Not for nothing is the 1959 Billy Wilder film “Some Like It Hot” a classic. A crime caper in which two musicians, having witnessed a mob wipeout, must flee Chicago for their lives, it ingeniously and delicately (though boldly for its time) opens the Pandora’s box of gender ambiguity by having them make their escape in drag. They join a traveling all-girl band.
For the sax player Joe, the heels, the wig and the alias Josephine are just exigent props; for Wilder, they’re an opportunity to dress his worldliness in winky men-in-masquerade guffaws. But something unexpected happens when Jerry, the bass player, meaning to present himself as Geraldine, finds the name Daphne popping out of his mouth. What happens is: He likes it.
That great moment — quiet, funny, revelatory — also occurs in the obviously-a-hit new musical “Some Like It Hot,” which opened on Broadway at the Shubert Theater on Sunday. As Jerry-cum-Daphne, J. Harrison Ghee plays the moment lightly yet fully, without losing the laugh. But it lands in a world so vastly different from Wilder’s, and in a version of the story so vastly retuned to address that world, that it seems like something much bigger. It’s an invitation, as is the show overall, to a new and intersectional stage of liberation.
Not to put too much weight on what is in many ways a standard-issue Broadway musical comedy circa 1959: often silly, sometimes shaggy, but with entertainment always the top note. That’s a pretty high standard, after all, and in its staging (by Casey Nicholaw), its revamped plot (by Matthew López and Amber Ruffin) and especially its songs (by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman), “Some Like It Hot” clears the bar handily. At least in the first act, the show is an unstoppable train, blowing right past local stations where you might have a moment to wonder exactly where you’re headed.
Instead, you soak in those songs, which, like the ones Shaiman and Wittman wrote for “Hairspray” and “Smash” and the underloved “Fame Becomes Me,” are pretty much all knockouts. To establish Joe (Christian Borle, inventively funny) and Jerry as “brothers” of different races, bonded by annoyance as much as affection, we get a nifty song-and-dance number called “You Can’t Have Me (if You Don’t Have Him)” in the Roger Edens MGM style. A long and delightful tap sequence midsong lets you know that Nicholaw is going to pummel you with pleasure before massaging you with message.
Likewise Sweet Sue, the leader of the all-girl band, gets a brace of hot jazz numbers that NaTasha Yvette Williams, accompanied by the braying brass and dirty saxes of a fantastic 17-piece orchestra, knocks out of the park while incidentally introducing the show’s freedom-for-everyone philosophy. (The setting has been moved to 1933 from 1929 to coincide with the end of Prohibition.) Her tunestack includes a title song about the various temperatures of love that goes so far past being an earworm that it winds up drilling your amygdala.
Best of all, for Sugar Kane, the band’s lead singer and Joe’s wolfish crush, the songwriters offer a clutch of sultry Harold Arlen-style blues. That’s smart for the newly conceived Sugar, who is Black, but also for Adrianna Hicks, who plays her. In dissipating the Marilyn Monroe aura that might otherwise cling to the material from her famous turn in the movie, they give Hicks — last seen as the Beyoncé-like Catherine of Aragon in “Six” — a completely compelling aura of her own.
At the same time, López and Ruffin’s book is subtly building an argument that links the original story about gender to an aligned one about race. Jerry, who is Black, is not necessarily welcome in the same places his white “brother” Joe is. The vastly built-up character of Sue must likewise face down the bigotry of locals who try to cheat her, while also educating clueless allies. When one of the band members wonders whether they will be heading south from Chicago, Sue zings, “It’s 1933. Look at me and ask that again.”
So instead of Florida, where the movie settles, the show heads to California. There the changes to the story pile up. If you know the bland musical “Sugar,” an earlier, more faithful adaptation of the same material, you may be glad of the liberties, even if they come with some unintended consequences.
Take Osgood Fielding III, the millionaire who falls in love with Daphne. Now provided with a substantial back story — he’s Mexican American, justifying a detour to a south-of-the-border cantina — he’s less of a lecher than a case study in laissez-faire sexuality. On the upside, we thus get Kevin Del Aguila’s adorably goofy line readings and eccentric, wiggly dancing. On the downside, the movie’s killer last line, in which Osgood accepts Daphne with the phrase “Nobody’s perfect,” is now tucked into an earlier lyric and lost in the shuffle.
And it’s quite a shuffle: Nicholaw has loaded the show to bursting with dance. By the time he delivers a five-minute chase sequence near the end of the second act, with gangsters and bellhops and nonstop tapping, you may feel that trading the darker comedy of the movie — literally darker, with its claustrophobic black-and-white cinematography — for the soufflé textures of Broadway entertainment was a Faustian bargain. Fabulous as the visual production is, with Art Deco sets by Scott Pask, Technicolor lights by Natasha Katz and eye-popping costumes by Gregg Barnes, it keeps squeezing out the story’s quirkier soul.
Still, we get the message, mostly from Ghee, a nonbinary performer who carefully traces Jerry’s transformation into Daphne, and then the merging of the two identities into a third that takes us into territory that’s far more complex than jokey drag. All the while, Jerry maintains a sense of wonder about the changes happening within him that makes the journey feel welcoming for those of us watching. “You Could Have Knocked Me Over With a Feather,” a song summing up the character’s epiphanies, is a highlight of the show’s final quarter, which is otherwise somewhat overloaded with competing 11 o’clock numbers.
Ultimately, it’s the epiphanies and insights that make it possible to enjoy, without too much guilt, the flat-out entertainment of “Some Like It Hot,” including its groaners, overemphasis and old-school gags. How smart it is, for instance, to have Daphne demonstrate the spectrum of gender by singing, simply, “I crossed a border.” (Smart too, to have it sung in the scene set in Mexico.) And how satisfying it is to have Osgood link his identity issues so succinctly with hers: “The world reacts to what it sees,” he says, “and in my experience the world doesn’t have very good eyesight.”
Perhaps not, but some of its artists have a damn fine ear.
Some Like It Hot
At the Shubert Theater, Manhattan; somelikeithotmusical.com. Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes.