Billy Porter Kicks Up His Kinky Boots, Wearing the Role of a Lifetime

By Harry Haun
07 Apr 2013

Billy Porter on opening night
Billy Porter on opening night
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

After dutifully paying his dues for over 20 years, Billy Porter gets his first shot at carrying a Broadway show — and he does it in heels.

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Billy Porter landed big-time on Broadway as Teen Angel, doing a single-scene cameo in the first Grease revival, lifting his falsetto famously with "Beauty School Dropout."

Now look at him! He's, decidedly, a "Beauty School Drop-In," glammed up to the nth degree, wafting across the stage like a cross-dresser's fantasia in chiffon and sequins and — did I forget to mention? — Kinky Boots of red-hot shiny, leather.



This would be Lola (last name: irrelevant), a drag-queen cabaret chanteuse who changes the tune of a traditional, family-owned men's shoe factory in Northampton with a little deviant diversification: How about, suggests Lola to the failing firm, something a transvestite can kick up his heels in — without snapping a strap (just because those straps were made for, duh, women)? So it is, with Lola at the drawing boards dispensing inspiration with the stroke of a pen, that Price & Son gets a healthy upswing in business and avoids the elephant's graveyard where it was staggering.

All of the above actually happened. The events were first reported in a charming 2005 British-film sleeper by director Julian Jarrold, and now they are musically reiterated for the stage by adapter Harvey Fierstein and a Broadway-debuting songwriter named Cyndi Lauper. Jerry Mitchell, a Tony-winning expert at kick-steps and kinks (La Cage aux Folles), directed and choreographed it, and the result may well make Porter a star, even — well, you know what Lola wants — a Tony winner.

After a recent Wednesday matinee, Porter walked the length of 45th Street from 8th Avenue where he performs in the Al Hirschfeld Theatre to 9th Avenue where he slumps into a booth at Five Napkin Burger and orders a small chopped salad and grilled mahi tacos that should fortify him for his second Everest of the day. "It's extremely tiring," he allows, "but energizing at the same time because I love doing it."

As force-of-nature roles go, Lola literally and emotionally comes in all the colors of the rainbow, but — bottom line — she's the silver lining Porter has been looking for this last, "lost" decade when he was "reduced" to writing and directing to survive.

"She's a three-dimensional human being. That's what was lacking in roles offered me at the start. When I came to town in the late '80s, I had this version of myself that's explosive and fun and over-the-top. I had something nobody else could do — I sang in a way that separated me — and, when you're trying to get noticed, you play your trump card. Mine got me Grease. I was the guy who sang like Jennifer Hudson. In fact, Jennifer Holliday replaced me in that show. If you do something like that, they pigeon-hole you as a clown, and your humanity disappears from your options."

 Continued...