Cyndi Lauper brings true colors to Broadway with ‘Kinky Boots.’
by Lawrence Ferber
Photo by Matthew Murphy
Cyndi Lauper isn’t sounding like herself these days. Instead, she’s sounding like a sassy black British drag queen, a young, vanilla man tasked with keeping his family’s business alive, his disgruntled fiancée, a homophobic blue-collar worker, and quite a few others.
These are characters in Broadway’s exuberant new musical, Kinky Boots, for which Lauper made her first foray as a stage musical composer. Enlisted by Kinky Boots’ librettist, Harvey Fierstein, Lauper immersed herself in the show’s characters, writing so specifically for their individual voices that the songs were initially devoid of Lauper’s own distinctive sound.
“We had to almost say, ‘You’re Cyndi Lauper—give us a f–king Cyndi Lauper song!’” Fierstein laughs. “Because she has this real love for musicals, she just abandoned what most other [theater] composers are too precious about—they want it to sound like them more than the characters. ‘What sound would this character have?’ is the question she asked, and we got an eclectic score with lots of different sounds, and each character really does have their own voice.”
The Grammy- and Emmy-winning Lauper’s own thick Queens accent is evident as she speaks about Kinky Boots and Fierstein, whom she credits as both having inspired her prolific LGBT activism—she co-founded the True Colors Fund, which runs programs dedicated to eradicating LGBT youth homelessness—
as well as landing her the gig.
“I love Harvey dearly,” she says. “He calls me Christina—as in he’s ‘Mommie Dearest.’ To actually work with him now is a big honor. He’s really funny, a good guy and storyteller, and he understands the stage. He’s been doing it all his life. He invited me into this, and I took it on the basis that I always wanted to work with him. He’s great.”
Based on the 2005 film, which in turn was based on the real-life story of a Northampton, England, shoemaker who carved a niche by making sexy, funky women’s boots in men’s sizes—with a steel-reinforced heel for support—Kinky Boots stars Stark Sands as Charlie Price, who inherits his family’s near-bankrupt shoe factory. Reluctant to fill his father’s (ahem) shoes, and in fact recently moved to London with his fiancée Nicola, Charlie has an “a-ha!” moment when he meets Lola, a brassy London drag queen (the fabulous, out Billy Porter) in need of fierce, sturdy, sexy footwear. Charlie enlists Lola as a shoe designer, and while some closed-minded workers initially balk at this potential savior, a common bond between the two men helps forge what could save not only soles, but souls.
Directed and choreographed by Tony-winner Jerry Mitchell (Hairspray, Legally Blonde), Kinky Boots opened April 4, and it’s an exuberant production indeed filled with witty banter, incredible dance numbers—some involving Lola’s clique of fellow drag queens, a couple of whom are downright acrobatic—ingenious sets and staging, emotional moments that bring tears to the eyes (or at least a gulp and heavy sigh if you’re stone-hearted), and Lauper’s superb songs, which sound like the work of a seasoned show-tune pro . . . and are as catchy as her best pop tunes.
The show’s pre-Broadway test-run in Chicago last fall was captured in Lauper’s recent WE network reality series, Still So Unusual, which aired during January/February. Also chronicled was her guest appearance
on The Voice (a “Money Changes Everything” duet with a contestant), the release of her self-titled memoir, and domestic life with actor husband David Thornton and 15-year-old son Declyn.
Parent-child relations are a powerful theme in Kinky Boots. Lola’s professional boxer father, unsurprisingly, takes issue with his child’s homosexuality and penchant for female clothing. Lauper, whose sister is queer, insists that sexuality and gender identity would play no issue in her love for Declyn.
“Let me tell ya something,” she says. “I just want my kid to be healthy and happy. I don’t give a hoot what he turns out to be. You want them to be who they are and help them as best they can to succeed in the world of who they are. You can never tell a kid ‘you can do this or that.’ It’s my job to be there and help him.”
Providing a safe space for queer youth abandoned by their parents and hostile home situations has been a priority for Lauper. She visited Washington DC last year to accept an award for her efforts to help end LGBT youth homelessness—which includes the True Colors Residence in Harlem, New York City’s first permanent housing development for young, previously homeless LGBTs—and to lobby Capitol Hill on the issue and drum up support for Sen. John Kerry’s Reconnecting Youth to Prevent Homelessness Act.
“Well, a lot has come of it,” she says of the latter effort, which included a meeting with Nancy Pelosi. “A lot has been going on with people on Capitol Hill. It made some noise and people are actually able to do something. But I’m not gonna lie to you. [The process] is an onion, and you peel away each layer. It certainly was a good poke in the eye to do that and listen to what the hell they’re doing and who the hell’s doing it and who the hell isn’t.”
One person Lauper doesn’t care to court support from is Donald Trump. Lauper appeared on Trump’s The Celebrity Apprentice in 2010, making it to sixth place and donating her winnings to True Colors Fund and Stonewall Community Foundation. Trump’s openly stated opposition to same-sex marriage and civil union rights, and his virulently anti-Obama behavior and Tweets during the election, leaves her “deeply disappointed.” Trump had called Cher “a total loser” after she Tweeted: “I don’t know if I can breathe the same air as [Romney] & his Right Wing Racist Homophobic Women Hating Tea Bagger Masters.”
“I felt that what he said about the gay community was disappointing because a lot of gay people work for him,” Lauper admits. “It’s just sad. I thought he could have done better for his country than just go to the lowest common denominator and stir up the crap. It’s our country, it’s not wrestling. If you try and make our president fail, it doesn’t matter who he is, you make our country fail. And if you really are a patriot, if you really give a shit about our country, you don’t do stuff like that. First of all, you’re an entertainer, and you make ugly buildings, and you’re famous for it. And you have a reality show with very high ratings. Don’t step into the forum like that. Become educated with all the facts. Don’t just be a shit-stirrer. Our country is in trouble and he keeps wanting to make [Obama] fail. Let’s call a spade a spade. The guy’s a black man, and that’s your issue? What kind of idiot are you? Come on.”
Of course, the Tony Award nominations have brought even more attention to Lauper’s work on the show, and fans have been clamoring for Kinky Boots’ official Broadway cast album. May 28 finally saw the album’s release—yes, iTunes has it—yet one of its songs, “Sex Is in the Heel,” was first released last summer and carved a spot on Billboard’s dance chart (iTunes stocks a 6-remix EP).
And yes, that’s her own voice on the original version of the track. “I’m trying to get songs from the play to the people,” she enthuses. “Some of the stuff sung by Billy and Stark might be really cool to get out to the clubs, too.”
For more information, see kinkybootsthemusical.com.
Freelance contributor Lawrence Ferber is co-writer of the award-winning gay rom-com BearCity. His novelization of the film, BearCity: The Novel, will be released by Bear Bones Books this month.
For an interview with Cyndi Lauper, click here.