Critics agree singer’s score has driven success of Kinky Boots, nominated for 13 Tony Awards
NEW YORK—Girls just want to have hits. Ask Cyndi Lauper.
The husky-voiced bottle blond with the killer smile has sold 50 million albums, 20 million singles and won Grammy, Emmy, MTV and Billboard awards.
Now she’s got her eye on the Tony.
In one of the true eye-opening surprises of the 2012-2013 Broadway season, Lauper’s debut as a Broadway songwriter with the music and lyrics for the hit show Kinky Boots has been the feel-good story of the year.
Despite the presence of legendary Harvey Fierstein as author of the book and hitmaker Jerry Mitchell as the staging Svengali, most critics agree that it’s Lauper’s “heat-seeking score” (in the words of the New York Times) that drives the show’s success and has given it a very good chance of winning many of the 13 Tony Awards for which it was nominated, including the all-important Best Musical.
It’s a crazy show, based on a small 2005 British film of the same name that tells of an independent British shoe factory that, when faced with closing its doors, switches to the niche market of making shoes for drag queens, the “kinky boots” of the title.
“Oh my God, I’m so excited about it,” Lauper rasps/squeaks in a voice that sounds like a drag queen playing Minnie Mouse. “Who’d a thunk it? Little Cynthia Ann Lauper maybe winning a Tony Award. Excuse me while I just lie down and faint for a coupla minutes.”
She’s caught up in the tsunami of public relation appearances that lead up to the Tonys on June 9 and she’s doing this interview from her apartment during a window squeezed in between numerous media events.
“This is so crazy and, believe me, after all my years in the pop music business, I know all about crazy.”
She burst on the scene in 1983 with her album She’s So Unusual, which yielded four solid-gold hits, including the cheeky “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” which became her unofficial anthem. There were ups and downs in the years that followed, but she was firmly entrenched as a pop icon in everyone’s mind.
So why, after all this time, did she want to write a Broadway score?
“That music was part of my growing up and I always loved it, but I just never had the time.”
She dipped her toe in the legit waters in 2006, when she appeared as Jenny in the Roundabout Theatre’s production of The Threepenny Opera, with Alan Cumming starring as Macheath.
“That’s when I learned about how great Broadway could be. They treated me in such a welcoming way, and they’re good eggs and they take care of their own. They’ve always got your back.”
She laughs raucously. “When you’re on a pop tour it’s all rock ’n’ roll, baby, and they keep you up all night. On Broadway, it’s, ‘Cyndi, you’ve got a rehearsal tomorrow, go home instead of having another glass of wine.’”
You can see the attraction she felt to the Great White Way, but what made her finally start writing Kinky Boots?
“I wanted to be connected to Harvey (Fierstein), because he is just the most brilliant storyteller,” she said about the gravel-voiced actor/author who has the books for La Cage Aux Folles and Newsies to his credit.
“He and Jerry (Mitchell, the director) both really wanted me to do the show and when someone really wants ya, hell, that makes it hard to say no, ya know what I mean? But because they believed in me, I wanted to give them something really good.”
Critics and audiences agree that Lauper did herself and her collaborators proud with her score and on being told so, she says, “I’m so glad. You know, it took 41/2 years. Put this song in, take that song out, write a new one, rewrite an old one, move it all around, God!
“I asked Harvey and Jerry, ‘What are the rules?’” and they said, ‘There are no rules, Cyndi,’ which kinda scared me at first, then I realized that I did know the rules. I grew up knowing them.”
She’s thinking of the home she grew up, in the Ozone Park section of Queens in New York City. She was born on June 22, 1953, which puts her within hailing distance of her 60th birthday, if you’re counting.
Broadway musicals were the pop culture rock that her family built their listening habits on and Lauper happily deconstructs the score of Kinky Boots, explaining where she got the inspiration for a lot of the songs.
“Especially for the older characters, I threw in a feel of a bit of this and a bit of that.” She lets go with a surprisingly sweet version of a song from a 1962 musical called All American.
“Once upon a time . . .” she begins, then giggles. “You see, now I’m pulling in my mom. And that song the father sings in the show? Well that’s ‘With a Little Bit of Luck’ fromMy Fair Lady. Oh God, I think of all the songs I learned and remembered while I was destroying my mother’s long playing records. I take music and I collect it and then I hold on to it.”
Lauper’s joyful eclecticism fortunately didn’t stop with the golden age of musical theatre, because the show needed some hipper voices it was going to channel its unique cast of characters.
“What excited me about this show was the possibility that everybody could have their own musical style. I knew that Lola (the leading drag queen figure) could be this awesome character whose music could draw on everyone from Sylvester to Michael Jackson.
“When a character needed a big courageous walkout number, I put myself into Gloria Gaynor mode and ‘I Will Survive.’ For some of the other young girls, I went back to my Blue Angel days. I took all the things I loved and played around with them a bit. It’s just a melodic trail to suck people into the story and tell it with both flash and depth.”
Flash and depth. Good words to describe the 2013 edition of Lauper, a woman who found herself by putting music and lyrics into the mouths of many different characters.
“That’s the neatest part. If you actually put the time in and do it carefully, you can hear the difference in what they’re singing. I just love it.”
And, as always, Lauper makes no bones about speaking her mind about the whole Kinky Boots experience, whether or not she and her show win any of those 13 Tonys on June 9.
“It’s the most extraordinary time of my life. It is, honey. You can write that down.”
FIVE FAVE MUSICAL INFLUENCES
JUDY GARLAND: She taught me what showmanship was. How to build a number, how to sell it, how to win audience over.
BILLIE HOLIDAY: With her, you never saw the knife going into her heart. You just felt the pain she did as it slowly bled out.
ELLA FITZGERALD: From her, I learned class and how important it was to make every lyric count.
THE BEATLES: They could write and sing in so many styles, but they were always still The Beatles. That’s what I envy.
TINA TURNER: She was all about guts and power and keeping a smile on your face no matter what kind of stuff was going down.