With Kinky Boots, the Casting Is in the Heel

Special Features   With Kinky Boots, the Casting Is in the Heel
 
How the casting director of Kinky Boots keeps the iconic shoes filled.
Stark Sands, Billy Porter and cast in <i>Kinky Boots</i>
Stark Sands, Billy Porter and cast in Kinky Boots Matthew Murphy

Note to male actors: When auditioning for Kinky Boots, know how to walk in heels. “I think most of the time, it only helps if you know how to walk in heels, because it's a challenging feat in itself if you never have,” says casting director Justin Huff.

Huff, of the casting agency Telsey + Company, has worked with Kinky Boots since its first reading in 2010. Since then, he has cast the Broadway version and the national tour, and did some work with the Australian and Toronto productions. To him, the auditions can be reminiscent of an episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race. “It’s so much fun to see people come in in different stages of drag—from full drag to partial drag,” he says. “But it’s also great because what I love about that—and what our creative team, [director Jerry Mitchell] especially, loved about that—is you get to see that person's individual take on drag and who they choose to become when in drag and what is their character.” (Beyoncé and Whitney Houston are common style inspirations.)

Kinky Boots requires seven drag queens: one Lola and six Angels, Lola’s entourage of dancers. Huff admits that Lola is the hardest role in the show to cast, because it requires an African-American man in his 20s or 30s, who can sing and dance, and possesses an equal amount of sass and compassion. “Lola has something special,” he says, “which isn't necessarily something you can teach someone. It's kind of an inherent quality that the person has to possess naturally, that makes Lola likable and relatable.” That indescribable factor led to Billy Porter, the original Lola, who won a Tony for the role. And it’s what Huff aims to replicate with every new actor who steps into Lola’s red stiletto boots. Post Porter, Wayne Brady stepped into the role, and YouTube star Todrick Hall currently plays Lola on Broadway.

Huff says Kinky Boots’ characters are puzzles pieces of archetypes with core personality traits to be fleshed out and supplemented by the personality of the actors filling their shoes. While Lola is a flashy persona who can also be vulnerable, Huff describes Charlie as a quieter figure. He’s the naive, boy-becoming-a-man type, and needs to have an incredible voice because of the intense musical demands of that role. Huff recalls auditioning actors for the original Charlie, before landing on Stark Sands. “We saw a lot of guys for it,” he says, “When we saw Stark, there wasn't a dry eye in the room after his audition.”

According to Huff, for an actor to successfully inhabit a role, an imitation of Porter or Sands won’t do. “I think that's kind of where magic happens, when the personality of the actor meshes with the character on the page,” he muses.

In fact, the longtime casting director is always on the lookout for new talent, especially because the leads for Kinky Boots are so young. He regularly attends college showcases, teaches master classes to acting students, and seeks references from other casting directors. In part, Huff jokes his job is to “remember as many actors as we can.” But finding new talent excites Huff; there’s always someone he hasn’t seen yet. “That's the fuel that keeps you going,” he explains, “because you're constantly energized by finding new people or seeing people again who get so much better than the last time you saw them.”

Though Huff has been with Kinky Boots since the beginning, he doesn’t tire of it. In fact, in today’s divisive times, he believes in the importance of the musical’s message more than ever. “At this point in time, we need a show with a message like this. A message of understanding and acceptance and loving one another,” he urges. “I’ve seen presumably straight men go into this show and at the end, you see them wiping away tears because they've really been affected. The show can act as a mirror that makes them realize how maybe they’ve misjudged or made an assumption about someone out of fear or lack of information. I think that’s what's makes Kinky Boots special at a time like this.”

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