Sign in / Join
web - Cyndi

'Kinky Boots,' cowboy songs and LGBT rights: An interview with Cyndi Lauper

As rags-to-riches stories go, this is one that might make Horatio Alger blush just a little bit.

Real-life businessman Steven Pateman, desperate to save his family’s shoe factory in Great Britain, came up with a plan to make fetish footwear for men under the brand name “Divine Footwear.” BBC2 latched on to the idea and produced a documentary about the business strategy for its Trouble at the Top business show. The year was 1999.

Writers Geoff Deane and Tim Firth liked the idea and, in 2005, turned the business success story into a feature length film called Kinky Boots. The pair changed Pateman’s name to Charlie Price and, in an added touch, created the character of Lola, a drag queen who became Charlie’s partner and footwear advisor.

Tony Award-winning producer Daryl Roth, seeing the film at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival, fell in love with the concept’s musical potential. She partnered with producer Hal Roth to test the idea’s Broadway possibilities.

The project tumbled along until the pair signed Harvey Fierstein, author of La Cage aux Folles and Torch Song Trilogy, to write the book for the show in 2010. In need of a composer who could write a range of music, including “club songs,” Fierstein reached out to pop star Cyndi Lauper.

The LGBT champion, who had just recorded Memphis Blues with artists like B.B. King, Charlie Musselwhite and Allen Toussaint, liked the idea because it tapped into her early experience with musical theater and signed on.

The rest, as they say, is history. Kinky Boots was a smashing success, nominated in 2013 for multiple Drama Desk Awards and 13 Tony Awards. The show won six awards, including Best Musical and, for Lauper, Best Score, making her the first woman to win alone in that category.

Kinky Boots made its Wisconsin premiere in Appleton earlier this season, and will make its first appearance in Milwaukee May 31 to June 5 at the Marcus Center and in Madison July 12 to 17 at the Overture Center.

The Wisconsin Gazette caught up with the singer/songwriter between stops in her current tour to promote Detour, her first foray into country music, to talk about Kinky Boots, cowboy songs and LGBT activism.

What attracted you to music in the first place?

I grew up in Queens in a family filled with music lovers. It was Broadway musicals at my Mom's house, then when I went down to my grandparent’s apartment they were playing Italian crooners like Louis Prima and Enzo Penza.  At Aunt Gracie's house, it was blaring AM radio as she worked in the kitchen.  There I heard Patsy Cline, Hank Williams, Kitty Wells and Johnny Cash.  Back then no one labeled it "country" music; it was just “hit” music.  As I got older in the 1960s, my cousins and I discovered rock and roll and from that music I learned about the blues. So as you can tell my taste in music from my childhood has filtered into my music today.

So how did you get involved with Kinky Boots?

I didn’t have any real background in musical theater. I did perform in Three Penny Opera with Roundabout Theater on Broadway, but it wasn’t a very big part and it was a very short run.  I had always dreamed of writing for Broadway. When Harvey Fierstein called and asked me to be the composer for Kinky Boots, I just jumped at the chance.

Harvey and I have been friends for a long time so we had a natural rhythm working together. Not to say it was all just effortless. We put a lot of time, energy, sweat, laughter and tears into it. He is Broadway royalty, of course, and an industry veteran so his guidance through the process was amazing. He was very giving to me throughout.

How did you evolve from writing pop songs to composing an entire musical score?

During the writing process for Kinky Boots, I realized that I had to write songs for everyone in the cast, which meant writing for voices other than my own. When I perform my own songs, I often pretend to be someone other than myself to bring a certain emotion or intent to a song. In a way, it wasn't a huge stretch to put myself in other people's shoes to write songs for them.

Can you explain the typical interactions between you as composer and lyricist and Harvey Fierstein as author of the show’s book?

Harvey would send me pages of the script and tell me what the songs needed to say to move the plot forward, and I’d send him back songs. When ideas would pop into my head, I’d call him and sing him the melody. But the book drove the songs.

Kinky Boots is, of course, about an English shoe factory that saves itself by switching to sexy high-heeled boots. But is there more at work here?

It's a story about camaraderie and acceptance. It’s about two people — Charlie and Lola — who think they have nothing in common, but actually do have a lot in common. It’s a story of being brave enough to accept yourself so that you can learn to accept others too.

Speaking of music, what caused you to “detour” into country music with your new album?

I have always wanted to work with (Sire Records founder) Seymour Stein.  He was one of the great A&R guys that shaped music in New York City in the 1970s and ‘80's.  At the time I wasn't sure what direction I was heading. But then when I started listening, I found that the songs I was moved by were country songs from the same era as the songs on Memphis Blues. I really liked the idea of doing a companion record to Memphis Blues and to look at music from both sides of that street.

Switching gears, you have long been an LGBT advocate. How did this start?

It’s simple: I am friend and family to the LGBT community and where I come from you stand up for the people you love and care about. So, as long as any member of the community is treated as less than (someone else), I am going to do whatever I can to stand up for them.

Are you satisfied with the LGBT community’s progress this past year?

We have come a long way, but we still have a long way to go. We need to celebrate our many successes over the past few years and use that to motivate us to deal with what still needs to be fixed.

You can still be fired in over half the states for being gay or transgender. Up to 40 percent of the homeless youth in America are LGBT, yet only 7 percent of the general youth population is LGBT. We know that if we all work together we can make great changes; we just need to build upon the momentum of our successes and keep moving forward together.

What’s next in your LGBT activism?

The same thing I have been working on for the past eight years, which is to end LGBT youth homelessness through the True Colors Fund. We are working to put the long-term solutions in place to both prevent and end youth homelessness and urge people to join us in the effort and learn more about the issue at truecolorsfund.org.

Kinky Boots runs May 31 to June 5 at the Marcus Center, 929 N. Water St., Milwaukee. Tickets are $32 to $122. Call 414-273-7121 or visit marcuscenter.org for details.

The show runs in Madison July 12 to 17 at the Overture Center, 201 State St. Tickets are $40 to $119. Call 608-258-4141 or visit overturecenter.com.

 

Leave a reply