As Matthew López prepared for the London debut of “The Inheritance,” his epic drama about the AIDS epidemic and its painful aftershocks, he was simultaneously outlining a first draft of “Some Like It Hot,” an effervescent re-imagining of the classic Billy Wilder film. The two shows could not have been more radically different. But López enjoyed toggling between comedy and tragedy.
“I like working in extremes,” he says. “I like working in different modes.”
Plus, he thinks that both productions benefitted from their author’s double act. “I got to live in both worlds at once,” López argues. “One helped the other. Doing the shows at the same time kept both projects in check. It prevented ‘The Inheritance’ from getting too dour and kept ‘Some Like It Hot’ from getting too lightweight. It brought some gravity to ‘Some Like It Hot’ and some levity to ‘The Inheritance.’”
Something worked. “The Inheritance” would go on to win four Tony Awards, including one for best play, after it opened on Broadway in 2019. And “Some Like It Hot” enters this year’s Tony with a leading 13 nominations, including a nod for best musical. The latter production was co-written with late-night star Amber Ruffin and boasts music and lyrics by the “Hairspray” team of Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman.
Like the movie, the stage show centers on two musicians who hide out in an all-female band after witnessing a mob hit. But this production of “Some Like It Hot” updates the movie in several key ways. Three of its central roles are played by Black performers and instead of being a story about straight men in drag, it centers on the character of Daphne (Jack Lemmon on screen, J. Harrison Ghee on stage) and their self-discovery.
As he prepares for the Tony Awards on June 11, López is putting the finishing touches on his feature directorial debut, an adaptation of Casey McQuiston’s novel, “Red, White & Royal Blue,” a rom-com involving the first son of a U.S. president and a British prince. Amazon will release the movie on Aug. 11.
“Love it or have it, it’s the movie I set out to make,” López says. “That doesn’t always happen.”
“Some Like It Hot” is one of the funniest movies ever made. Was it intimidating to try to find a fresh way into a classic?
We could only mess it up. You’d be a fool not to to question your own sanity for taking something this on. On the other hand, “Some Like It Hot” is perfect structurally and is a perfect movie, but it’s not a perfect movie for our age. That was my in.
In what ways is it dated?
There’s something queer coded about the movie — the last scene and the last line of the film was incredibly radical for its time. But I wanted to get rid of the coding and leave the queer and make something that was not queer under the surface, but queer on the surface. I wanted to make it intentional. I can’t speak for I.A.L. Diamond and Billy Wilder, who wrote the movie, but I believe they knew what they were doing and that they were trying to tip toe up to the line. But the only way for this show to work was to sing in the same key that our current culture sings. What we’ve done is make a much more emotionally resonant work than the movie, which has this gimlet eye for humanity that our show does not. Billy Wilder is one of the great cynics of his time, and I am not and Amber is not. We decided to have our focus be Daphene’s journey of self-discovery and self-awakening.
Amber Ruffin joined the show as your co-writer during the process. What was it like working with her?
Amber tempered my more sentimental nature. Amber helped me reclaim some of Billy Wilder’s tartness. She ended up being a bridge between me and Billy Wilder. And I am incidentally funny, but Amber is very consciously funny. This is a story with three Black leads and three Black female identifying leads. I believe in artists ability to imagine lives different than their own — that’s our responsibility, not just our right. But I also believe that sometimes there’s no substitute for authentic voices. In terms of the writing, Amber and I get irritated on Zoom, so we ended up pen palling. I’d send a draft and she’d do a pass then I’d do a pass. It became an old-fashioned process of writing and re-writing.
“Some Like It Hot” struggled at the box office initially, but you’ve just had two consecutive weeks with over $1 million in grosses. What turned things around?
Thirteen Tony nominations is what turned it around. There were some expectations about what this show would be, and those expectations kept some people from seeing it. But the word-of-mouth is changing that.
What were the misconceptions that people had?
People are rightly suspicious of any story that they think will probably include jokes about cisgender, heterosexual men in dresses. Amber and I always say: we don’t think men in dresses are funny, but we think idiots in trouble are always funny.
The Tony broadcast nearly didn’t happen because of the Writers strike. Did you lobby the WGA to allow the show to go forward?
I personally did not involve myself. As a current Tony nominee, I worried it would look self-serving if I got involved.
Why did you want to make “Red, White & Royal Blue”?
When I read the book, I was taken by the character of Alex Claremont-Diaz. As a queer Puerto Rican, I had never encountered a character like that. I’d never read a story centered around a young bisexual Mexican American. Had there been an Alex out there in the world when I was a teenager, it would have made my life easier. It would have meant so much to read a book with someone similar to me in it.
What kinds of movies did you look to for inspiration?
I wanted to make the kind of movie that I hadn’t seen in awhile. I wanted it to be contemporary, but feel classic in its structure and delivery. I kept going back to movies like “Bringing Up Baby” and “The Philadelphia Story” and “Broadcast News” and “Moonstruck.” Those movies have scenes that often work best when the directors just put the actors in the frame and let them do their thing. There’s not all this cutting. And I asked my actors to prepare to make this movie like they would prepare for a play. That meant knowing their lines when they came to set, not learning them in the makeup chair. We rehearsed this movie for two weeks before we started filming.
What’s the latest with the remake of “The Bodyguard”?
I turned in my script. I don’t know where they are in the process. I know the producers have a passion for the film, and I hope it gets made.
Why did you want to remake the film?
I sort of felt like I can only screw this up, so why not try it. The biggest difference is the original film is about an established star meeting a bodyguard. I thought: What if it’s someone new to stardom? What if it’s a young person like Billie Eilish, where they’re thrown into this world of celebrity and they’re trying to figure out how to be famous. And what is that like? Fame now is not what it was when the original came out. There was no social media then and that’s given people the illusion that they have access to movie stars and music stars. In 1992, when “The Bodyguard” came out, there were marketing departments and publicists and they crafted an image for you and then you were left alone to lead a private life if that’s what you wanted. Today, it’s like, if you don’t have an Instagram account, do you even exist?
Will there ever be a movie of mini-series of “The Inheritance”?
I would love that. I have needed and continue to need a little distance from it. The amount of time spent working on the play and what it took out of me was not easy. I put so much of myself and my life into that play, so it was emotionally exposing. It was an incredible experience and so exhilarating, but working on it was kind of like having my wedding day, every day. Eventually, you want to be on the other side of that so you can get on with your marriage.
Do you have any other projects on the horizon?
I have nothing coming up after the movie is released. A couple of years ago, not knowing what was next would have terrified me. Now, it excites me.
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