The musical was originally a short sketch, based loosely on the Gold Diggers movies, written by George Haimsohn, Jim Wise, and Robin Miller. The character of "Ruby" was suggested by the Ruby Keeler-type from those early movies. It was lengthened to a 50-minute production, and director Robert Dahdah prepared it for its first staging. After the original actress who was to play "Ruby" withdrew during rehearsals, choreographer Don Price recommended newcomer Bernadette Peters for the role. The show opened in May 1966 as Dames at Sea, or Golddiggers Afloat at the Caffe Cino, a small coffee house/performance space in New York City's Greenwich Village, where it continued for 148 performances.
Retitled simply Dames at Sea, the musical re-opened at the Bouwerie Lane Theatre on December 20, 1968, and transferred to the larger Theater de Lys on April 22, 1969, running for a total of 575 performances, through May 10, 1970. Directed by Neal Kenyon, Peters reprised the role of Ruby as did David Christmas, co-starring as Dick.
On August 27, 1969, the show opened at London's Duchess Theatre, where it ran for 127 performances.
Peters appeared in a regional production at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, New Jersey in early 1973. Subsequent revivals have been staged at the Lamb's Theatre in Manhattan (1985), the Haymarket Theatre, Leicester, London (1989), and at the theatre where the musical first played off-Broadway, the Bouwerie Lane Theatre, produced by Jean Cocteau Repertory and directed by David Fuller, from September 3, 2004 to November 28, 2004.
The show is popular for High Schools and Middle Schools alike.
In some cases, the show is fleshed out to include chorus boys and girls, and other sailors. Some productions also omit the song "Singapore Sue".