WBT's Sugar and the Movie-to-Musical Problem

Last week, I had the opportunity to take in Sugar, the musical that just opened at the Westchester Broadway Theatre. The musical is based on Some Like It Hot—a classic film, to be sure—but, while it’s easy to watch, I can’t imagine it striking the same chords with fans of the movie.

Why? There’s only one Tony Curtis. There’s only one Jack Lemmon. And there’s really, really only one Marilyn Monroe. With her more so than the others, watching anyone try and do a Marilyn Monroe part makes you hyper-aware of the degree to which she is succeeding or failing at a Marilyn Monroe imitation. The character of Sugar Kane Kowalczyk ceases to be an entity in her own right (and she really needs Monroe’s charms to make it through, anyway). Plus, cross-dressing at this point has been done by everyone from Robin Williams to Tyler Perry, so it’s not as novel or titillating as it was when the movie debuted in 1959.

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Still, with those obstacles, the show does what it can. The biggest crowd reaction came from a troupe of tap-dancing gangsters who soft-shoed their way through every scene. They were a breeze to watch and enjoy. There was also a delightfully quirky performance from Ed Romanoff, who played Sir Osgood Fielding, Jr., a deranged millionaire—a performance that benefited by not being compared to the larger-than-life original. (In the movie, Fielding was played by Joe E. Brown.)

Between Sugar and the Westchester Broadway Theatre’s last show, Nine, they’ve had two productions that can be compared to big-time movies. Sugar was a movie first, then adapted into a musical. Nine is a little more complicated: it’s based on the movie 8 ½, which was adapted into a musical, which then became last year’s movie with Daniel Day-Lewis.

In fact, Nine is one of only six Broadway shows that has gone through that strange conversion process, from non-musical movie, to Broadway musical, to movie musical. Can you name the others?*

These types of switcheroos are becoming all too common. Of the shows that are on Broadway now, we have Billy Elliott, Mary Poppins, The Lion King, which were based on movies, alongside Chicago, Mamma Mia, and Hair, which became them. Kind of makes you feel better about something like Enron (which is already closing). At least it wasn’t a movie first, right? A semi-original idea? And kudos to the Tony nominating committee, who filled the “Best Musical” category with productions that aren’t straight from Hollywood (American Idiot, Fela!, Memphis, Million Dollar Quartet). I wish I could say the same thing about the acting categories.

I’m just saying that adapting movies into Broadway shows works the same way that adapting movies into books does: The original is better 99 percent of the time. (Just look at the difference in quality between 8 ½ and the Daniel Day-Lewis Nine.) I’d love to hear people plead a case where that isn’t true. If you know of a better adaptation, please let me know in the comments.

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Sugar runs through July 3 at the Westchester Broadway Theatre. After that, there’s Peter Pan (whose Disney adaptation edged out the famous Jerome Robbins Broadway adaptation by a year), then Rent (which was, obviously, a musical first, and long before the bland Chris Columbus film adaptation), so we’ll see if the adage holds true.

*They are, in order of guessing difficulty: Hairspray, The Producers, Little Shop of Horrors, Sweet Charity, and Reefer Madness. There’s your next bar bet.

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