Cyndi Lauper & Harvey Fierstein on the Return of ‘Kinky Boots’ & Its Early Production Hurdles

·7 min read

Although Kinky Boots ran for more than Broadway 2,500 performances and netted six Tony Awards, book writer Harvey Fierstein still believes it “closed a little prematurely” when the curtain came down in spring of 2019. So even though a symptom-less case of COVID-19 kept the Tony-winning scribe from hanging with the show’s director/choreographer Jerry Mitchell and musical mastermind Cyndi Lauper during its off-Broadway premiere at Stage 42 on Aug. 25, he couldn’t be more thrilled about his musical’s return (even if he says that isolation is “driving me f–king nuts”).

“I love off Broadway — it’s my roots,” he tells Billboard over the phone, “And I love that theater. I love how open it is – there’s no balcony to overhang and block your view and mess up the sound. You can balance the sound so well in that space. There’s not a bad seat in the house, and it has a nice airy feeling to it. It plays beautifully in this space.”

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A story about the owner of a failing shoe factory (Charlie, played by Christian Douglas at Stage 42) teaming up with a drag queen (Lola, played by Callum Francis, who previously performed the role on Broadway) to save his father’s business, Kinky Boots – which opened at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre in 2013 — was based on a non-musical 2005 British film inspired by a true story. While Fierstein was already an established Broadway player with four Tonys to his name, it was new ground for Lauper, who provided Kinky Boots with its vibrating musical pulse. And for the Billboard Hot 100-topping, Grammy-winning pop singer-songwriter, the offer couldn’t have come at a better time.

“I was just fed up fighting the system,” she recalls, sitting across from Billboard in a diner-style booth in Manhattan’s chic CIVILIAN Hotel. “‘You’re not on the list,’ ‘You didn’t do this,'” she says, imitating various whiny voices from back in the day. “I was like, ‘You know what? Bite me.'” So when Fierstein reached out to his So Unusual friend, she signed on.

The musical’s culture clash dramedy gave her an opportunity to escape from the genre box that record company executives kept trying to keep her trapped inside. “[In Kinky Boots], nobody sings the same jam — so I get a chance to sing all kinds of ways, instead of singing something and having someone from the company tell me, ‘You can’t do that, you’re Cyndi Lauper! You’re supposed to sound like this!’ I could use my whole voice, and write music for all the different people in the show.”

With space to breathe on the Broadway stage, she flourished – particularly when writing the numbers for Lola. Lauper tells Billboard she envisioned Lola’s musical voice as a heady mixture of Cab Calloway and Shirley Bassey, with a sprinkle of Whitney Houston and Tina Turner, which you can hear on sly club numbers like “Sex Is in the Heel” and “Land of Lola.” Billy Porter, who originally played the role on Broadway, won a Tony for best actor in a musical with the role, and Kinky Boots gave Lauper herself a Tony for best original score – marking the first time in history a solo woman won in that category.

“The fact that there were so many different kinds of people in the show was exciting,” Lauper recalls of what made her sign on in the first place. “It was inclusive. It was more like real life.”

Looking back now, not even a decade after its Broadway premiere, Kinky Boots seems ahead of its time. Certainly, it’s an immediate precursor to drag’s cultural ascendance over the last half decade. “There’s so much misunderstanding. So many people don’t understand the difference between a drag queen and being transgender and someone with gender dysphoria. There’s so much to the human condition,” Fierstein says. “Now look at the stuff we’re aware of – even RuPaul’s Drag Race has had a heterosexual male drag queen, and a woman drag queen. And transgender drag queens. And that doesn’t make them any less drag; a drag queen is a special way people like to perform.”

Fierstein, who also penned poignant portrayals of drag artists in Torch Song Trilogy (1982) and La Cage aux Folles (1983), bristles somewhat at the idea of drag being a throughline in his career. “Nobody says to David Mamet, ‘You have a lot of working people in your shows,’ or to Arthur Miller, ‘What’s with all those heterosexuals?'” Fierstein points out. Even so, he acknowledges that “playing with sexuality is just fun. It’s so theatrical and wonderful on stage — and it’s all drag. If you’re gonna dress up anyway, you might as well dress up pretty!” he adds, cackling.

When Lauper is asked about the art form, she drolly offers, “I am a drag queen.” Hard to argue with her: Not only does she share stories of drag legend Flotilla DeBarge prodding her to stuff her cleavage, but Lauper was decades ahead of the trend when she put a slew of queens in the video for her 1995 Hot 100 hit “Hey Now (Girls Just Want to Have Fun).” While she says European audiences went wild for the video, the powers that be “wouldn’t release it in America.” She shakes her head. “That’s always my rub with record companies. People don’t really need record companies right now, and that’s good. I hope they pull the rug out a little and feel a little shaken, so they know not to be the way they were.”

With Kinky Boots likely to become one of those musicals that’s continually revived on Broadway over the coming generations, Fierstein and Lauper are now able to take a victory lap and look back fondly on some of the play’s early struggles. Recalling a number that involved a bankrupt Charlie firing his employees on one side of the stage while Lola pulled off a disappearing magic act on the other, Fierstein concludes, “Oh, did it suck.” When the number was eventually revamped, it meant that one of Lauper’s songs was cut. “I had some really awful ideas, and she was wonderful, because she wrote songs for all those awful ideas and they’re all in the garbage pail,” Fierstein says with a chortle. “But Cyndi never said to me, ‘F–k you for making me write all these songs.'”

For her part, Lauper remembers the cool reception the cast gave to a Blur-esque song with a punk rock feel she wrote, which didn’t make it to the final production. Her initial reaction to them: “What, you didn’t see Green Day? Rock n’ roll, a little punk is bothering you?”

Speaking of the starts and stops that characterize most plays before they hit the stage, Lauper provides an update on the status of the musical update of 1988’s Working Girl she’s been attached to since 2013. “They had business things to work out,” Lauper says of the first few years. “Then in 2017 we started writing music. There were two writers [attached], but they were television writers, and they were both wonderful, but they were busy with other things. And maybe they didn’t want to write the same story.”

Left with 16 songs for a Broadway-bound musical without a book, Lauper was insistent on finding a female writer for the project. “It had to be a woman; it’s a woman’s story,” she explains. While there’s a tinge of exhaustion in Lauper’s voice as she recounts the play’s long gestation period, it disappears when she brings up Theresa Rebeck, who was recently announced as the book writer for Working Girl: “She’s really wonderful. I feel so privileged to work with her.”

And while Lauper admits to missing her old Kinky Boots pals Fierstein and Mitchell as she navigates the waters of this show’s troubled birth, she remains as steely eyed as ever. “It’s my journey,” she says, still dedicated to her creative growth after decades in the game. “To get better at what I do, I have to learn to stand on my own.”

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