Arts and Entertainment

I Am Woman: Cyndi Lauper

1980s pop sensation extends her voice to Broadway’s ‘Kinky Boots’

In 2013, Cyndi Lauper made history as the first woman, without a writing partner, to win the Tony Award for best score for “Kinky Boots.” Denver-based arts journalist John Moore interviewed Lauper in 2014 for the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, used with permission.

Penn State's Center for the Performing Arts will present “Kinky Boots” in Eisenhower Auditorium April 9–10.

John Moore: In this era of Broadway musicals that are based on an existing movie title or the catalog of a popular band’s songs, how do you think “Kinky Boots” broke through and rose to the top of the theater world?

Cyndi Lauper made history as the first woman, without a writing partner, to win the Tony Award for best score for “Kinky Boots.” Credit: Gavin BondAll Rights Reserved.

Cyndi Lauper: I think the answer is kind of a simple one. It’s because the show has a huge heart, and people respond to that. It’s a story about love and acceptance and friendship and overcoming obstacles, and everyone can relate to that. Harvey Fierstein is one of Broadway’s great talents, and the book is so very, very good. It was an honor to collaborate with Harvey and tell the story of Lola and Charlie.

JM: You join rock artists like Neil Young, Duncan Sheik, Sting and the Flaming Lips who have made the crossover into Broadway, not by capitalizing on their existing songbooks but by writing original musicals for the theater. How is writing for the stage different from writing songs for yourself?

CL: It’s very different. Your job as the composer of a musical is to move the story forward with the songs. You have to write for many voices and from all the characters’ perspectives. And I had a blast doing that. There were songs that I wrote that I really loved that didn’t make the show because maybe there was a change in the book or there was a different arch for a character and the story and therefore the song had to change. For my own CDs, when I write a song that I love, it makes my records! LOL! And, of course, when I write for myself, I’m writing from my perspective. It’s the story I am trying to tell through the songs on the album to my fans.

Watch a preview of “Kinky Boots.” Credit: Center for the Performing Arts

JM: Of all your wonderful and timeless songs over your career, it appears that “True Colors” has really grown in stature over the years, becoming a kind of anthem of hope for today’s youth. How does that make you feel, and can you tell us a little about what that song means to you?

CL: When I recorded that song, a very good friend of mine was dying from AIDS. He had a horrific childhood. He had been abused. The main reason he was abused was because he was gay. He became homeless really young. When he was dying, he asked me to record a song so that he would not be forgotten. He was a beautiful person, a really kind and gentle soul who was told from a very early age that he was no good, that who he was as a person was not acceptable. And that just wasn’t true. So I sang the song for Gregory and for everyone who has been rejected for being who they are or for anyone who feels unloved.

I think that it still resonates today because unfortunately we still have bias, and we still have bullying ... We still have hatred ... Because we live in the digital age, the world has gotten smaller. Ya think that would have made us more open and accepting. If we all could just accept each other for who we are the world would be a beautiful place! That's also the message of “Kinky Boots”!

JM: Live theater historically struggles for a young audience. Why does “Kinky Boots” buck the trend?

CL: I tried really hard to write songs that could also live outside of the theater, ya know? Before radio, Broadway music was popular music. People bought sheet music and played the music at home with their families. Basically, Broadway was top 40, and I really tried hard to honor that tradition with “Kinky Boots” by writing songs that people would want to listen to at home after leaving the theater or without even seeing the show.

JM: What do you think is essential for new musicals today to capture the hearts of young theatergoers?

CL: If young people don't discover Broadway, then Broadway will die with the generation that grew up with Broadway, and that would be a tragedy. So it’s important that Broadway musicals and plays are written to live in the modern world.

JM: Your life changed seemingly overnight in 1983. What do you think would have become of you if “She’s So Unusual” had never been released?

CL: I didn’t really change overnight. I had been in bands and gigging since I was 20. My band Blue Angel got signed to Polydor when I was 27, and we had some moderate success. We also had done some pretty big tours both in the United States and in Europe. And I loved those guys, and I loved that band. We were doing rockabilly, and we might have been a bit before our time. The Stray Cats came out years later and really brought that genre out to the forefront again.

I signed my solo deal with Portrait at 29, and the album came out when I was 30. And unlike when you are in a band, I was able to really fully become the artist I wanted to be. It was all my vision, what I wanted to say, how I wanted to say it, what I wanted to look like, and that was so empowering. And, of course, to have five hit singles off of that album was just unbelievable. I don't know what would have become of me, but I would definitely sing, and I would definitely write songs. One of the jobs I had in the beginning of my career was singing at a Japanese piano bar in New York City. Maybe I would have went back there and asked for my job back.

JM: How does it feel to be thought of as a musical — and fashion — role model for the likes of Lady Gaga, Katy Perry and Nicki Minaj?

CL: They are all great artists. If they look to me as a role model, then I am flattered. I think, as women, we all need to be able to see another woman doing what we dream of doing to know that it’s possible. There are so many women who I looked to for inspiration — Janis Joplin and Joni Mitchell and Cher — all of these women who came before me to help light the path, and if I paid that gift forward that makes me feel really good.

Last Updated February 28, 2019