So many elements have to come together for a Broadway musical to soar into the Tony Award stratosphere.
An engaging book and powerful score are vital, of course; so are a director with vision, a strong choreographer, a great cast, an inspired creative team. For the show coming to Miami’s Arsht Center on Tuesday, one particular piece of the puzzle got a huge amount of attention: the footwear.
“If Kinky Boots is in the title of the show, you realize from Day One, ‘I better not mess this up,’” says Gregg Barnes, a two-time Tony winner for costume design.
Based on the 2005 movie of the same name, Kinky Boots features a Tony-winning score by Grammy winner Cyndi Lauper; a script by multiple Tony winner Harvey Fierstein; and direction and Tony-winning choreography by Jerry Mitchell, whose most recent credit is On Your Feet!, the hit musical about Miami music legends Gloria and Emilio Estefan.
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In pulling off yet another of Broadway’s popular movie-to-musical projects, there was plenty at stake for everyone. Pop-rock legend Lauper, for instance, had a huge string of hits — Girls Just Want To Have Fun, Time After Time, True Colors, All Through the Night are just a few — but she had never tried writing a story- and character-driven score. Mitchell, a dazzling and sought-after showman, had already brought his golden touch as a choreographer to The Full Monty, Hairspray, the Tony-winning revival of La Cage aux Folles and so many other shows. So how to top himself?
If ‘Kinky Boots’ is in the title of the show, you realize from Day One, ‘I better not mess this up.’
Gregg Barnes, costume designer
But first, about those boots, their importance and the challenges in making them.
Kinky Boots tells the story of a failing family shoe factory in Northampton, England. Charlie Price, the owner’s son, is off to London with his materialistic fiancée, but his father’s abrupt death forces his return. The competition from far cheaper Chinese imports seems to spell doom for Price & Son.
But before Charlie can pull the plug on the family business, a chance encounter with a drag diva named Lola leads to a revamping of the factory: Instead of turning out sensible, expensive, decidedly unstylish shoes, Price & Son will make fabulous spike-heeled boots for entertainers like Lola.
Kinky Boots isn’t about the boots, of course. Its deeper themes have to do with the relationships between sons and disappointed fathers, with acceptance of differences and finding your real passion.
Still, just as Lola and her fellow drag queens discover in the show, there are issues in making sexy boots for men who dress as women. Slender heels, for instance, can break if a man is the one dancing in them.
“I’m not a stranger to collaborating with cobblers,” says Barnes, who worked with Gino Bifulco of Manhattan’s T.O. Dey’s Shoes to create the show’s spectacular array of boots. “You have to make sure they hold up and make sure the dancers aren’t injured. You can buy a pair of $69 boots from China, but you can’t do the splits in them like they do in the show.”
Engineering the boots involves more than meets the bedazzled eye.
“You might have a 6 1/2-inch heel, but it’s on a 2-inch platform,” Barnes says. “You put memory foam in the ball of the foot, and a steel shank with a steel pin through it in the heel, like a bolt. They’re a fortress, those boots.”
Mitchell, the director-choreographer, also made an important contribution in making the boots work for even the burly “factory workers” in the cast, Barnes says.
“Jerry is such a man of the theater. He had worked on a TV special with [dance legend] Cyd Charisse, and she showed him a trick: Putting shading on the inside of the heel makes it look more delicate,” Barnes says. “We do it on a couple of the factory people. It’s our shout out to Cyd Charisse.”
Mitchell laces the show with plenty of show-stopping moments, but arguably none so memorable as his staging of the Act One finale, Everybody Say Yeah. The director visited three shoe factories in Northampton and London before he went to work on Kinky Boots, and he observed that shoes were taken from worker to worker on trolleys as they were made. But Fierstein’s script had the footwear coming out on conveyor belts, so Mitchell’s imagination ran with that.
“I had one built four feet off the floor, with no bars, and I fell off three or four times testing it. So we added safety bars, and a dial so you could change the speed, slow for the shoes and faster for dancing,” Mitchell says. “We tested five different versions over six months. They would bring each one to rehearsals on a flatbed truck, and I’d get on it outside and dance ... There are no tracks in the downstage part of the floor. We created the set to be moved by the factory workers so no one’s heel would get caught.”
As far as the show’s glamorous costumes go, the designer drew inspiration from real-life divas for several of Lola’s outfits, including a daywear look similar to one Mary J. Blige once wore and a glittering white gown somewhat like one Whitney Houston wore to perform at the VMAs. Some costumes were designed and made but scrapped during the show’s Chicago tryout, a fact of Broadway life and part of the creative process.
Some songs I loved I had to get rid of because they weren’t right for the character.
Cyndi Lauper, ‘Kinky Boots’ composer
Lauper, who made her Broadway composing debut with Kinky Boots, knows all about trying out multiple versions of things, scrapping numbers that didn’t feel quite right; for the finale, director Mitchell notes, “she wrote three different songs.”
Says Lauper, “Some songs I loved I had to get rid of because they weren’t right for the character.”
The singer-songwriter, who scored four top-five hits on the Billboard Hot 100 charts with her 1983 debut album She’s So Unusual, was recruited for the Kinky Boots team by her longtime friend and fellow LGBT activist Fierstein. She put things together in a basement studio or sang numbers into her iPhone — “her melodies were so beautiful,” Mitchell says — then Tony-winning orchestrator-arranger Stephen Oremus went to work.
Though Lauper’s Broadway experience was scant (she appeared in a production of The Threepenny Opera in 2006), the sounds of Broadway had been familiar to the rocker since childhood.
“My mom had all these cast albums — Funny Girl, My Fair Lady, South Pacific — and I sang all of them, all the parts. That’s how I played,” says Lauper, who was raised in Queens. “I walked around like Stanley Holloway [Alfred P. Doolittle in My Fair Lady] for a long time. I sang like him.”
Part of what spoke to Lauper in doing Kinky Boots was Fierstein’s focus on one of the things the seemingly different Charlie and Lola have in common: a sense of letting their disapproving fathers down. She turned the idea into one of the show’s most powerful and heartfelt songs, Not My Father’s Son.
“We all have this inadequate feeling about how we live up to our parents’ spoken or unspoken expectations,” Lauper says. “Everybody has these feelings. Eventually, you have to heal yourself.”
J. Harrison Ghee, the actor who stars as Lola in the touring Kinky Boots, doesn’t have to draw solely on imagination and his interpretive skills to play a drag diva whose female persona alienates his father. But Ghee’s personal story has a happier resolution, one that Kinky Boots helped bring about.
“I’ve been doing drag for five years. The cast jokes, ‘You are Lola,’” says Ghee, who performs as Crystal Demure and is billed as the Drag Queen of Soul. “I definitely have the upper hand in understanding the lifestyle of drag cabaret performers.”
But the North Carolina native has had his emotional moments, particularly when he sings Not My Father’s Son. His father, the Rev. Harry Ghee, is a pastor with a doctorate in history and philosophy. The minister didn’t know about his son’s drag life, but the whole family came to see him play Lola in March and loved the show.
“He said he was proud of who and what I am. It changed our relationship dynamic in the best way,” Ghee says. “I believe the show connects with people who want to be accepted and loved for who we are as individuals — especially by their parents.”
Ghee is now playing opposite Adam Kaplan as Charlie. Kaplan most recently appeared in Disney’s Newsies, and though the shows are different, the actor thinks that the Newsies message — step up, take charge, seize the day — isn’t dissimilar to what Kinky Boots is trying to say.
“It does the same thing regarding what’s going on with the LGBT community. To spread joy and understanding throughout the country is important,” he says. “People end up embracing and loving it, even in more conservative markets. At the end, the audience is on its feet.”
Of Ghee, he adds, “He’s just the sweetest, a big ol’ diva. He leads the company with such energy and grace. He’s so much fun to work with.”
The actors, Lauper and Mitchell all take pride in a show that entertains yet goes deeper.
“The show is heartwarming. I feel grateful I’m a part of it,” Lauper says. “It makes people happy.”
Adds Mitchell, “First and foremost, I love to entertain people. But if something can make your life better, that’s icing on the cake. A lot of people, especially young people who feel like they’re invisible or don’t matter, tell me that the show expresses who they are. Or it helps their family accept them more openheartedly.”
If you go
What: ‘Kinky Boots’ by Cyndi Lauper and Harvey Fierstein.
Where: Ziff Ballet Opera House at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami (returns to Fort Lauderdale’s Broward Center March 1-13).
When: 8 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Dec. 12, 1 and 7 p.m. Dec. 13.
Information: 305-949-6722 or www.arshtcenter.org.