Kinky Boots: Is this a musical to fall head over heels for?

The Broadway hit is transferring to the West End, but how will it fare?

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

The heels are six inches tall, the legs above them long, lean, and shapely, and the smiles are 100-watt. But if you think musical theatre is all tits’n’teeth, then the stars of Kinky Boots fail on one count at least … the show’s most glamorous performers are cross-dressing men. You see, Kinky Boots began life as an independent British film in 2005, based on the true story of a Northampton shoe factory saved from bankruptcy by diversifying into making sexy heels for transvestites.

The film followed a fictional factory inheritor, Charlie, who finds business inspiration in a chance encounter with a drag queen named Lola – played brilliantly by Chiwetel Ejiofor. It was very much of-a-type: the plucky little Britcom celebrating working-class craft and community. And it’s inevitable that someone made a song-and-dance of it, following in the footsteps of similar heartstring-tuggers The Full Monty, Billy Elliot and Made in Dagenham.

Kinky Boots, the Musical opened on Broadway in 2013 and is still going strong there having proved a commercial and critical hit that won six Tony awards. Now, though, it’s finally coming back across the Atlantic, its pedigree preceding it: the music is by pop queen Cyndi Lauper and the book by Harvey Fierstein while direction and choreography comes from Jerry Mitchell, who steered other film-to-musical adaptations such as Legally Blonde and Hairspray.

AN77186652Rehearsals for th.jpg

Allowed to sit in on rehearsals, I can report that the flock of tall, strapping lads, thigh-muscles rippling above hot pink or patent yellow stilettos, are utterly fabulous. This is a chorus line that can really kick it: I wouldn’t be able to stand in these shoes, let alone dance. But they cartwheel, backflip and do the splits with snappy timing to match the poppy, high-energy blast of Lauper’s score.

“It’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever done,” says Matt Henry, who plays Lola and therefore spends much of the show in thigh-high, scarlet snakeskin boots. The chorus are Lola’s “angels” – backing dancers to her drag act. “Now I understand when I see girls holding their heels in their hands at the end of the night,” he adds – and this from one who, as a way to make cash between acting jobs, used to teach models to walk in heels. “That gave me a head start, but models walk down the catwalk and it’s over in three minutes; this show is running two hours and I’m continuously in them, perched.”

The boots prove as transformational onstage as they do in the film: “it wasn’t until you got the actual shoes – it’ll sound clichéd – but you became Lola,” interjects Killian Donnelly, who plays factory boss Charlie, about his co-star’s rehearsal arc. The final scene also sees Donnelly get his thigh-highs on: “I was like Bambi drunk, at the start!”. He laughs, but he’s become quite the convert. “There’s only one word for it – you feel ‘fabulous’.”

AN77254550Kinky Boots Londo.jpg
Killian Donnelly

Luckily, the boots are made-to-measure; costume designer Gregg Barnes is responsible for the splendid creations. And the first person to get a bespoke pair? Director Jerry Mitchell. This is hardly surprising: watching him at work, he’s a hands-on kinda guy, grooving along as they practice the finale. He also began rehearsals by taking the cast to Northampton, to meet the staff of Tricker’s – the shoe factory where the film was shot – to learn about the craft and to pick up the accent (critics took aim at the Broadway cast’s shaky British accents, but this lot have a dialect coach to help them nail Northampton.

Mitchell’s involvement in Kinky Boots stretches back to 2007, when producers Daryl Roth and Hal Luftig – whose brainwave the whole adaptation was – introduced him to the film. “I fell in love with it. There are a lot of things in it that work in musicals: you’re rooting for the underdog, and it’s about a little community who have to make a big change.”

He was also attracted to the father issues that run through the narrative. Charlie and Lola both feel they’re failing their dads: Charlie sweats under the pressure to make the business work, while Lola is rejected because of her flamboyant femininity.

AN77254551Kinky Boots Londo.jpg
Matt Henry

It’s this tug-of-war between pleasing others and being true to yourself that underpins their growing friendship. “Everyone has a father!” points out Mitchell laughingly, explaining the story’s universal appeal; Mitchell himself says he had difficultly living with the decision not to take over his father’s bar in Michigan. “We have to come to terms with the expectation of our parents: did we succeed or fail in their eyes?”

It was this angle that got actor and writer Fierstein on board too. He was initially wary of getting involved in a film-to-musical adaptation – understandably, given the number of them that have proved little more than franchise cash-ins. “I’d really enjoyed the film, I didn’t see any reason to do anything else with it. If you don’t have something to add to it, why bother?”

But when he went back to the film, he too was struck by the parental pressure plot: “Even children of the greatest parents grow up with holes in them. How do you heal that? I saw this great, very theatrical way to tell the story. A musical goes to a place that’s so deep inside that mere speaking doesn’t express it. Music is a universal language; it touches us in very mysterious ways.”

AN77254558Kinky Boots Cast .jpg
Killian Donnelly (Charlie), Matt Henry (Lola), Amy Lennox (Lauren)

And the woman that Fierstein asked to craft this music was Lauper. It is her first musical, and has been a triumph: the score won her one of the show’s Tonys. “My mom used to buy all the cast recordings of the big Broadway shows when I was growing up and we’d sing along to them, act out the parts,” she recalls. “And the story of Kinky Boots was something I related to so much – being the outsider, wanting to connect and find a community. There are a lot of stories within the musical, but the connecting fibre is about acceptance, love, friendship and redemption … and the best songs are about these topics.”

Yes, the show has a romance; no, sadly it isn’t Charlie, Lola and two pairs of kinky boots … it’s the more heteronormative option of Charlie and fellow factory worker Lauren, played by Amy Lennox. But even Lennox acknowledges that the real heart of the show is Charlie and Lola’s friendship: “the amount of times I’ve cried [in rehearsals] – in a good way! Lola and Charlie have such a journey, the way they come to understand each other at the end, it’s just lovely.”

As you might be grasping, this is a resolutely feelgood show – just like the film in fact. The ‘kinky’, Mitchell tells me, belongs only to the boots: this is family-friendly entertainment in which the underdog triumphs, where people comes to accept each other no matter how outlandishly they dress, and where true love will find you in the end. The messages ain’t exactly envelope pushing, but they are positive, promoting equality across race, gender and sexuality.

And they’re hoping this will mean it appeals to a broad audience. “If you’re black, white, gay, straight, there’s so much that people can relate to,” says Donnelly. “The message is just: be who you want to be. People are different – accept them for who they are.”

Kinky Boots is at the Adelphi, London, 21 Aug to  6 Feb;

Book tickets for Kinky Boots with Independent Tickets

Comments