How Amber Ruffin’s Mission to Have Fun Helped “Destroy and Then Rebuild” ‘Some Like It Hot’ for Broadway

How Amber Ruffin’s Mission to Have Fun Helped “Destroy and Then Rebuild” ‘Some Like It Hot’ for Broadway
May 2023

The late night and Tony-nominated writer on how she's keeping the skeleton of her mediums and remaking everything else about them: "I'm not precious about anything. The only thing I'm precious about is our comfort. Are we all having fun?"

When Amber Ruffin begins speaking from the other end of the phone line, she reveals that she's eaten too many eggs. "Why did I do this?" she ponders. "It's not normal. I eat a lot of eggs. But I don't like to leave them because, you know, you can't reheat them, so that means you have to eat all of them."

Later on, as Ruffin is recalling how important a friend was in helping her realize she shouldn't make a joke about Joe Biden's dead dog, she quickly cuts herself off. "Gosh, you know, if I had a little bit more sense, I would think before I spoke, but I don't so," she casually acquiesces. At another point, when asked about the rareness of having her, a Black woman, co-writing a Broadway musical with Matthew Lopez, a gay Puerto Rican man, she responds giddily, "We don't have a single white writer," before the celebration gives her pause. "I don't know that I even thought about that until I said it," she says, trailing off.

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"I mean, also, have you ever spoken to someone who gets so far away from the question you asked?" she pointedly tags on to the end of an answer about Some Like It Hot's physical comedy.

Ruffin has a certain sort of spontaneous honesty that could make a person, mostly in PR, nervous. But, coupled with her sensitivity and self-awareness, it instead makes her not only genuine but accessible and fun -- all things embodied in the Tony-nominated musical. It's clearly what made her a perfect fit for what began several years ago as Lopez's modern spin on the 1959 MGM film of the same name, famously starring Marilyn Monroe.

When Ruffin describes her experience joining the Broadway musical's creative team, she mostly talks about it in service of its characters, including Sugar (Adriana Hicks), Daphne (J. Harrison Ghee) and Sweet Sue (NaTasha Yvette Williams) -- all Black, all women. "That happened long after the show had gotten started," Ruffin recalls of her journey to becoming attached to the musical. "Matthew Lopez was like, 'We're getting into an area where we're writing for Black women, so I think maybe things would be easier if we didn't have to do that?'" she says. "They brought me on, you know, for fun, but also to have a different perspective."

In this staged version for Broadway, the story still abides by the original film's premise -- two sibling artists join a traveling band and dress as women to escape the mob after accidentally witnessing a hit. But in this musical go, the story turns jokes into authentic development, through changes or reveals around the race, ethnicity, sexuality and gender of some characters.

"The show has the same skeleton, but literally everything else is different. I think that's probably the best way to look at it. And if you just put up the movie, then what was the point? For that reason, it had to change. But also, let's have something that feels good right now," she says. "I love that the two things we really saved from the movie are the four-sentence structure of what the plot is and the adorability of the dang thing."

Some of those changes Ruffin was brought in to aid revolved specifically around rebuilding the band around Sweet Sue. Lopez tells The Hollywood Reporter that Ruffin played a swift but key role in the show's decision to cut one part -- an enforcer-type and band manager for Sue named Beanstalk -- and, in the process, elevate the role of a Black female character.

"We looked at the relationships a little bit deeper, and then we moved away from that, and then we move back toward it," Ruffin recalls of the book's journey. "There was a man, and he gave Sweet Sue assistance, and then we were like, 'Well, why?' The character was so fucking funny. It was so great, and it hurt my little feelings when we changed it. But you know, ultimately, it was the right thing to do."

"In the 1950s, when the movie was made, and certainly in the 1920s, when the movie was set, I guess it must have just been inconceivable to anyone that a woman would travel alone through any area of the country," Lopez adds. "It just sort of felt like everything that he says Sue could say. Just because he's in the movie, why does he need to be in a musical? So the question had been raised and then Amber came in, and she independently verified it for everybody."

For the woman who describes herself as a "sunshine and rainbows baby," the choice to attach herself to the project makes sense. She's someone known in late television for bringing endearing silliness and information while making fun of seemingly ridiculous (and serious) political and pop culture news trends.

She's also someone who works within late night, a medium seemingly of a bygone era that's still dominated by white men. Despite keeping its skeleton, as now the only woman and person of color currently hosting a show in the space, she has made almost literally everything else about the format for The Amber Ruffin Show different.

Yet, even as a natural fit for Some Like It Hot's intentions, Ruffin had, at the time, not yet written anything that made it to Broadway before Lopez asked her to join the team. Writing for the stage, she tells THR, had some notable differences versus writing for late night.

"In late night, you write it, and sometimes you write something for the show while the show is happening. You don't get to rewrite things within an inch of their lives like you do on Broadway," she says. "You write something, you torture it -- you fucking torture this shit, dude -- you put it down for a month, pick it back up, and then you rewrite it twice a day for two weeks. It's nuts."

The experience is also different in terms of audience appeal. For Ruffin, in late night she's mostly used to writing for herself, a place where as long as she's telling the truth and being authentic to herself, she can "still win," even if it's a bad joke. But on Broadway, you don't get away with those same silly jokes. Instead, you have to think about whether you're "writing something that a 17-year-old high school girl will be able to say in 2042. That's something I've never had to consider. That was a real, 'Oh, yikes.'"

"I'd like for the audience to come along when it comes to late night, but they don't have to. I think because you see me, and you know I wrote it, I get a lot of grace," she says. "But you don't get that grace on Broadway. No one cares. No one can roll their eyes and be like, 'Oh, that's Amber.'"

Where the experiences have most intersected for her as an artist is in terms of her general ethos. After she gets over laughing about the reality of being identified as a Broadway writer -- "It's funny to say 'My work on Broadway.' It's so fucking hilarious, dude" -- she says that "having a nice, fun time," is a key point of how she operates as a creative and is a major cornerstone of her comedic style.

"I just like to try to make sure that no one's having a bad time in my name. When we're doing the Ruffin Show or even if I'm backstage at Late Night [With Seth Meyers], you cannot have a bad time here. I don't want you to be stressed with the people or with the material," she says. "If a joke needs to go, who gives a shit? I think that's the special gift I have having done late night. I'm not precious about anything. The only thing I'm precious about is our comfort. Are we all having fun? Until I cure a disease, I had best be having fun."

For Lopez, Ruffin boarding the musical was about having a Black female voice in the narrative following years of writing and workshopping -- an experience which led him to, one day, look around the room he says was full of "incredibly talented, incredibly wonderful colleagues."

"I was the only non-white creator on the show, and it was all, all men," he tells The Hollywood Reporter. "Look, no writer worth their salt doesn't know how to write women -- or should know how to write women -- and I have done so, but I was like, this just feels wrong not to have a woman on the team, and it feels wrong not to have a Black woman on the team."

Getting a Black woman on the team, then, was a "no-brainer" to help them and the show challenge assumptions. But what was equally important was getting Ruffin specifically. The duo share agents, but also she has a "musical theater brain," something the Tony-winning playwright notes is "not unknown to the people who know her." (Ruffin, who is providing additional material for a Wiz revival, also most recently provided special material for the 75th annual Tony Awards and its Broadway's Back! TV special.)

"To the fact that I've never written a musical, as far as I was concerned, she had more musical experience than I did."

Ruffin would sign on in a process her co-writer calls "very fast," with his approach to adaptation playing an important role. "Matthew, first of all, loves the movie a lot, and it was something he watched with his family growing up," she says. "He was like, 'Great, I'll do this show if we can destroy and then rebuild it.'" So he did."

This is where Ruffin's realization that the show's Black and Puerto Rican writing team hits her, a moment that underscores not just part of why she joined the project, but how they've both put the stamp of their voices -- and identities -- all over it.

"If where you're coming from is instead of where the people who wrote this movie are coming from, you're allowed to see everything through your own lens, and so then it's just naturally different," she says. "There's not going to be a lot of misogynistic shit in there because it's Matt. There's not going to be weird race shit in there because the writers are not white."

People in the audience are, however, still going to be. Part of Some Like It Hot's viability is its period nature. It's got brand recognition with a generation that has come to dominate New York theater houses. So while the duo brought a modern spin that appeals to the coveted younger -- and more racially and LGBTQ diverse -- audience Broadway has repeatedly claimed it wants to court, it still entices the industry's standard ticket buyer: white and older.

Sitting in the audience as the jokes from both Lopez and Ruffin fly, it's interesting to see who -- like all plays and musicals on Broadway -- gets what. At times, the co-writers manage to charm some of the audiences their jokes seemingly aren't designed for. Ruffin says that skill is a byproduct of her work in late night, whether she likes it or not.

"I mean, if anybody knows white people get it," the Omaha native says, before becoming vocally squicked out and starting again. "If anybody knows that white people can understand more Black stuff, it's me. Unfortunately, I have to live right at that line all of the time. So I'm always dipping over to 'Do you get it? Do you get it?' I'm right there. I know exactly -- well, I think I do -- what a white audience would get that you wouldn't think they would get."

Sometimes those jokes materialize through the musical's physical comedy, much of which was choreographed by director Casey Nicholaw. Physical comedy is something Ruffin enjoys, even if she feels like she hasn't necessarily spent as much time as she'd like doing it. She started in improv, first leaving the U.S. to work with Boom Chicago Amsterdam, before coming back and performing with The Second City. That would precede joining comedy YouTube and sketch-comedy musical troupes and gaining some name recognition after performing in the Sacred Fools Theater Company's two-woman parody musical, King of Kong.

Somewhere in here -- alongside funny appearances, narration and writing for shows like Drunk History and The Detroiters -- she meets people she'll end up working with in late night, auditions for Saturday Night Live amid backlash to its lack of Black female comedians, and through that, becomes a breakout on Late Night With Seth Meyers. There is also her background in gymnastics, which she notes while laughing, was "before when I was physically capable of touching my toes."

Some of her best physical comedy, at least in late night, has come as she tackles harder-hitting and timely news topics in her signature "wink-wink" style. Among those memorable jokes is her "planking" in response to the backlash to former NFL player Colin Kaepernick choosing to kneel during the national anthem in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.

The "whole bit," as she describes it, involves her "stand in solidarity with" Kaepernick by taking a knee -- except she takes two knees before realizing that's wrong, then lays down and begins "planking" before she eventually declares, "Steamroll racism!'" as she rolls around. "Yeah, you know what?" she declares, after recounting the sketch. "You're right. I've got to do more physical comedy."

Lopez notes that as the musical evolved and the writers got more familiar with the cast, writing the physicality got easier and better. But that physical comedy element was present with Ruffin from the start.

"She simply knows how things work in space. A joke for her is not necessarily a funny thing that a person says, but it has to be tied -- especially in a musical -- to movement. It has to be tied to physicality," he says. "When we were working on the show together, everything was just tied to some kind of a gesture from her. I think that's just how she is as a person. She is always gesturing and stimulating -- and as a Puerto Rican, I get it. She's a wiggle worm and so are her jokes."

It's part of how Ruffin is able to take the edge off of comedy, without it ever losing its message. Frequently, as she speaks, Ruffin offers more credit to Lopez's comedic gift of "getting a character to state the obvious and get a laugh there," versus her own self-described approach of "twisting a bunch of words around and kind of torturing it." He, meanwhile, shares the two made a pact that they both co-wrote the book, so they both own it and all of its jokes. "We probably remember whose idea was what, but we don't tell anybody," he explains.

What he will say is that the duality of Ruffin's humor is one of the things he most appreciates about his co-writer, and it was key to the musical's success. "Amber has this amazing ability to really be very pointed in her observations, to really puncture pretense. To name things for exactly what they are but to make sure that everyone's having a good time," he says. "She doesn't sacrifice fun in exchange for making a point, in exchange for making you think. Usually, you're asked to do one or the other, but both is very rare, and she can do that."

While she's frequently had to do this in a somewhat exhausting "all-audiences" fashion, for Some Like It Hot, Ruffin had Lopez and a room to help her. That includes during the show's workshop last winter, which lasted around six or seven weeks.

The duo holed up in director-choreographer Nicholaw's studio, corralling the co-writers' assistants and dramaturge Elizabeth Williamson, who had previously worked with Lopez on the Tony-winning play The Inheritance and who is currently working with Ruffin on The Wiz. Ruffin says this is where "everybody ran the show by everybody," with all their "fingers in this shit," in order to make sure Some Like It Hot felt good to the audience.

"Amber and I were ultimately leading it, but then somebody would throw out an idea, and Amber would take it, and then we would riff," Lopez explains. "Amber has vast experience in television. She knows more than anyone that no idea is precious, and you come into a room and an idea is merely as good as the rest of the people's ability to make it better. The idea is just fodder for better ideas. That was how we worked together."

"The show is playful and the playfulness in the show is reflective of our relationship," he adds.

For Ruffin, that writers room operating style might have been "strange to Matthew" but was regular for her. "You sit and goof around, and then sometimes you write it down," she says. "The end!"

Where it was different from other previous experiences was how it took some of the anxiety off because of who wasn't in the room: people of color. For instance, she says, you don't have to explain your jokes. Instead, they "just hit." You also don't have to worry about how what you're saying looks to people. "You can just say it," she adds. "You don't really realize how much work you're doing."

"If I had to make a reference to an '80s singer, I could say Babyface's other group, The Deele. Instead, I would have to go Madonna. But I shouldn't have to do that, right? My very first thought should be enough to get my point across, but it never is, and you have to go, 'What's the everyone version of this? What's the white version of this?'" she continues. "They're not going to allow me to say, we doin' this. I have to say we are doing this. You have to go over everything and change it to be what's 'acceptable.'"

With Lopez and with her work on The Amber Ruffin Show, that's not in play in the same way, opening the door up for a creative process that feels so much easier. "Once you get into a room that's just you and people like you, aw man, it's so nice," she says. "Until I had been in an all-Black writers room -- you take off the weights, and you're running 90 miles an hour. During the Ruffin Show, you just watch people one by one be like, 'Oh, my gosh, I can say that.' Like, not only can I sing, 'How did we get here? Nobody's supposed to be here,' I can also yell, 'Bitch, I caught the bus' in the middle of it."

Now, with Ruffin's first Tony nomination, she's looking ahead at The Wiz revival, which she's had her eye on since before Some Like It Hot, working on it since its 2018 Muny run in St. Louis. "They had always thought that they were going to bring it to Broadway. That was before Some Like It Hot, and I just thought that's what people say. I didn't know that it was in danger of actually happening," she says, collapsing into a fit of laughter.

While she describes the experience as "the most fun a person can have" -- even with having to take out her imagining of Eveline's factory as a clothing plant for the "only jeans guaranteed to give you a thin, flat butt' for its Broadway run -- there is a certain challenge as she works her way through "draft 18."

"We're inching further and further away from what the script was, and that's terrifying. Because The Wiz is chips and dip. The dip is the music and the chips are the book, and they're here to get you to the music," she says. "So, if you have to rewrite The Wiz, and make it more cohesive -- to make it one unit instead of several vignettes, which is kind of what it feels like -- then it's more of a complete overhaul than you wanted. And it's a complete overhaul on a thing you adore, which just feels very odd."

Though now not so unfamiliar thanks to her Tony-nominated musical. Beyond that, Ruffin neither confirms nor denies (with her signature laugh) that she has more for Broadway in the works. What she will say is that The Wiz is "for fun" but is different from her experience writing Some Like It Hot.

I do feel like I desperately want to get it right, and I hope that I do," she says, becoming entirely serious. "Whereas with Some Like It Hot, there was me and Matthew, and it was really great once I had gotten there, so I didn't feel very scared at all. But with The Wiz, I'm like, 'Oh, I hope we get this right so that The Wiz can live on in this way.'"

It's her final thought about her Broadway ambitions before she exits the conversation the same way, and with the same energy, she came into it: "I'm gonna go eat some eggs."