In the past year, the '80s pop star has published a memoir and launched a reality show. Now she's composed the music for ''Kinky Boots''— and it's her most memorable work in years.
Cyndi Lauper has crafted one of the best pop albums of 2013. It’s an extraordinary collection of songs that touch on most every sonic obsession the ”Girls Just Want to Have Fun” icon has embraced over her three-decade career: thumping dance music, gloriously lush balladry, effervescent radio fizz, pageant-ready torch songs, and even some good old-fashioned bar-band stomp.
Here’s the catch: She doesn’t sing any of the songs herself. Instead, they are delivered by the cast of Kinky Boots, the new Broadway musical for which Lauper provided her first theatrical score. Though the songs won’t be rendered with her signature Queens-bred snarl-croon, Lauper, 59, is confident they retain her particular attitude. ”I was all those people as I was writing,” she insists. ”I used to listen on my mother’s stereo and could sing all the songs from West Side Story, from My Fair Lady, from Camelot. I was Julie Andrews, I was Rex Harrison, I was all the casts. That’s how I went at this.”
While Lauper’s musical education began with ”I Could Have Danced All Night,” her rebellious nature took over as a teen. ”I studied at the Lennie Tristano school of jazz,” she says. ”I got thrown out, of course. I didn’t want to quit the rock band and be a full-time jazz singer, even though they said, ‘Oh, you’re a natural jazz singer.’ I thought, ‘There’s not enough Prozac in the world to make me a full-time jazz singer.”’ Following a failed stint with a band called Blue Angel, Lauper turned to club music and released her solo debut, She’s So Unusual, in 1983. The album went platinum six times and spawned instant classics like ”She Bop” and ”Time After Time.”
All her influences made their way into Kinky Boots. The show, which has already had a critically beloved pre-Broadway run in Chicago and opens on Broadway April 4, is based on the 2005 British film of the same name. It tells the story of the uneasy alliance between shoemaker Charlie Price and a drag queen named Lola, who inspires him to save the factory his father left him by shifting business toward stiletto boots designed for cross-dressers. Actors Stark Sands and Billy Porter both turn in star-making performances as Charlie and Lola, but the real showstoppers are the trio who crafted the project: Lauper, script writer Harvey Fierstein, and director Jerry Mitchell.
Lauper and Mitchell go way back. ”We’ve known each other for a long time,” he says. ”I first choreographed for Cyn when she did a remake of ‘Girls Just Want to Have Fun’ at the Gay Games [in 1994]. She’s a great songwriter, and her ability to speak for underdogs has been incredible. She’s brought all of her pop experience to Broadway.”
As with most Broadway musicals, Kinky Boots came together in fits and starts. Fierstein, who had worked with Mitchell on Hairspray, turned around a rough script in about a month. And in fall 2008, after submitting two sample songs — the show-opening ”The Most Beautiful Thing in the World” and the vampy anthem ”Sex Is in the Heel” — Lauper was brought on to tackle the score. That ended up being a prolonged process. Lauper did an overseas tour, which she’d already committed to, while Fierstein wrote the book for Newsies and traveled for a year performing in Fiddler on the Roof. Though she had never constructed a project of this size, Lauper’s tenacity kept the train moving. ”She had no ego,” says Fierstein. ”Most composers want the score to sound like them. Cyndi only cared that every number sounded like the character. She gave every character a sound of their own, and she understood their psychology. That’s a terrific thing that not many people can do.”
That uniqueness has fueled Lauper’s entire career. She recently attended a New York concert by pop duo and former tourmates Tegan and Sara, who paid tribute to her with a cover of Prince’s ”When You Were Mine” (which Lauper also recorded for She’s So Unusual). For Lauper, the biggest thrill was the after-party. ”It’s fun because I get to hang out with people who still feel excited and haven’t been disappointed yet. They’re still almost famous,” she says. ”Once you’re famous, they really try to put the brain braces on you and make you think about what people want. I always thought people wanted authenticity.”
Kinky Boots caps off not only a lifetime of passion for Broadway musicals but also a tireless year that has included her own WE reality series, a memoir, and benefits she hosted for her True Colors Fund, which works to end homelessness among LGBT youth. And that’s not counting her home life with her husband of 22 years, actor David Thornton, and their 15-year-old son, Declyn. Lauper’s extended victory lap is well earned, and her influence reaches from Katy Perry’s take on girl-friendly sexuality to Lady Gaga’s New Yawk-centric embrace of theatrics and all-creeds openness. ”I can hear myself everywhere — I’m not deaf,” Lauper says. ”But a lot of people inspired me. You get from everybody, and you give. It’s a whole cycle. I love music, and I will always listen to and make music. I heard Cher say she’ll probably still be standing with the cockroaches. I’m with her.”
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