Even before this year’s Tonys, the legendary Cyndi Lauper was already considered a champion. A champion of the Grammys. A champion of the pop charts. A champion of gay rights.
But as a teary-eyed Lauper accepted her Best Original Score statue for the music of Kinky Boots (it also won Best Musical, for a total of six Tonys), the Broadway coming-of-age sensation about a drag queen and a shoemaker as unlikely business partners, she was recognized for something she had never been before: The girl who just wanted to have fun, with her apple-red hair and heavy Queens accent, was now a champion of the Broadway stage.
Between gigs on her current She’s So Unusual Tour, Lauper gave us a ring recently to chat about her emotional night at the Tonys, freaking out rock stars with her “wildly nutty” persona and the reason she’s always stood up for her gay fans.
Big congrats on Kinky Boots and the Tony, Cyndi. Could you feel the good gay vibes that night?
Aw, thank you. It was unbelievable. And yes. Yes, I did. It was a shock.
This is one of the first times in a while you’ve been recognized on a mainstream level for your work. Was that at all on your mind as your name was being called? Was it maybe the cause of some of those tears?
Well, we worked really hard, and to have it be successful – and to be able to get to work with Harvey Fierstein and Jerry Mitchell, and see them that night – was great, but then to actually win a Tony was really unbelievable. Yeah, I wasn’t even thinking. To have the [theater] community welcome me in like that, that was really something. You don’t always get welcomed into a place, especially if you kind of, you know, talk a little funny. But that doesn’t matter. I was just really touched by that.
Is that what was going through your mind when you won? That feeling of acceptance from the theater community?
I was just looking at everything, thinking, “Remember that you’re here. You made it to the winners’ circle.” And then when they announced my name, I looked over at [Kinky Boots actress] Annaleigh [Ashford] in shock, but I was excited for Billy [Porter, who won for best lead actor in a musical]; I was excited to see him and John Shivers [winner of best musical sound design], who graciously did everything to make that sound warm and welcoming.
Being the first woman to have won a solo Tony for Best Original Score is also a historical moment. Knowing that, how does it feel to break down gender barriers in that way?
I’m excited. I mean, they don’t put us in the rice fields anymore, so that’s good! [Laughs] And there’s more of me coming up. I’m excited that I was able to do that, but I also feel like I just wanted to do a really good job. That was really important. But hey, I’m big on firsts! It’s important to widen the horizon.
For years you’ve been sticking up for the underdogs – particularly, and obviously, the gay community.
I’m a friend and family member, so of course. And we were all able to come together, at this one point, with everyone who’s worked at fighting for equality in the community for so long. This was an opportunity for everybody to step up at the right time, in the right moment – all of us together – and make a “little fable,” as Harvey likes to say, and put together some ideas in a catchy, rhythmic way. It’s to have people understand, because you can tell people stuff, but when you hear people’s personal experiences, that’s different. That’s way different.
This does feel very relevant to what’s going on in the world right now. It’s like a love letter to the gay community. Was that at all one of your reasons for taking on Kinky Boots in the first place?
I took on Kinky Boots years ago. But yeah, I’m very excited that that’s the case – so is Harvey and so is Jerry and so are all of us, even the producers. This is a very key time for people to have an understanding about other people, to understand that you can overcome differences by acceptance and work together for the higher good.
In a sense, all of us can relate to drag performer Lola, played by Billy Porter, who struggles for acceptance. I sense that you two might have a lot in common. What do you think?
I was Lola for a long time before Billy showed up! [Laughs] Harvey was Lola, too. And then there was Billy. But I was all those characters. You have to be.
What was your personal relationship to Kinky Boots?
That Lola is a drag performer is inconsequential to the idea that here are people totally different from each other but yet they have something in common; they have the human being experience in common. I think everyone, no matter what, might or must feel at one point that they disappointed their dad. It’s about overcoming and acceptance, you know. And healing.
Thirty or 40 years ago, did you see Broadway in your future?
Forty years ago? No! No, no. I was just trying to get the hell out of those clubs.
Thirty years ago?
No. I wanted to record music. I was very excited about recording music.
So when did Broadway become a reality for you?
When Harvey called me. It was Harvey’s thing. He basically took me under his wing.
What are the kinkiest boots you have in your closet?
All kinds of boots. I’ve got the big, red boots with the straps and buckles. I got a lot of boots! I don’t think of them as kinky; I think of them as pretty and sexy.
What’s it like touring for your very first album, She’s So Unusual?
Well, it’s the anniversary, so this tour’s a little different because I’m actually singing the record the way it was recorded.
What’s it like to have that, your earliest career accomplishment, intersect with the success of Kinky Boots, your latest accomplishment?
It’s odd. I didn’t know I was gonna win the Tony, and I didn’t know that Kinky Boots would be nominated 13 times. So then we had to work, so I went to work. But I had no idea. I thought, “Well, I’ll have off in May, Tonys will come in June, then the tour.”
How has your relationship with the songs on She’s So Unusual changed since you wrote and recorded them for the first time over 30 years ago?
I listen to it and understand why some other rock ’n’ rollers were frightened of me. It was a little different and confusing, I guess, for some people. It was funny, wildly nutty and yet it had some very deep moments, which must have been very confusing. Though I think it made perfect sense. It was very much me.
Are you still so unusual?
I don’t know. I never really thought I was to begin with. The only reason we called it that was because we were doing “He’s So Unusual” with “Yeah Yeah” and [producer] Bill [Wittman] turned around and said, “She’s so unusual.” And then we’re like, “Oh yeah, that’s a great title.” I knew for the rest of my life that’d be my handle … but, you know, I was a good sport! I never really thought I was that different. I thought what I wanted to do was different. The artistic things I wanted to do, maybe they were very different.
What can we expect from the next album?
I don’t know. My upcoming project is to take some time and sit on my big ol’ butt and not think for two seconds … and then it’ll come to me. Yes, I do want to do something else. I would like to work with Jerry; I’d like to work with Harvey. But right now I’m on tour. Maybe that was a good thing. Get away from it and think about what I’d like to do, and then choose wisely.
Few performers have the connection you do with the gay community. Reflecting on your career, when did you decide to take the community under your wing?
Well, I always saw people being discriminated against – my friends and people that I work with. At first, I was going to just take refuge and sing in the clubs at night. I thought, “Hey, that’s a lot of fun.” But when I couldn’t take the conservative straight community, I would run home kind of, and then I started seeing a lot of disparity going on, things that were wrong. I just felt like, “These are my fans. You gotta help them have more love for themselves.” As they were taking civil rights away, I thought, “Somebody better say something. And in two seconds, I will.” And I did.
I had seen Harvey Fierstein speak and he said something once, that happy people don’t self-destruct – and I thought, “That’s right.” That’s all you want. People are different, but as long as they’re all happy, healthy-minded people then we’re all doing good, and how can I kind of change the image for them?
And then one thing led to another. First it was just some T-shirts. It was talking at Cher’s concert. It was doing stuff with [my sister] Ellen for PFLAG. One thing led to another till I saw more opportunities. We did the True Colors Tour. I wanted my own tour and everyone said, “Why don’t you call it True Colors?” I said, “We can’t call it True Colors without including the community, because this song has become a very important song for the community.” I started to see more and more what could and should be done. With the Give a Damn Campaign, I saw an opportunity because I’m straight. I thought, “I shouldn’t be the only straight guy here. In every civil rights movement, you need everybody to stand up.”
I think everybody coming from all sides breaks down the walls a little bit. Things are changing. You have to just get your foot in the door so it doesn’t close, and then keep widening that door till it opens.
Chris Azzopardi is the editor of Q Syndicate, the international LGBT wire service. Reach him via his website at www.chris-azzopardi.com.