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The half-strangled rasp as he asks, “How’s Chic-aw-go?” announces the speaker as (who else?) Harvey Fierstein. The four-time Tony winner calls while driving to rehearsals in New York for Kinky Boots, the new musical for which he’s written the book and for which Cyndi Lauper has composed the score. Based on a 2005 British movie, the show follows Charlie Price, whose chance encounter with drag-queen Lola leads to Charlie’s plan to resurrect his family’s struggling shoe factory—by making shoes for men who dress as women. The five-week pre-Broadway run plays the Bank of America Theatre starting Tuesday 2.
Kinky Boots recalls Billy Elliot and The Full Monty: musicals based on British films about a community facing tough economic times and sexual acceptance.
Movies are all about plot. Theater, even if it’s story heavy, it’s about ideas. Theater has to resonate in your heart in a way that movies don’t.
So what is the idea in Kinky Boots for you?
You’ve got two guys who are damaged goods, both damaged by what their fathers think of them.
Did your relationship with your own dad inform your attraction to this story?
Unfortunately, my father died when I was, like, 20, but no, my father was quite the opposite. My father was brought up in an orphanage in the Catskills. He was a factory worker. And because his family wasn’t there for him, family was everything. We could disagree inside the house, but outside the house it was us against the world. So when I became a drag actor, he looked sideways but said okay.
Cyndi Lauper’s debut album came out in ’83, a year after your breakout hit on Broadway with Torch Song Trilogy. Is that generational kinship part of the connection here?
We obviously have lots in common, though she comes from Queens and I come from Brooklyn. [Laughs] I’ve always appreciated her artistically, and I’ve always believed that she’s very underrated, which happens partly because she’s a woman and partly because she has that accent. But what she did [here] is so fucking amazing.
A thread tying this play to some of your other work, like Torch Song and La Cage aux Folles, is of course the drag-queen character. Why that abiding interest in cross-dressing?
It’s a magnifier. There’s some people, like a Beckett, who use the clown or the hobo in their work. To me [it’s] the female impersonator or the drag queen. They are people who have made a decision to go against the easy road and to be themselves in a way that’s very different, so it’s very theatrical. A drag queen walks onstage and you immediately say, Okay, somebody [Laughs] has decided not to put on a suit and tie today, and it makes you interested in their story. And it’s very sexy. Have you ever cross-dressed? Have you been brave enough to try it?
No—well, maybe when I was about five.
Okay, well, try it sometime. You will find that as you put on the clothes of the other sex, there’s a freedom that happens. Whether it’s a clown putting white makeup on or putting on a mask, there’s a freedom that happens by doing something taboo.
Will you pick out the dress for me?
Um, you know, probably not. [Laughs] I’m not a drag queen, I’m not a transvestite. I don’t have—well, that’s not true, I have a big carton of dresses down in my basement at the moment—but I don’t have any dresses that I would wear around the house. I mean, it’s just not me. I do it for a living. I do love doing it. And maybe because I do it for a living, I don’t do it in personal life. But it’s a very powerful thing. Ask any woman putting on pants.
You’ve tweeted a lot about celebrity deaths: Michael Clarke Duncan, Nora Ephron, Dick Clark. With your mom’s passing at age 90 this year, are you thinking more about mortality?
No, I don’t think so. I don’t believe in the afterlife, so I do think when somebody passes, it’s worthy of note. My mom’s passing was natural and yet difficult. There’s nothing easy about losing your mother. My mother’s death was about making sure she didn’t suffer. That was my brother’s and my concern. We didn’t want her in pain and we didn’t want her scared and we didn’t want her in a hospital or in a strange place. And we got our wishes.
Two years ago, you said of Obama, “He’s just not brave.” Has he done right by the gays?
I’m very glad he’s evolving. I was thrilled with his coming out in favor of marriage equality. I’m thrilled he got rid of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Those were two incredibly brave things to do, a lot braver than Bill Clinton. I am thrilled when I watch the DNC to see we’re talked about prominently. It’s not like watching the Republican convention. I just was embarrassed for the Log Cabins—this kowtowing they’re doing to be there. Anyway, let’s skip the politics. So, are you gonna go get a dress?
You make a good case, Harvey.
If I were you, I’d at least get a pair of panty hose. Put on a pair of panty hose and put your pants on, and go to work. I hear there’s nothing like it. [Cackles]
Kinky Boots begins Tuesday 2 at the Bank of America Theatre.