How 'Some Like It Hot' tunes in to the jazz age

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How 'Some Like It Hot' tunes in to the jazz age
Christian Borle, left, and Adrianna Hicks in the musical “Some Like It Hot” at the Shubert Theater in New York, Jan. 27, 2023. From the set design to the wig styles, the Broadway musical creates a richly detailed vision of the 1920s and ’30s. (Sara Krulwich/The New York Times)

by Darryn King

NEW YORK, NY.- During the 1920s and well into the next decade, there was an explosion of creativity in artistic expression and popular entertainment.

The Chrysler Building stood proud and tall on 42nd Street, with a headdress worthy of a Ziegfeld girl. Bootleggers ensured liquor was flowing in the speakeasies. A fiery new music called jazz hit the airwaves, courtesy of Duke Ellington and his band in Harlem’s Cotton Club. Hemlines were higher, hair was shorter, and new moves were showing up on the dance floor and on the cinema screen.

It was the Jazz Age, a period whose energy and excitement was in determined defiance of Prohibition and the Great Depression.

The era comes to splendid life in “Some Like It Hot,” a new musical adaptation of the Billy Wilder film, now playing at the Shubert Theater in New York City. A lyric in the opening number sets the tone for the show while capturing the mood of 1933: “Let’s keep dancing till the crack of dawn … Tomorrow we may all be gone!”

“It’s a world where our lead characters have to keep things hidden and underground,” the show’s director and choreographer, Casey Nicholaw, said of the setting. “A place where you could be a little bit naughty.”

In a series of interviews, members of the creative team detailed how they drew on the Jazz Age for several aspects of the show: the music and lyrics, the book, the choreography, the scenic and costume design, and the looks.

A Big, Brassy Sound

Set in Chicago during Prohibition, “Some Like It Hot” follows Joe (Christian Borle) and Jerry (J. Harrison Ghee), a sax player and a bass player who go on the run after witnessing a mob hit. They disguise themselves as women — now going by Josephine and Daphne — and join up with an all-female band, Sweet Sue and Her Society Syncopators, traveling with the group aboard a cross-country train.

Appropriate for a story crowded with musicians, the show makes full, boisterous use of an onstage band whose 17 players cover many more instruments. The songs, by Marc Shaiman (music and lyrics) and Scott Wittman (lyrics), take their cues from the sounds of Duke Ellington, Louis Jordan, Count Basie and Jimmie Lunceford, with their bold melodies, ecstatic performances and dare-you-not-to-dance rhythms.

The sound of Sweet Sue and Her Society Syncopators also nods to the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, a racially integrated, all-female jazz band that rose to prominence in the 1940s.

The decision was made early on to re-create the “hot, joyous, sexy” sound of the big band era. Shaiman and Witman were ready for it. “We have been researching for this show our entire lives!” Shaiman said. “Those acts have always been top of the list for us.”

For the character Sweet Sue (NaTasha Yvette Williams), the Syncopators’ bandleader, Shaiman and Wittman found a model in the sassy blues of singer and songwriter Victoria Spivey. They explored a moodier palette for the character of Sugar (Adrianna Hicks), the Syncopators’ star performer, originally played by Marilyn Monroe in the film. “As soon as the idea of Sugar being Black came up, thoughts of the legendary women of color who toured with bands came to mind,” Wittman said. Sugar’s sultry ode to the sax, “A Darker Shade of Blue,” was written with the vocal stylings of Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald in mind.

Dance, With a Kick

Dancing had gotten wilder and looser after World War I. Naughtier, too — a sensibility that Nicholaw sought to capture throughout, but especially in the flirtatious Charleston dancing in the number “Let’s Be Bad.”

But it was the Lindy Hop, another popular dance craze of the time, that Nicholaw was most excited to bring to Broadway. “I jumped into that vocabulary right away,” he said.

Originating in 1920s Harlem, and named in honor of aviator Charles Lindbergh’s 1927 trans-Atlantic flight, the dance features brisk swing outs and lightning footwork. Set to the opening number, “What Are You Thirsty For?,” it’s the perfect dance to welcome the audience into the world of the show. “There’s a veracity and excitement to it,” Nicholaw said, while admitting that some liberties were taken. “Authenticity isn’t always theatrical. I wanted to create dances that had some humor and felt fresh now as well as capturing the authentic style of the period.”

“Some Like It Hot” also embraced plenty of tap dancing, which had its heyday on American movie screens in the 1930s, with the films of Bill Robinson (better known as Bojangles) and Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.

Early on, Joe and Jerry’s tap routine expresses the simpatico nature of their lifelong partnership. And in an Act 2 fantasy sequence, the show uses tap to reveal the budding romance between Joe and Sugar. Here, Nicholaw looked to Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers for inspiration. (The pair first danced together on screen in 1933, in “Flying Down to Rio.”) Nicholaw strove for something like Astaire and Rogers’ introductory dance in “Swing Time” (1936), whose kinetic movements convey the thrill of discovering a new dance partner — while providing the firecracker percussion of fancy footwork. “While romantic, it has a more playful feel to it.”

Lyrics and Lingo

When it came to conjuring the era through the lyrics, the urbane, “playfully bawdy” couplets of Cole Porter were a touchstone for Shaiman and Wittman. In the words to songs like “Let’s Misbehave,” Porter “found a million and one ways to refer to sex without ever using a single actually naughty word,” Shaiman said.

In similar fashion, Shaiman and Wittman find endless fun with the title of the show, producing lines like: “Some like it rough, some like it tame/ Bring me a moth who loves the flame,” and “Now on some sultry summer day, some consummate with consommé.”

“Some Like It Hot” is also peppered with scat singing, the improvised, syllabic gymnastics (“zee bap zeh bootlee atta feet bam-bam!”) that at times serve as the characters’ secret code. The vocal improvisations of scat singing greats like Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald and Cab Calloway provided inspiration, though here, of course, the effect is precisely scripted.

In writing the book, Matthew López and Amber Ruffin wanted to evoke the period without letting things get too cartoonish. Speakeasy slang, like “Cheese it!” and “Move those getaway sticks!” found their way into the dialogue. “I think at first I went full ‘Bugsy Malone,’” Ruffin said. “I love where the show landed. It’s just enough lingo of the era that you’re not distracted by it and you also don’t miss it.”

López and Ruffin’s book channels the wit and attitude of such pre-Production Code Hollywood films as “Merrily We Go To Hell,” “The Public Enemy” and “The Gay Divorcee.” Sweet Sue gets some zingers, redolent of a time when women no longer felt as constrained by the pressure to be polite. “I just heard from the doctor,” she says, “and I tested negative for patience.” “Sue always felt to me like a character out of a Jazz Age movie,” López explained, “except in a way she never would have been depicted at the time.”

Sets From the Machine Age

While Duke Ellington was jazzing up the airwaves, a new kind of architecture and design sensibility was jazzing things up visually. Art deco, with its striking geometry and gleaming surfaces, flourished in the 1920s and 1930s — the height of the Machine Age, as the show’s scenic designer, Scott Pask, points out — and was epitomized by the Chrysler Building in New York. For Pask, the decorative metalwork of that building was a jumping-off point for myriad onstage details, including stair rails and light fixtures. The receding parabolic arches in the Chrysler’s crown even inform a wallpaper pattern.

The color of the sets throughout is rooted in the metallic palette of the Machine Age: steel, silver, chrome, graphite. Even before the show starts, the audience sees, instead of the traditional scarlet Broadway show curtain, a series of narrow, folded silver vertical planes, framed within a metal proscenium.

In one dazzling scene, a train, designed by Pask, rolls into Chicago’s Union Station and traverses the entire width of the stage. It was modeled on the aerodynamic feel of locomotives in the ’30s. “It’s a design element that brings me a lot of joy,” Pask said.

For the curtains, tables, chairs and other onstage furnishings at the Hotel del Coronado, Pask took inspiration from the work of furniture designer Jacques-Émile Ruhlmann, which conveyed luxury through strong shapes and ornamental restraint when it was shown at the International Exhibition of Decorative and Modern Industrial Arts in Paris in 1925.

Hairdos With Pizazz

The Jazz Age was “really the time when women started cutting their hair short,” Josh Marquette, the show’s hair and wig designer, explained. “In fact, if you had long hair, you were either old or considered old-fashioned. The styles of the day were so elaborate and gorgeous, with finger wave and pin-curled hairstyles. Women went to great lengths to create these styles. But the hair still had to ‘dance’ and not fall apart when out at a jazz club.”

Marquette studied footage of Lindy Hoppers, searching for the secret to hairstyles that could withstand a session on the dance floor. “They almost always ended a number with hair intact,” he said, “but most hats and hair ornaments were gone!”

Marquette’s lookbook included the likes of Greta Garbo and Bette Davis. Daphne’s wig at the end of the show is directly and admiringly borrowed from Josephine Baker’s sleek “Eton crop” hairstyle, with curls pasted on the forehead and cheeks. “It’s just too good of a hair style to not include,” Marquette said.

As for Sugar’s hair, though it was not modeled on anyone specifically, it has both the sculpted quality of Baker’s crop and a hint of Clara Bow’s curls and, he said, “with maybe one ounce of Betty Boop!”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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