By: Kira Hinchey
Kinky Boots will knock your socks off. I mean, unless you’re homophobic and/or transphobic and hate musicals. Actually, wait no… It still will. Kinky Boots, written by Harvey Fierstein and music by the notable Cyndi Lauper, has the amazing ability to impact people, even the most stubborn.
But let me back up for a second.
I’m gonna steer us off-topic, but I promise this story will lead us back to Kinky Boots. I come from a creative, liberal, working-class family. During my childhood, we teetered the line between poverty and middle class. We always had food on the table, but I remember several summers when my dad worked construction to afford our mortgage payments. As I entered middle school, I qualified for a nearly full scholarship that allowed me to transfer out of my public school with limited resources to an elite, private, privileged all-girls college preparatory school. The school celebrates girls’ education and feminism (okay, okay, mainly white feminism). But, conservative, old, white men still controlled the board, which isn’t surprising considering the school resides in wealthiest and most conservative neighborhood in Nashville, Tennessee. So, there I was. A liberal, poor by comparison, fish out of water. Slowly but surely, I met people who didn’t fit the status quo either, and we formed a friend group. Being a group of outcasts at a conservative school, a majority of my friends identified as part of the LGBTQ+ community. As we made our way through middle school into high school, I became increasingly aware of certain students using slurs and “gay” as an insult; just overall invalidating the identities of the LGBTQ+ community. And I also saw how much that hurt my friends.
Flash forward to 2017. I found myself on a school trip in London for several weeks with about ten other girls I had not previously spent time with outside of the classroom. Surprisingly, our adult group leaders decided to take our group to see Kinky Boots at the Adelphi Theater. I love musical theater and fell in love with the show (and more specifically with David Hunter’s angelic voice, who played Charlie Price) But more surprisingly, so did the traditionally conservative girls. These girls who had previously infuriated me by bad-mouthing the LGBTQ+ community suddenly would not shut up about the incredibly fabulous Lola, a drag queen. These girls immediately bought the soundtrack on iTunes and played the album on repeat the rest of the trip. Of course, I still harbored resentment towards them, but it also gave me hope that people could change their perspective about the LGBTQ+ community once they saw them as real people.
I wanted to share this personal anecdote to demonstrate the magical quality of Kinky Boots. On the surface, the show seems like a tale of a shoe factory. But really, the story demonstrates several characters’ journeys to explore their identities and challenge the utility of toxic masculinity. Lola becomes these characters’ unlikely guide. Like any musical, Kinky Boots has its fair share of shortcomings, and one show cannot change a person’s worldview completely. But with the combination of the talented cast, scenic design, costume design, choreography, music, lyrics, and libretto, this show invokes empathy in its most resistant audience members, even if only temporarily.
Kinky Boots takes place in the small, English town of North Hampton. Within the first couple scenes, Charlie Price inherits Price & Son, a shoe manufacturing company, from his recently deceased father. Poor Charlie soon learns bankruptcy lurks around the corner. The future looks grim. He has a warehouse bursting with shoes, no one to buy them, and a staff requesting paychecks. Luckily, a chance encounter leads him to Lola. At the time of their meeting, Lola, the charismatic, confident drag queen, breaks yet another pair of high-heel shoes. “Very expensive boots, but cheaply made. I’d give me left tit for a shoe that could stand up to me.” Not long after, Charlie realizes he can save the factory by producing shoes for an underserved, niche market: drag queens. So, Charlie and Lola team-up to save the factory. Yay! Seems like a heart-warming Hallmark movie, right? Not exactly. Charlie and the other factory workers almost let their fragile masculine egos and prejudice ruin the whole thing.
To be honest, Lola runs the show. Not just her drag show, but the design and creation of Price & Son’s new high-heel boots “show,” and the runway show in Milan during the finale. Lola steals the spotlight as she makes her debut, “Land of Lola.” Matt Henry, who plays Lola, masterfully glides across the stage in six-inch, red, leather boots and a red, sequin dress that reflects the stage lights and demands attention. The stage glows red, creating a seductive tone. Lola’s fellow drag queens, who also appear fabulously confident in their femininity, surround her, kicking their legs into vertical splits. Through this scene, the audience watches Lola’s security in identity manifest as confidence.
Using this confidence, Lola has the ability to unapologetically tell those around her how to treat her with respect which she does consistently throughout the show. As she returns backstage, she holds out her hand, “They call me Lola because… it’s my name,” and turns to go change outfits. To some, this line could seem like an example of Lola’s sassy personality. But really, this moment becomes Charlie’s first lesson about respecting transgender and genderqueer individuals. Henry’s matter-of-fact delivery of this line leaves no room for Charlie, or the audience, to challenge Lola’s identity. Charlie sits in a chair, slumped over. Killian Donnelly’s posture, the actor who plays Charlie, provides a stark contradiction to Lola’s. This body-language communicates to the audience that Charlie, unlike Lola, lacks the same self-confidence. As Charlie helps Lola put on her boots, she returns the respect she required of him earlier as she says, “Thanks again, Mister. Not to be presumptive, but you are a Mister.” Even though Lola feels confident about Charlie’s gender identity from his appearance and comportment, she still provides him an opportunity to correct her.
Try as she might, even Lola cannot win every battle against toxic masculinity. Once Lola agrees to work with Charlie, disrespectful remarks greet her at the door. Compared to the glimmer and shine of the drag show, the earthy color-palette of the scenic design and costumes reflect the factory’s mediocrity and ability to stifle deviations from the social norm. Most of the male workers, especially Don, demonstrate their disapproval of Lola and manage to peer-pressure her to conform to their rigid social expectations. Lola appears the next day in a brown-suit, an attempt to visually and socially blend into the background. When she asks Don for directions to the bathroom, Don says, “Sorry, all we’ve got is women’s and men’s.” This remark not only demonstrates Don’s insensitivity, but it also sends a message to Lola that, try as she might to fit their standards, she cannot please them. Through his acting, Henry’s facial expressions shifts just slightly, but the sting of this remark flashes across his face and then he sprints off stage like a rejected child. Honestly, it’s hard to watch. On a more uplifting note, Charlie shows his first sign of growth. When he goes to check on Lola, he does not immediately assume she would be in the men’s restroom. Once Charlie convinces Lola to come out of the bathroom she confides in him, “In a gown I can bellow Brunhilde in front of five hundred drunks and have a laugh. But put me in men’s clothes and I can’t sodding well say “Hello.’” Lola explains the mental toll it takes to meet society’s expectations, which makes the rejection even more heartbreaking. As someone who has personally experienced and watch my loved ones experience social rejection due to uncontrollable factors, watching this scene the first time made my heart drop.
If this rejection weren’t enough on its own, the following song, “Not My Father’s Son,” humanizes Charlie and Lola from another angle. In contrast to the up-beat jams earlier in the show, a single piano fills the stage with simple, somber chords, augmenting the current emotional vibe. Lola sings:
When I was just a kid
Everything I did, was to be like him
Under my skin
My father always thought
If I was strong and fought
Not like some albatross, I’d begin
To fit in…
It was never easy to be his type of man
To breathe freely was not in his plan
And the best part of me
is what he wouldn’t see…
The endless story of expectations swirling inside my mind
Wore me down
I came to a realization and I finally turned around
That I could just be me
By the last chorus, Charlie joins in and they harmonize:
I’m not my father’s son
I’m not the image of what he dreamed of
With the strength of a Spartan and the patience of Job
Still couldn’t be the one
To echo what he’d done
And mirror what was not in me
Lola: We’re the same, Charlie boy,
You and me
In a moment of vulnerability, Charlie and Lola come to see each other as equals. For anyone in the audience who still fails to empathize with Lola, this song reaches even them. Everyone has felt pressure from their parents to be act like or be something they know they are not, deep down. This moment exposes, for those who did not already know, the reality that people cannot suppress their identities and also feel true happiness.
Following this heart-wrenching moment, Lola regains her confidence and uses her, “patience of Job” to address the hostile work environment. In “What a Woman Wants,” Don, in his typical macho-man fashion, picks a fight with Lola over the definition of a “real man.” Don’s definition reeks of toxic masculinity, “A woman wants a rock, solid c-… A woman wants a man to give as much as a woman can take, just like me.” Unimpressed, Lola, with the assistance of the other women in the factory, fires back at Don. These women define a “real” man as a supportive companion, affectionate, sensitive, and compassionate. To settle the argument, Lola presents Don with a challenge: if Lola agrees to a boxing-match, Don has to do whatever Lola thinks would make him a “real” man. Unsuspecting Don doesn’t know that Lola grew up a champion boxer. Don’s fans hurl vicious insults at Lola, calling her a, “freak.” But, she lets Don win. She refuses to subject Don to the same disrespect her father showed her. In return, Don must, “accept someone for who they are,” a challenge she implicitly poses to the audience, too. Accepting others people’s identities takes real courage, anything else is cowardice.
Kinky Boots has even more of these types of scenes bursting at the seams, but these specific scenes demonstrate some of the most important moments of growth. At this point, I would like to note that Lola never explicitly labels her gender or sexual identity. This may frustrate some viewers, as the topic of being transgender never gets explicitly discussed, but I believe the creators of the show made this choice intentionally. A person’s identity is intimate and changes with time. Obviously, Lola identifies as a member of the LGBTQ+ community, but she never specifically labels herself a transgender woman, or possibly a cisgender, queer man who feels most like themself in a feminine appearance. By not revealing this information, the show tells the audience that the level of respect shown to her by other people should not rely on whether or not she chooses to divulge this information.
And of course, Kinky Boots has its fair share of shortcomings. Lola’s a complex individual who cannot be defined soley by her gender and sexual identity. She is loud, entertaining, glamorous, and sassy. While it’s great that Lola embodies these characteristics, her character runs the risk of creating a stereotype or a limited perspective on the LGBTQ+ community for the less educated audience members. Just like everyone else, LGBTQ+ people offer all types of personalities, talents, and unique life perspectives. Not every queer person desires to be a drag queen. Kinky Boots could have tried to underline this point more, but like all musical theater, the story and conventions of theater limit the time and space available to foster this dialogue while also facilitating the recreation of a true story. These points aside, Kinky Boots’ bold and unapologetic storytelling invokes empathy from the audience and creates a space for even the most prejudiced viewers to question how they regard those whose identities differ from their own. Perhaps more importantly, Kinky Boots’ success has helped pave the way for newer shows that want to further this conversation.
Sources: youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1q3zmi2iM5w
Photos: Screenshots from Kinky Boots on BroadwayHD