Cyndi Lauper made history in 2013 as the first woman to win the Tony Award for best score without a writing partner. Photo courtesy Cyndi Lauper.
You don’t need big, technicolor hair, fishnets and fingerless gloves to know that, even at age 61, Cyndi Lauper just wants to have fun.
Now the woman who puts the “sex” in “sexagenarian” wants audiences to have fun at the live theatre.
Lauper wrote the music for the 2013 Tony Award-winning best musical, Kinky Boots, which plays Oct. 29 through Nov. 9 at the Buell Theatre. In this era of safe Broadway musicals largely based on popular existing titles, Lauper has a pretty good idea why this exhilarating, underdog story written by Harvey Fierstein broke through.
“It’s because the show has a huge heart,” Lauper said in an exclusive interview with Denver CenterStage. Like small independent films The Full Monty and Priscilla Queen of the Desert before it, Broadway has welcomed Kinky Boots with big, accepting arms lined with spikes, sparkles and gummy bracelets.
“It’s a story about love and acceptance and friendship and overcoming obstacles,” Lauper said, “and everyone can relate to that.”
Kinky Boots is the story of a young man named Charlie who inherits his father’s shoe factory in the north of England. But no one is buying the shoes he’s selling. Enter Lola, a fabulous entertainer in need of some sturdy stilettos, who convinces Charlie to start making boots for transvestites. Together, of course, they save the factory.
Lauper has sold more than 80 million records worldwide, charted 16 hit singles and conquered the disparate worlds of pop, blues and Broadway.
As the queen of Queens herself might say … “Oh my gwwaaaaaaaad!”
But live theatre historically struggles to attract young audiences – especially those whose idea of a night at the theatre in Denver means the Bluebird or Ogden theatres – homes to live music concerts. Lauper is proud that Kinky Boots, based on a little-known 2005 British film, has bucked that trend.
“I tried really hard to write songs that could also live outside of the theater,” Lauper said. “Before radio, Broadway music was Top 40 popular music. People bought sheet music and played the music at home with their families. I really tried hard to honor that tradition with Kinky Boots by writing songs that people would want to listen to at home after leaving the theater, or without even seeing the show.”
Lauper thinks it is essential for new musicals to capture the hearts of young adult theatregoers.
“If young people don't discover Broadway, then Broadway will die with this generation, and that would be a tragedy,” Lauper said. “So it’s important that Broadway musicals and plays are written to live in the modern world.”
Crossover artists like Lauper might be the key to making that happen. Not only is she working on a new musical for the stage, “I am thrilled to see two of my favorites, David Byrne and Carole King, with shows on Broadway,” she said. “I would love to see Cher, Price and Joni Mitchell with shows on Broadway, too."
Last year, Lauper celebrated the 30th anniversary of her breakout album, She’s So Unusual. While that album charted five top-10 hits on the Billboard Hot 100 (Girls Just Want to Have Fun, Time After Time, She Bop and All Through the Night), it was her next record that produced perhaps her lasting legacy: True Colors.
“When I recorded that song, a very good friend of mine was dying from AIDS,” Lauper said. “Gregory had a horrific childhood. He had been abused. And the main reason he was abused was because he was gay. He became homeless really young. When he was dying he asked me to record a song so that he would not be forgotten.”
She wrote True Colors, which has become an anthem of hope for a swath of disaffected communities.
“Gregory was a beautiful person. A really kind and gentle soul who was told from a very early age that he was no good. That who he was as a person was not acceptable. And that just wasn't true. So I sang the song for Gregory and for everyone who has been rejected for being who they are or for anyone who feels unloved,” Lauper said.
“I think that it still resonates today because unfortunately we still have bias and we still have bullying. Maybe we have even more bullying because people can be cruel behind a computer instead of having the (courage) to say something ugly to someone's face. We still have hatred and that is sad because I would have thought that by 2014 people would have evolved. Because we live in the digital age, the world has gotten smaller. You’d think that would have made us more open and accepting. If we all could just accept each other for who we are, the world would be a beautiful place.
“And you know what? That's also the message of Kinky Boots
The original Broadway cast of Kinky Boots. Photo by Matthew Murphy.
Last year, Lauper became the first woman in Broadway history to win the Tony Award for best score without a writing partner. One of the more endearing moments in recent Tony Awards history was seeing Lauper as she sat stunned in her seat when her name was called. Finally she stood and hugged Wheat Ridge native Annaleigh Swanson, who was Tony-nominated herself for playing sassy Lauren in the original Broadway cast.
“I remember telling her, “Cyndi, you have to go to the stage now,’ ” Ashford said. “She was just like, ‘Oh my gwwaaaaaaaad!’
And she was crying. It was amazing."
Lauper remembers that moment as “simply incredible.”
“The Broadway community is an amazing one, and to be welcomed the way they welcomed me to this very special family is something that still warms my spirit,” she said.
When asked what Kinky Boots audiences are in for in Denver, she said simply:
“An amazing show with a great heart that will lift you up.”
Here is more from our exclusive conversation with Cyndi Lauper:
John Moore: What was it like working with Harvey Fierstein?
Cyndi Lauper: Harvey is one of Broadway's great talents and the book is so very, very good. It was an honor to collaborate with Harvey and tell the story of Lola and Charlie.
John Moore: Can you say a few words about your two Colorado cast members in the original Broadway cast – Annaleigh Ashford and Andy Kelso?
Cyndi Lauper: You must have really good water there in Colorado. Annaleigh is a real jewel. She really helped bring the role of Lauren to life. She is so talented and a really great singer. Andy started Kinky Boots in the role of Harry and now is playing Charlie, one of the leads. He has a lot of charisma and really nails the part.
John Moore: You recently visited Denver with Cher. What are your memories of her growing up, and what was it like being on the road with her?
Cyndi Lauper: The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour was one of my favorite TV shows of all time. I mean the outfits ... the hair! Cher is so talented. She is a great actor, she is a comedienne with amazing timing and a great singer. She inspired me, and I still admire her so much. I was really glad to be out on road with her. We have so much fun together. The last time we were out together was 10 years ago. So when Cher called me and invited me out again I of course said, 'Yes, when do we start?'
John Moore: You join rock artists like Neil Young, Duncan Sheik, Sting and the Flaming Lips who have made the crossover to writing for the live theatre, not by capitalizing on their existing songbooks but by writing original musicals. How is writing for the stage different from writing songs for yourself?
Cyndi Lauper: It’s very different. Your job as the composer of a musical is to move the story forward with the songs. You have to write for many voices and from all the characters’ perspectives. And I had a blast doing that. There were songs that I wrote that I really loved that didn’t make the show because maybe there was a change in the book or there was a different arc for a character or the story, and therefore the song had to change. For my own CDs, when I write a song that I love, it makes my records, hah. And of course when I write for myself, I’m writing from my perspective. It’s my story I am trying to tell through the songs on the album to my fans.
John Moore: What is your favorite cover of a Cyndi Lauper song recorded by another artist?
Cyndi Lauper: Miles Davis’ Time After Time, hands down.
John Moore: Your life changed seemingly overnight in 1983. What do you think would have become of you if She’s So Unusual had never been released?
Cyndi Lauper: It didn't really change overnight. I had been in bands and gigging since I was 20. My band Blue Angel got signed to Polydor when I was 27, and we had some moderate success. We also had done some pretty big tours both in the U.S. and in Europe. I loved those guys, and I loved that band. We were doing rockabilly. We might have been a bit before our time. The Stray Cats came out years later and really brought that genre out to the forefront again. I signed my solo deal with Portrait at 29, and the album came out when I was 30. Unlike when you are in a band, I was able to really fully become the artist I wanted to be. It was all my vision, what I wanted to say, how I wanted to say it, what I wanted to look like, and that was so empowering. And of course, to have five hit singles off that album was just unbelievable. I don't know what would have become of me if She’s So Unusual had never been released, but I would definitely sing, and I would definitely write songs. One of the jobs I had in the beginning of my career was singing at a Japanese piano bar in New York City. Maybe I would have gone back there and asked for my job back.
John Moore: How does it feel to be thought of as a musical – and fashion – role model for the likes of Lady Gaga, Katy Perry and Nicki Minaj?
Cyndi Lauper: They are all great artists. If they look to me as a role model, then I am flattered. I think as women, we all need to be able to see another woman doing what we dream of doing to know that it’s possible. There are so many women I looked to for inspiration – Janis Joplin and Joni Mitchell and Cher – all of these women who came before me to help light the path, and if I paid that gift forward, that makes me feel really good.
John Moore: What do you think of the news that there will be a Goonies sequel? Do you want to have a song in it?
Cyndi Lauper: I heard about that. No. I was very happy to work with Steven Spielberg and write a song for the first film though.
John Moore: Finally, I have to ask. After all of these years, what do you have to say to anyone who has ever made fun of your speaking voice?
Cyndi Lauper: Wait … I have a funny speaking voice? L.O.L.!
John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S. by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He also founded the Denver Post Underground Music Showcase in 2001. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @moorejohn
Kinky Boots: Ticket information
Oct. 29-Nov. 9
Accessible performance: 2 p.m. Nov. 9
Tickets: 303-894-4100 or www.DenverCenter.Org
Video: John Moore interviews Colorado's 'Kinky Boots' cast members