PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Kinky Boots; Some Girls Just Wanna Give Fun
By Harry Haun
Meet the first-nighters at the Broadway opening of the new Cyndi Lauper-Harvey Fierstein musical Kinky Boots.
Powered by a rollicking Cyndi Lauper score, Kinky Boots rolled off the assembly line at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre April 4 and — I swear! — started dancing of their own accord before a crowd of hardcases who'd melted to malleable putty by the finale.
There wasn't dancing in the aisle, but the thought was certainly there, and so too was the insistent beat — a hard-driving, hypnotic, audience-winning throb that pulls us in. It's a real Broadway score — only by way of Cyndi Lauper, who hits all the right notes (melodic, catchy, character-driven, ridiculously varied) her first time at bat.
The subject of her debuting score came from a seven-year-old British film sleeper, which, in turn, came from a real-life incident about a young man (here, Stark Sands) who inherits his father's failing shoe factory and saves it by altering the product a tad. Instead of making "a range of shoes for men," he elects to make "shoes for a range of men," thus widening the market to drag queens, transvestites and some boys who just wanna have fun. And who better to be the architect of this grand new design, he reasons, than a practicing drag queen (Billy Porter)? Conflict ensues.
On her first opening night, Lauper — in a typically wild-haired 'do ("a multi-colored explosion," one observer called it) — seemed like little girl lost, a stranger in a strange land, reserving judgment until she got her bearings — if she got her bearings.
It hadn't happened by show's end when she was led on stage with her book writer Harvey Fierstein, her director-choreographer Jerry Mitchell and her indispensible orchestrator Stephen Oremus to receive the audience's jubilant blessing.
The mist seemed to be lifting a little for her at the after-party, which was held a convenient block away in one of those cavernous ballrooms at the Marriott Marquis, bathed in rose-colored lighting with a bowl of roses at every table. (Red is the show's color.)
The second time around, he found something in 'Kinky Boots' that he could really address in a truly meaningful way. "What I like about the story is that it's very human. That's what I love. I don't write about the last ballgame of the World Series. I don't write about building the Empire State Building. I don't write about King Kong. I write about just what it's like being a human being. That's what interests me, and that's what I love about the show. These people are all very human. They're complex, they're confused, they're just trying — and that's why I love them."
It was Fierstein who had the out-of-the-box idea for Lauper to do the songs. He knocked, she answered, and they went into a happy working relationship, he playing Joan Crawford to her Christine, pretending to badger the songs out of her.
"Harvey was so great," she said. "He told me not to worry about anything — just do it. I said, 'What are the rules?' He said, 'There are no rules.' It was so freeing — nobody telling you, 'It has to be this'/'It has to be that' — it just had to propel the story, so I was able to look at the two different characters. It was such a delicious project because the two characters were so different that they could sing in totally different styles. Of course, they would. They speak differently, and they sing differently, and they do different kinds of music. That was the beginning for me."
Actually, truth to tell (and she told it), the Broadway beginning was before that. "I learned how to sing listening to my mother's Broadway records so I just took everything that I loved more than anything from those records and incorporated as much as I could. There was 'Nothing Like a Dame' in it, a little bit, too. I wanted to have something to represent all those songs that I learned from those records."
Looking around the star glitter in attendance, she got the idea for her next Broadway show: "I kept looking at these Broadway divas there tonight, thinking, 'Wouldn't it be great to have a story where all these women could be in it, and I could write a song for each one of their voices?' I'd study their voice and then write a song for how they'd like to sing it the best."
Porter reached the party in exuberant spirits that betrayed not a hint of exhaustion which you would expect to seep in after his Superman showing all evening, "No," he said, "it's empowering. It's empowering to be able to play the role of a lifetime."
Clearly, he was aware of what he had just done. "I thought it was a wonderful night, and it was great to have The Moment. Y'know, it's been a year and some change to get all this together, and I love that we're here and now we can just play the show."
With Porter, appropriately, was co-star Sands, a solid return-the-serve performer who has the thankless chore of pulling the plot along pretty much by himself and gets to rest only when Porter feels a song coming on, which is often. He would be an unsung hero, were his last number ("The Soul of a Man") not so nicely nailed.
"I understand my role in this," Sands said. "In many ways, I'm the set-up guy and I'm the straight man, but the lovely thing is I have great moments, too, but I'm learning the way to assist and how to lop these things in Billy's direction so he can crack them out of the park. I feel good about that because it's a good challenge to be the one who's not flashy, not outrageous, not over-the-top — and still have to engage people's attention. That'll be a challenge I'll have to face for the rest of this run."
He felt the first-nighters were (in a good way) push-overs that didn't require extra sell from the rarin'-to-go performers. "There is this wonderful thing on opening night," he noted. "You have people who are already engaged. You don't have to win them over because they already love you, and so they're listening from the very first moment. Traditionally, typically, that first 15 minutes is crucial with us because the drag queens haven't showed up yet, and people who are there to see Kinky Boots are there, looking around, asking 'Where are the drag queens?' so it's up to us to hook them in the first 15 minutes. The nice thing about tonight was: We had 'em. We didn't have to do anything. But we did it anyway. It was built in."
Annaleigh Ashford, who started the season as the sad, toothless tart in the Dogfight competition, finished it pretty much on top of the world with a surefire shot at the Tony, as the love-struck factory-worker who wins Sands' heart. Talk about your everyman candidate, she was adorable — and everybody in the house knew it.
"It was magic," she assessed, still coming down from her triumph. "The audience totally understood what was happening and was with me every step of the way. I think we're telling a real story, and everyone in the audience can relate to every person on stage. It's exciting to watch. The heartbeat reaches the back of the house."
She was quick to lateral a lion's share of credit to Lauper. "…When she got to know me and Stark and Billy, she started writing not only for the character but for how we were playing the character, so I feel like we really got to collaborate within the songs. What she wrote for me — I mean, I couldn't possibly be more grateful to her than I am."
What she wrote for her was the ultimate sadder-but-wiser-girl lament, "The History of Wrong Guys," and Ashford wrung every laugh and emotion out of it, and, when it was over, she tucked the audience in her pocket and took them home with her.
Kudos, too, to her first Broadway director. "Jerry gave me my Broadway debut. He's directed two Broadway shows, and I'm proud to be in both: Legally Blonde and this."
Director Mitchell, tall and lanky as ever and graying (no doubt with cause!) around the edges, was blissed out over the good job his cast had done. "Billy's phenomenal," he started off. "He's one of those moments when the right role and the right actor come together. It reminds me of the first time I worked with Norbert [Leo Butz] in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and, the second time, in Catch Me If You Can — a role and an actor coming together and making that magical thing happen at just the right time.
"Stark also. The thing is Stark doesn't have the showy part. What's so great about his performance is, after he fires everybody and yells at Billy, then sings 'Soul of a Man,' you still hear the audience loves him. He just alienated everyone within distance — that is a real testament of just how much you love an actor just for being his person."
Ashford's triumph was a particular source of pride for him. "Annaleigh came in for Legally Blonde. She was the only actress to make me laugh on that first scene where she's supposed to be talking to the dog. I said to her, 'You're Goldie Hawn, aren't you?' I've been in love with her from that day on. She's a brilliant comic actress."
The extended applause that followed certain numbers was not unique to opening night, he said. "It's been like that for a lot of the performances. The numbers that continually get that kind of reaction are 'Sex Is in the Heel,' Annaleigh's number, Stark's number and Billy's 'Hold Me in Your Heart.' Those four numbers — depending on the audience and who they happen to be rooting for — those four numbers always tend to stop the show. And I don't like it when they stop the show, to be honest with you. I love them applauding, of course, but I like it to come at the end of the play."
He gave all hands a thumb's up. "I'm most proud because I think every actor on stage, even if they don't have a line — all the factory workers — are bringing something real and genuine to the stage. I knew I could do the drag stuff, but what I needed was some sense of reality that wasn't too dour — it's a musical, after all — and could give you the balance to that, so I went to Northampton and kinda hung out after we did our last reading. I wanted that real thing underneath it because ultimately it's an entertainment, but there's a message here that is a lot about what's happening in our country. People are coming together to do the right thing and accept people for who they are. And this show has a chance just to remind people."
Two factory-workers Mitchell plucked from the bump-and-grind chorus line that he choreographed for The Full Monty — Daniel Stewart Sherman as the beefy bully, Don, and Marcus Neville as the milquetoast assistant to Sands, George.
As the homophobe on the premises, Sherman gives some good conflicted traction to the show. "He's a decent guy who works hard and wants everything to be the way it was. When he makes a change, he accepts it and realizes he's in a better place."
Not enough. Don's final indignity is to take a precarious runway stroll in kinky boots. The audience roared. "It's work," he said, "but it's fun. They come up to just above the knee for me, but the heels are like four or five inches—not as high as Billy's."
Neville, who gets to don a pair for the finale, knew at first read of Kinky Boots what the character of George looked like. "When we did The Full Monty is London," the actor recalled, "there was a watch-repair store next door, and the man who ran it is my idea of George — a space between his teeth, funny hair, funny little glasses. Jerry kept saying, 'Go with it, go with it.' Then, Harvey would write me a new little line here and there. To have something tailored for you is what I long for in the theatre."
He agreed it was a terrific lift-off. "At any point in the evening, you could look across the stage and there'd be some actor crying — of joy! — on stage! Somebody singing a song and listening to somebody else talk and just all of a sudden move up stage, wipe a tear out and come back to the scene. It's just been a wonderful experience."
Stephen Berger, as the owner of the factory, doesn't live beyond the opening number, expiring as soon as he explains to his young son what "The Most Beautiful Thing" in the world is (shoes). "If my character didn't die, there'd be no show," he reasoned, "but I come back as a factory worker and a crossdresser. I'm hiding in the back the whole show — in big glasses and a hat. I'm hard to spot, but I'm there."
The shining moment for Adinah Alexander is fleeting but effective — an aggressively funny bit as a stage manager in Milan, where the shoes have been sent to be showcased. "It's an incredible company and piece," said Alexander. "I'm really proud to be a part of something so beautiful and joyful, with such a great message."
Celina Carnajal is Sands' self-centered and controlling fiancée — a deadly combo that makes her the odd woman out when Ashford enters the picture. The actress is comfortable with that: "I'm happy to be the one no one likes — also happy to support Billy and Stark in the story they have to tell. I love to share the stage with them."
Costumer Gregg Barnes, who took Tonys for draping The Drowsy Chaperone and Follies, designed the kinky boots as well as the costumes. "My story with the show parallels the story of the two leads. They're trying to design a boot that has a sexy, stiletto heel that a man can dance in and not break the heel. Of course, I have the same problem — maybe even more so because a lot of time the boots they made in the real factory were more for posing and strutting than just doing club-dancing. We have the A-list Broadway dancers dancing in these boots so there are certain requirements that have to do with function that I can't ignore. I can't just do wherever a flight of fancy takes me, so the art part of it comes after the function part of it."
He found director-choreographer Mitchell to be a terrific collaborator. "In fact, more than most directors, he really brings so much to the table. He will tear things out of magazines, things that inspire him, and will give them to me every time we meet."
At one point in the evening, Daryl Roth was the barefoot producer, holding the new silver slippers she'd bought for the occasion in her hand. "They were hurting my feet," said the lead producer of Kinky Boots. This project, six years in the development, began, as it should (but rarely does), with the lead producer.
"I saw it at Sundance at a screening in 2006 — it took me by surprise," she admitted. "At the time, I was on the board there and seeing a lot of films. When I saw Kinky Boots, my heart started pounding, and I said, 'Okay, this has to be a musical,' so I optioned it and started looking around for a partner to produce it with."
Enter Hal Luftig, who had seen the flick in London and already sensed (correctly) a cult for it forming. He thought a musical version was a capital idea (pun intended). "The story had huge heart, and it touched on all those great things that a musical should have," he explained. "It should have great characters. It should have an arc to it. You should have a character who starts in one place, and, at the end of the show — at the end of his journey — not only has he learned things about himself, but he has taught others things about themselves. This story had all of those markings."
"To carry Hal's thought a step further," Roth injected, "that is what we hope will be the effect on the audience — that people will get to know these people and take to heart their journey and think about it for themselves — accepting other people."
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