Amber Ruffin’s “Some Like It Hot” bridges the generation gap
In 1959, a cheeky comedy did what few films were willing to do at the time: it defied Hollywood’s Motion Picture Production Code, a restrictive set of censorship guidelines designed to quash all references to queerness and otherwise Taboo subjects away from the big screen.
The film Some Like It Hot follows two cisgender straight white men (Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis) who escape a mafia boss by wearing drag-and-play clothes Joining an all-female traveling band. Despite disregarding the so-called Hays Code the film was a blockbuster and is still considered a classic today.
As progressive and groundbreaking as director Billy Wilder’s project was, it also pushes the boundaries of popular culture at the time. The all-white cast (including Marilyn Monroe in the female lead) only flirts with the idea of queer romance without committing to it.
Comedy expert Amber Ruffin, 44, has struggled with the film for such reasons. “Nobody thought of me on this movie,” she told HuffPost during a video call.
While she appreciates that many people feel nostalgia for the film, and some fondly remember seeing the film for the first time, she doesn’t share that sentiment.
“It certainly wasn’t part of the rotation in the Ruffin household,” she said. “My parents didn’t say, ‘You have to see this movie.'”
But even at her childhood home in Omaha, Nebraska, there was a time-honored tradition for parents to assign films to their children because a particular movie is important or classic, or just because mom and dad love it. “Dad would love to try to get you to watch ‘Ben-Hur’ and stuff like that,” Ruffin recalled with a soft grin. “You’ll see for yourself.”
Ruffin, the youngest of five, was more interested in the movies her older sisters watched, like 1976’s Car Wash, 1984’s Beat Street, and 1985’s The Last Dragon.
“These were the staples in the house,” she said.
Still, “Some Like It Hot” impressed her enough that she later revisited it. And that decision would mark a turning point in her career, which had already been catapulted by countless successes.
These included joining acclaimed improv troupes like The Second City and Boom Chicago in Amsterdam, writing “two full-fledged musicals,” and becoming the first black woman to write for a late-night talk show on Late Night With Seth Meyers.
Ruffin also hosts her own self-titled talk show and co-wrote the 2021 New York Times bestseller You’ll Never Believe What Happened to Lacey: Crazy Stories About Racism with her sister, Lacey Lamar.
“As I watched [‘Some Like It Hot’] As an adult, I thought again, ‘There’s still work to be done,'” she said. “It’s difficult because the work that needs to be done is related to why it’s everyone’s favorite. What people are celebrating about this film is what needs to go.”
And when the offer came along to write alongside Matthew López in the new Broadway production of Some Like It Hot, it was a chance to create a repeat of the 1959 narrative that actually had people like her in mind.
“I saw it more as an opportunity to bring grandparents and grandkids on the same page,” Ruffin noted. “That was the most exciting part for me. What if you could see something your grandpa loved and you could love it too?”
Nowadays that seems a near impossible task as the generation gap often feels galactic. Younger viewers can be as critical of past entertainment as older adults are of contemporary entertainment. A negative attitude often comes from both directions.
Sometimes it’s for a good reason, but sometimes it’s just desperation. Even Ruffin said, “Our grandparents love chaos, dude.”
But Broadway’s Some Like It Hot is a vivid, rare exception that bridges the generation gap, as it retains just enough of the original story while incorporating concepts and ideals cherished by younger people.
In the musical, Monroe’s seductive singer Sugar Kane is played by Adrianna Hicks, a phenomenal black actress. Natasha Yvette Williams brings Sugar’s employer Sweet Sue (initiated by white actress Joan Shawlee) to life. Meanwhile, J. Harrison Ghee, a non-binary black actor, slips into Lemmon’s role as Jerry/Daphne, which is now complete thrives as a queer musician.
All of this manages to entertain, move and completely captivate the audience without destroying the essence of the 1959 story. And the show received 13 Tony Award nominations, including one for Ruffin and López for Best Book from a Musical.
You have to keep in mind that Ruffin wasn’t part of the show in the early stages. Four or five years ago, she’d started work on an entirely different Broadway musical — a reboot of The Wiz, due out this fall — when the folks behind Some Like It Hot called.
She was familiar with the new production and had great confidence in it even then, largely because of the talent behind it: director/choreographer Casey Nicholaw, composer Marc Shaiman and lyricist Scott Wittman, and López.
“I was like, ‘This is a hit,'” recalls Ruffin. “I knew it, and then I saw it. It was so much better than I thought. They were like, ‘We need help with this.’ And I was like, ‘Damn, this is for the best.'”
But actually: “Some like it hot” did need her. The creatives back then were all men, and none of them were black. “They looked around and most of the performers were black,” recalls Ruffin. “They said, ‘Hmm…'”
“So to their credit, they were like, ‘Are we doing the right thing here?'” she continued. “I came along and I like to think I helped give a more authentic voice to many of the black women on the show. And I also think I helped make it a little bit sillier.”
Curtis and Lemmon’s comedic genius and Monroe’s timing have already set the bar high. But the musical is a perfect marriage of inclusivity and the same emotional beats from the film – only queer and blacker, with soulful and big band musical numbers throughout. It is a pleasure.
That’s because it still has the heart of the film but with something special worth appreciating. “It’s like this laser-focused storytelling,” Ruffin said, recalling how Nicholaw and her other partners all contributed to it. “It’s the unique thought of a man who loves it, but the reality is there are five of us thrashing it.”
Ruffin admitted that Tony’s nod didn’t even resonate with her at first She continues to see herself as such a fan of the show.
“I guess when we got nominated I just forgot I was a part of it,” she said. “I thought, ‘Of course this show is going to get a f***ing billion nominations.’ It’s the shit.’ But then I was like, ‘Oh my god, I’m a part of this.’”
And above all, she has fun – one of her main goals in life. This has helped her jump from one job to the next, often figuring things out on the fly with little other guidance or purpose. “I was looking for what was the most fun.” Ruffin said. ”I had no plan to become this and that. I just had the most fun ever.”
That meant moving to Los Angeles and learning how to write musicals after realizing that writing jokes for late-night television and sitcoms like A Black Lady Sketch Show was “the right thing to do.” write and eventually break into the Broadway world.
And Ruffin loved every minute of it. But as adaptable as she is, learning a new skill hasn’t always been fun. “You’ll never hear me complain, other than this tiny comment, oh my god, just stick with something I’m already good at,” she laughed. “I hate studying.”
She definitely hides it well. “I’m a learner and a complainer,” she clarified.
Fair enough. But since she spends most of her time writing these days, she rarely has time to do anything else. She could be more than content sitting in front of the TV for hours watching the Eurovision Song Contest – “It’s funny because they’re all performers, but almost none of them are singers” – or reciting lines from the 2004 romantic comedy Spanglish. “
Although she hasn’t seen the film for a long time, years ago it was practically played on repeat in her Amsterdam apartment because it was the only DVD available. “I watched it all the time because it was my only option,” Ruffin said. “I developed a love for it. But after that I really liked it.”
Full of Latina stereotypes, Spanglish is directed by a white male filmmaker (James L. Brooks). As entertaining as the film is, it is also problematic. Sound familiar?
“Yikes,” Ruffin said. “Our ‘Spanglish’ is ‘Some Like It Hot’ from our parents.” And that closes the circle.