Photography by Gavin Bond
If you only know Cyndi Lauper from 80s pop hits like ‘Girls Just Want to Have Fun’, it might come as a surprise that the New York-native wrote the songs and lyrics for the Tony Award-winning stage musical Kinky Boots – which makes its Australian premiere in Melbourne next month. But Lauper’s entire career has been one long, passionate assertion of versatility, spanning jazz standards, Christmas songs, blues, country and electronic music.
Adapted from a much-loved 2005 movie, itself based on a true story, Kinky Boots is a heartening tale of acceptance and the unlikely bond between an English shoe-factory heir and a drag-queen cabaret performer who helps save the family business. The solution? Focus on the niche market for wonderfully over-the-top high-heeled boots and find common ground in what seem like different worlds.
Lauper’s outsized enthusiasm and natural knack for bridging cultural divides turned out to be perfect for the material, and she became the first woman to ever individually win a Tony award for Best Original Score. The play’s songbook leaps wildly across genre lines to reflect all the characters’ disparate backgrounds, tapping into what The New York Times has described as Lauper’s “magpie sensibility”.
When Lauper got the job offer from playwright Harvey Fierstein, who wrote the book for Kinky Boots, that wide spectrum of musical possibility was a key part of the appeal. “What was really fun for me was being able to write in different styles,” Lauper confirms by phone, her down-to-earth Queens accent as palpable as ever.
That meant songs spanning earnest pub folk (‘Take What You Got’), disco-slanted club anthems (‘Sex Is in the Heel’), mouthy hip-hop swagger (‘Land of Lola’), a modern tango (‘What a Woman Wants’) and driving pop-punk (‘Step One’). Lauper was very much in her element, revisiting the booming, heartfelt delivery of her pre-solo band Blue Angel for the song ‘The History of Wrong Guys’ and echoing her own Midas touch with ballads elsewhere. ‘The Most Beautiful Thing in the World’ and ‘Just Be’ stand out as marquee-sized validation for dreamers, bringing together a far-flung cast of characters.
“Two people can be totally different and still have so much in common with feeling inadequacies towards living up to their parents’ or their fathers’ expectation,” Lauper reflects, referring to central characters Simon (later Lola) and Charlie. But she bristles at the suggestion that the theme of pushing against parental expectations calls back to her debut solo single ‘Girls Just Want to Have Fun’ (1983), with lines like “My mother says, ‘When you gonna live your life right’”.
“This is different,” she explains. “This is really about acceptance and accepting yourself. And when you accept yourself, you accept others, too. That’s what it’s really about: allowing yourself to be who you are. ‘Girls Just Want to Have Fun’ is about being entitled to have a joyful life.”
That joyfulness has always been a hallmark of Lauper’s career. She was photographed dancing in a bright-red dress – her hair dyed to match – on the now iconic cover of her career-making first album, 1983’s She’s So Unusual, and she brought the same boisterous presence to her music videos and cheeky cameos in movies and TV. The title track off her second album, 1986’s True Colors, was adopted as a symbol of acceptance in the LGBTIQ community, with Lauper subsequently becoming a dedicated activist in that community.
Again, Lauper’s sheer longevity might surprise anyone who dismissed her kooky fashion sense and winking comic touches when she first crash-landed onto pop charts around the world, but her bright, full-bodied vocal delivery has served her all too well across any number of settings. She has sung with everyone from Tony Bennett to BB King – and many more on the celebrity-strewn 1985 charity single ‘We Are the World’. And this year’s country-themed album Detour let her duet with the likes of Willie Nelson, Jewel, Vince Gill and Emmylou Harris.
The real drawcard has always been doing what she loves, which in Lauper’s case isn’t so much a cliche as a burning imperative. Detour is about honouring the country singers she loved as a child – Patsy Cline, Dolly Parton and especially rockabilly spitfire Wanda Jackson, from whom she says she learned to sing rock’n’roll. Writing the songs for Kinky Boots took her back to early years spent poring over her mum’s collection of Broadway soundtracks on vinyl.
“I sang with them all the time,” she says. “In those days that was pop music. I was a very strange kid: I didn’t play a lot with other people. I played in my own imaginary world, and when I sang the songs [from musicals] I became all the different characters.”
That was all the experience she needed to tackle Kinky Boots, which was her first time writing songs for a stage musical. When Fierstein would ring her with some urgent request for the music – she cheerfully imitates his famous rasp – she knew just what to do. And when theatre director Jerry Mitchell started dancing around the room and called for a unifying song where all the characters say “Yeah!”, she responded with the ultra-infectious ‘Everybody Say Yeah’.
“I just wanted to do a really good job for them,” she says, “because they’re my friends.” But she also enjoyed herself immensely, admitting that she laughed herself silly coming up with rhymes like “I’m Black Jesus, I’m Black Mary/But this Mary’s legs are hairy” for Lola to sing.
True to the show’s inclusive theme, Lauper wrote songs to appeal to people of all ages and backgrounds, even the husband who’s dragged along to see the show by his wife. Watching in the dark of the theatre, she saw just such a husband shed his grouchy mood despite himself and finally embrace the show: “All of a sudden we had him. We had him! He forgot everything and just enjoyed himself for the rest of the night.”
Lauper shares that anecdote as an example of how she kept working away on the play’s songbook, tweaking certain details after observing audience reactions or to better fit new cast members. In fact, she’s coming to Melbourne to help open the show in October, and she’ll return to Australia when it moves to Sydney. She didn’t just write the songs and move on – she’s made sure they grow right along with the show.
A creative force of nature, Lauper still thrives on that magpie sensibility of hers, happily cutting across any style of expression. (She’s won Grammys, a Tony and an Emmy.) “I think music is like cooking,” she says. “You have all these wonderful spices and somehow it takes on a life of its own.” In the case of Kinky Boots, that life has extended to runs on Broadway and London’s West End after its Chicago debut in 2012, hitting Canada and South Korea before making its way to Australia.
Having watched the show’s effect on people at every step of the way, Lauper couldn’t be prouder of Kinky Boots’ singalong success. “It makes a lot of people happy,” she beams. “It’s really gratifying to be part of something like that.”
by Doug Wallen
» Kinky Boots opens in Melbourne in October.
This article was first publised in Ed#520 of The Big Issue.