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Harvey Fierstein – Kinky Boots

"Are ya’ ready for me?” asks Harvey Fierstein in his Brooklyn rasp, a voice familiar to several generations of theatre, film and TV watchers familiar with the New York born writer and actor’s turns in his early play, Torch Song Trilogy, to re-creating the role of Edna Turnblad, a part he won a Tony award for in the original Broadway musical adaptation of John Waters’ film. In-between, there have been guest slots in everything from The Simpsons to the more recent BoJack Horseman, while as a writer he won another Tony for La Cage Aux Folles, and has penned a stream of Broadway shows.

It’s snowing outside, and Fierstein is talking about the UK tour of Kinky Boots, his own adaptation of the very English film inspired by the true story of what happened when a struggling Northampton shoe factory branched out into making customised leather boots for drag queens. This is done through the figures of prodigal sons Charlie and Lola. As Charlie attempts to bring his father’s factory into the modern world, Lola provides the insider knowledge on the sort of engineering required to make footwear that is strong as well as glamorous. While in part a story of a working class community surviving against all odds, Kinky Boots also looks at how two generations of men come to terms with each other.

“We don’t really talk about fathers and sons," says Fierstein, “and here’s a show that does talk about it, and which is really about these two families. It gets to that place, where a father realises that all those expectations he has of what he wants his son to be aren’t going to happen. None of us ever grow up to be what our families want us to be, and here we have Charlie’s father, a fifth generation shoe-maker who wants nothing more than for his son to take over the business, and Lola’s father, who wanted his son to learn to box. Through Charlie and Lola’s friendship, they realise that the things their fathers wanted for them were done with love and for a reason. Lola realises that his father taught him how to box because he recognised that he’d have to take care of himself and be able to fight back.”

Fierstein first became involved in putting Kinky Boots onstage in 2006, a year after the Geoff Deane and Tim Firth scripted film had been released. With top Broadway director Jerry Mitchell already on board, a dream team was quickly put in place. 

“I’d seen the movie and loved it,” says Fierstein, “and I thought it was perfect as it was. Then I looked at it again and saw we could take it further in a way that would work as a musical. Music enters your external life and enters your mind in a way that words don’t, and I felt it could have a good response with people if we did it that way. It already lent itself to music because of Lola’s club act. That was a no-brainer, and that was when I called my pal Cyndi.”

Fierstein is referring to Cyndi Lauper, the multi-million selling singer/songwriter, who first came to prominence in the 1980s with hit singles Girls Just Want to Have Fun and Time After Time. In what was her first work as a composer and lyricist on a Broadway show, Lauper’s pop sensibilities slotted in perfectly with Fierstein’s way with a musical, as the pair discovered working on the show over the next two years. After opening in Chicago before transferring to Broadway, Kinky Boots went on to win six Tony awards, including Best Musical and Best Score. Following its 2015 London run, Mitchell’s production of Fierstein and Lauper’s show went on to win three Olivier awards.

“Kinky Boots took four years to write,” says Fierstein. “You can never tell how long these things are going to take. Jerry Herman and I wrote La Cage Aux Folles in six months, but there were long pauses with Kinky Boots. Cyndi was on tour and did two albums, I wrote another musical, Newsies, with Alan Menken and Jack Feldman, and Jerry was doing his stuff, so we were all busy people, but we got there in the end.”

While much of the power of Kinky Boots comes from its musical numbers, there is more going on behind them that seems to chime with the times. As Fierstein points out, “It does have a sort of message, and that’s to just be who you’re supposed to be, and there’s something lovely in that.”

Fierstein was hoping to be in the UK to see part of the current tour of Kinky Boots, but scheduling of a new show he’s currently working on alongside other commitments look set to prevent his visit, proving just how busy a person he still is.

“I’m actually a lazy bitch,” he says. “The thing is, it’s so much fun to do what you love doing. If you don’t love what you’re doing, there aren’t enough hours in the day to do it, and if you do love what you do, there aren’t enough hours in the day to do it. I consider myself one of the luckiest people on the planet. I do what I love, and I get to work with some of the best people in the world.” 

This is borne out by the longevity of Kinky Boots, which has been produced all over the world, and looks set to be performed on a cruise ship in a couple of years. 

“It’s been everywhere,” says Fierstein, “and there’s a reason for that. The last time I saw it, I was standing at the back of the theatre, and I’d forgotten that uplifting feeling it gives you. You see young people and old people there, all up on their feet, and it’s wonderful.”

Such cross-generational appeal is a crucial factor of the Kinky Boots success story.

“Most musicals are romances,” Fierstein points out. “Boy meets girl, boy and girl get together, boy and girl get married and live happy ever after, and they’re all about this couple. Kinky Boots isn’t like that. It’s about two families who are complete opposites, and they heal through each other, so it’s not a silly musical. Not that I don’t love a silly musical. Who doesn’t? So go on. You go have a good time on me and Cyndi.”

Kinky Boots – The Playhouse, Edinburgh until January 5 2019; His Majesty’s Theatre, Aberdeen, April 23-May 4 2019; King’s Theatre, Glasgow, May 6-18 2019.
www.atgtickets.com
www.playhousetheatre.com
www.aberdeenperformingarts.com

The Herald, December 11th 2018

ends


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