar is about, anyway? Despite that fact, Sugar was a big hit at the time, Stone said. "It was very successful, it ran two years on Broadway, it toured very nicely," he explained. "It was David Merrick's last moneymaker before 42nd Street. It was a hit from the first day it opened in Washington, DC prior to Broadway."

Stone added that Sugar is huge in the stock and amateur revival market.

"It's probably the most successful stock and amateur [property] I've ever done — especially foreign [licensing]," said Stone, whose libretto credits include Woman of the Year, Titanic, 1776 and My One and Only. "There are two guys everywhere in the world who wanna get in a dress. And this is the one show they can get into a dress without being gay — they're on the run! It's terribly attractive to two actors, so it's constantly done. It was done in London, with Tommy Steele."

Diane Masters and Jeffrey Spolan, producers of the current tour, acquired the rights to use the film title for the life of their staging. In the future, the script is expected to be licensed as Sugar.

The road to creating the original production was not easy, Stone said. George Axelrod was the original book writer and under director Gower Champion, Sugar "was practically a new plot," Stone explained. "Suddenly, they got to a point where Merrick said, 'Wait a minute — we're doing this because everybody loved the movie, and this doesn't make any sense.' The script was thrown out along with Axelrod, who very nicely agreed it was going nowhere, and I was called in. Even some of the casting had been done already when I was called in. Bobby Morse was in, and I think Elaine Joyce was in at that point. They went completely back to the movie plot."

In writing the original, there was some question about using the final line of the film, Stone said. "Everybody knows it, everybody's looking forward to it, and I said, 'That's why you have to have it.' The audience wants it, and when it comes they explode in it."

Stone said creating the show was happy until Merrick "went crazy."

"He and I had been good friends, and we got to Washington and he decided to call in 11 other writers. It was a hit, it got good reviews. He didn't believe you could do your best work unless you were miserable. He tyrannized everybody. Jerry Herman [who was reportedly sought to write the score before Styne and Merrill] came in to add some songs, which broke Jule's heart — Jule being his mentor. They weren't used. Neil Simon came in and wrote a couple of scenes, which were not used. I didn't let them be. I owned the show, and [Merrick] could not change a word of it. All he could do was pressure. Neil didn't know I was still there. Merrick had told him I had left."

Stone, once president of the Dramatists Guild, said producers today still threaten young writers with the shadow of replacement writers.

"You mustn't ever cave in," he said. "What you do is you negotiate your way out. You don't give up your money. You may go, and that's fine. If you don't wanna be there for all that and it's driving you crazy. You get your royalty. When I went in on My One and Only and Grand Hotel, it was with the authors' permission. I would meet with them as president [of the Dramatists Guild] and say, 'Look you don't have to do this. They're gonna close the show, but you don't have to do this.'"

The performance of Robert Morse in Sugar still sticks in Stone's mind.

"Bobby Morse, was, in my mind, better than Jack Lemmon," Stone said. "He was ingenious. He was fabulous. His slow transformation back to being a guy in the course of that scene [after he has a date], in the chiffon dress, he was just brilliant."

And although a handful of songs from early drafts were added to the new tour, there were as many as 80 to choose from, Stone said.

"Jule was a man who didn't rewrite a song, he just wrote a new one," Stone said. "There were about 80 songs that they wrote for this show. They just tossed them out and did a new one. They were hot off of Funny Girl, and they had just done a show with Angela Lansbury that closed out of town [Prettybelle] and were very comfortable with each other and they could work very fast."

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Tony Curtis and the new touring company of Some Like It Hot inaugurate the new Hobby Center for the Performing Arts in Houston as part of the Theatre Under the Stars season, June 4.

The date marked not just the debut of the new performing arts facility, but the first performance of the new tour. Curtis and Co. began rehearsals the week of May 6 in Manhattan toward the June 4 Houston launch of the 50-city national tour. Press opening in Houston was June 8.

Curtis now plays the Joe E. Brown movie role of aging millionaire Osgood Fielding III, who falls in love with "Daphne" (Jerry in drag) when the band books a gig in Miami. Joe (or Josie) has his eye on the comely blonde in the band, Sugar (played by Broadway Rent veteran Jodi Carmelli).

The producers and director-choreographer Dan Siretta have gone into the Jule Styne song trunk and given Curtis a gem for Act II: "I Fall in Love Too Easily," heard in the film, "Anchors Aweigh."

"I want to make my Osgood frivolous, very extravagant," Curtis told Lillian Ross in a profile that appeared in the June 3 issue of The New Yorker. "Billy Wilder wanted a more graphic millionaire, with a lot of old millionaires in rocking chairs, not good for anything anymore. I want my Osgood to be freer, looser, more like a little kid playing."

Songs that were written for or cut from Sugar have been rethought and appear in the score (listen for "People in My Life" to be sung at the end of the show by Sugar). Both Styne and Merrill are gone now, but their melodies from the 1972 work linger on. In addition to "Penniless Bums," "Doin' It for Sugar," "When You Meet a Man in Chicago," "November Song," "Shell Oil"/"Hey, Why Not!," "The Beauty That Drives Men Mad," "Sun On My Face," "It's Always Love," "We Could Be Close" (all heard on the Sugar cast album) audiences have heard the lesser known title song plus "Magic Nights," "Runnin' Wild," "We Play in the Band," "Tear the Town Apart" and "People in My Life."

Lenora Nemetz plays Sweet Sue, the bandleader; Gerry Vichi is Bienstock, the band manager; William Ryall plays Spats, the mobster. The company also includes Scott Burrell, Bobby Clark, Timothy Joe Falter, Mark Adam (Spats' Thugs), Sarah Anderson, Jacqueline Bayne, Ashlee Fife, Brenda Hamilton, Pamela Jordan, Elise Molinelli, Heather Parcells, Elizabeth Polito, Marisa Rozek, Karen Sieber (Society Syncopaters), David Monzione (Toothpick Charlie), Derek Isetti, Ryan Migge (Toothpick Charlie's Gang), Gair Morris (Mechanic), and swings Todd Bradley Smith and Shannon Hudson.

Carmelli, playing Sugar, recently appeared as Maureen/Mrs. Cohen in Rent on Broadway. She was Sandy in a European tour of Grease and the Star to Be in the national tour of Annie.

Nemetz, the big-voiced Sweet Sue, is a protege of Bob Fosse, and replaced Chita Rivera as Velma Kelly in the original production of Chicago. Her other Broadway credits include Working (Drama Desk Nomination), Up in One With Peter Allen, The Rink and Cabaret, plus national tours of Sweet Charity, Bye Bye Birdie and Cabaret.

Hanket, playing Joe, has a slew of regional theatre credits under his belt: Prospero in Tempest (Austin Alliance); Wilde in Gross Indecency (Missouri Rep); Ford in Merry Wives of Windsor (San Diego Globe); Goring in Ideal Husband, Tom in Glass Menagerie and Pablo in Picasso at the Lapin Agile (Milwaukee Rep).

Gulan, playing Jerry,  has been on Broadway in The Lion King and Blood Brothers, and has toured in such shows as Les Misérables, Carousel, Falsettos and Picasso at the Lapine Agile (Hungarian National Theatre). Regionally, he created roles in Houdini (Goodspeed), Adventures in Love (Ordway), Eliot Ness. . . in Cleveland (Directors Co./Denver Center) and Just So (Goodspeed-at-Chester).

Designers are James Leonard Joy (scenery), Suzy Benzinger (costumes), Ken Billington (lights). Lynn Crigler is musical director.

Director-choreographer Dan Siretta has been associated with film, Broadway, London, regional and corporate theatre. He spent 15 years as choreographer then as associate artistic director of Connecticut's Goodspeed Opera House, launching numerous productions that he directed or choreographed.

Some Like It Hot is the inaugural production to kick of Theatre Under the Stars' 2002 season at the new Hobby Center for the Performing Arts in Houston. A yearlong, 50-city tour follows. Diane Masters and Jeffrey Spolan are producing the tour.

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Robert Morse, Tony Roberts, Cyril Ritchard (in the role Curtis plays) and Elaine Joyce were the original stars. Morse and Roberts brought the house down nightly when they donned bosomy dresses to sing "The Beauty That Drives Men Mad." The show ran 505 performances.

Siretta said he and Stone have fixed the show and improved upon a London revival from 1992 that starred Tommy Steele (the late Merrill was not happy with the London version, Siretta said). Rights to the title, Some Like It Hot, were granted to that London staging 10 years ago and to this all-new staging.

The hope is that the tour will end up on Broadway, producer Masters previously told Playbill On-Line.

Siretta says the orchestrations by Philip Lang remain a dream and "the nature of Styne's melodic line is masculine, it's powerful, it moves forward." Styne died in 1994, Merrill in 1998. Siretta said his goal as director-choreographer is to streamline the storytelling and make sure it has the comic pace and flow of the film.

"I'm trying to hold onto something that's impeccable about the film — the rhythm," Siretta said, adding that he's taking a cue from the late Merrill. "Bob liked to move things faster — to say it and move it along and get out of there."

Both the 1992 London revival cast and the original Broadway cast are preserved on cast albums.

Click here to view the Playbill On-Line tour listing for Some Like It Hot.

— By Kenneth Jones