In October 1983, when Cyndi Lauper’s pop career started taking off in earnest, the current Broadway musicals had music by Andrew Lloyd Webber (Cats), Jerry Herman (La Cage aux Folles), Maury Yeston (Nine) and George Gershwin (My One and Only). No one would have ever predicted that Lauper — whose then-hit “She Bop” concerned masturbation and thus made the Parents Music Resource Center’s “Filthy Fifteen” list — would ever write the music and lyrics for a great big Broadway show.
But indeed Lauper has, and a much-acclaimed one: Kinky Boots, currently up for no fewer than a dozen Tony Awards including Best Musical and Best Score. Should Lauper win in the latter category, she’ll be the first woman to ever achieve that honor without help from any man.
Credit where it’s due: Kinky Boots could have just been another lamentable jukebox musical; after all, the 2005 film on which it’s based contained more than twenty familiar musical selections. Three of them were even songs from musicals: “Largo al Factotum” from The Barber of Seville (well, that is a musical, in a manner of speaking), “My Heart Belongs to Daddy” (Leave It to Me!) and Damn Yankees’ “Whatever Lola Wants.”
The selection of the last one makes one wonder if Kinky Boots’ main character of Lola got her name only after the Adler-Ross hit was chosen. Lola, born Simon, is a drag queen (brought to life by Drama Desk winner Billy Porter). She changes and greatly improves the life of Charlie Price, whose family for decades has been making shoes – a business to which he’s suddenly fallen heir. Unfortunately, Price and Son is going downhill faster than The Red Shoes did in 1993 during its fifty-one torturous, staff-changing previews.
We’ve all heard that when life gives you lemons, make lemonade. Charlie decides that when his life gives him a transvestite (whom he meets in a club), he should make transvestite footwear. Easier said than done.
The best songs from musicals are said to be the ones that move the action forward. Lauper’s “Sex Is in the Heel” does just that, for when the song starts, everyone is stymied on how to make a super-high heel that can take a transvestite’s weight without losing any of the attractiveness that drag queens demand. Halfway through the song, however, Charlie’s employee George comes up with theory – one that will change the fortunes of the company. (Hmmm, as a result, wouldn’t George want a piece of the lucrative action? That’s not explored in either the film or the musical.)
Charlie’s taking action makes him attractive to his employee Lauren. However, she knows that he’s involved with Nicola. Will this be yet another entry in “The History of Wrong Guys” that she’s experienced? If they asked her, she could write a book on the subject. In fact, in Lauper’s impassioned song, she even lists eleven reasons from Chapter One (“He’s a bum”) to Chapter Eleven (“A girlfriend named Nicola”). Although Lauper has been happily married since 1991, she obviously knows the problematic-man territory from her own experiences or from the many women she’s known in her life.
Charlie could write his own book called The History of Wrong Women. We never get the impression that Nicola is all that crazy about him. That she buys shoes from another outlet is a nice and subtle way of showing that her loyalty to Charlie isn’t intense. And while “Charlie’s Soliloquy” will never be favorably compared with Billy Bigelow’s, Lauper does infuse it with honest and heartfelt writing.
It’s a rare man who won’t identify with Lauper’s song “Not My Father’s Son” in which Lola tells how he disappointed his old man. “I’m not the image of what he dreamed of,” he sings, “with the strength of Sparta and the patience of Job.”
In The Happiest Corpse I’ve Ever Seen, his 2004 study of the Broadway musicals from 1980 to the then-present day, Ethan Mordden lamented the loss of classical references in lyrics. “The sophisticated or even educational side of the musical,” Mordden wrote, “starts to disappear in writers’ debuts after the ‘70s.” Might Lauper start a renaissance with an allusion to the seldom-mentioned Sparta?
Lauper often comes up with clever lyrical images (“I may be the hero who reinvents the heel”) as well as ones that define character – such as when Lola sings about his early days in drag: “The world seemed brighter six inches off the ground.” Later, when Lola sees that Price and Son has licked the design problem, he sings “Papa’s got a brand-new shoe” (which will presumably go with his brand-new bag).
Last month, on my way out of the Al Hirschfeld Theatre where I enjoyed Kinky Boots, I overheard a long-time theatergoer proclaim, “This score can’t be by Cyndi Lauper! It sounds as if it had been written by a Broadway veteran, not a first-timer.” Perhaps some of the credit goes to bookwriter Harvey Fierstein. He says in his liner notes that he was more the parent and she the child in this collaboration. To be precise, he likened himself to Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest and Cyndi Lauper to beleaguered daughter Christina. From that, we can rightly infer that four-time Tony-winner Fierstein gave Lauper his own mini-master classes to enrich her score, always reminding her of the needs of a musical and its songs.
However Lauper, a longtime advocate of LGBT rights, probably didn’t need any prodding from Fierstein to come up with the messages in her eleven o’clock number “Just Be.” Her advice: “Pursue the truth. Learn something new. Accept yourself and you’ll accept others, too. Let love shine. Let pride be your guide. You change the world when you change your mind.”
Musical theater purists will notice that “shine” and “mind” don’t quite rhyme. And while it is true that Lauper hasn’t been perfect in writing perfect rhymes, she has a higher batting average than her pop counterparts who have previously written their Broadway musicals. (You know who you are.) Her success rate is well into the ninetieth percentile, and that’s an A where I went to school.