Few performers possess the kind of fierce, she-bopping tenacity Cyndi Lauper has become famous for. Equal parts free spirit, civil rights activist and Grammy-winner, Lauper is one of the few creative artists able to successfully marry her cutting-edge verve with a heart-of-gold panache. It certainly has helped fuel the remarkable career resurgence she has been experiencing lately.
Fresh off the creative heels of a bestselling memoir and a hit reality television show, for the past few months, she has also been basking in the limelight of her Broadway debut. That would be “Kinky Boots,” the spirited “think-outside-of-the-box” romp that opened to rave reviews and for which she wrote the music and lyrics—and for which she just garnered a Tony Award. The production, which was written by Harvey Fierstein, managed to nab 13 Tony nominations in all, winning six, including Best Musical.
All of that may make locals more inclined to catch Lauper’s concert tour, which hits Mountain Winery in Saratoga on June 19. Dubbed “She’s So Unusual,” it commemorates the 30th anniversary of her hit debut solo album of the same name. But it’s not as if people need any more reasons to dig the Grammy-winner. And, let’s face it, in many ways, Lauper embodies that live-it-be-it, change-your-mind-change-the-world punch embodied by many Santa Cruzans.
(Let’s just go ahead and call the woman a Cruzan-by-default, shall we?)
But how did a performer whose celebrity soared in the ’80s (and kept reaching newfound heights thereafter with such hit songs such as “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun],” manage to not only morph into one of the country’s more passionate human rights advocates (more on that in a bit), but also become one of today’s hottest Broadway commodities?
“Why did I say ‘yes’ [to ‘Kinky Boots’]?” Lauper muses. “Well, part of it was because of Harvey and [director/choreographer] Jerry Mitchell.”
The musical is based on the 2005 drama/comedy film of the same name that found cult appeal. It traces the emotional ripple effects of the business partnership between a befuddled son (played by Stark Sands) who inherits his father’s old shoe factory and the transvestite/entertainer (brought to life by the superb Billy Porter) whose über-fab stiletto boots spawn an idea to infuse some modern-day creative juju into the flailing business. Think: Boy meets girl (who is actually a boy), and together they boldly save a shoe factory facing bankruptcy and give the recession (and prejudice) a friendly bitch slap.
“It has a big heart,” Lauper notes, crediting Fierstein’s shrewd and insightful writing and Mitchell’s sharp direction. Still, serious nods go to Lauper, whose songs rise above cliché and effectively take audiences on the journey of how two unlikely allies (insert Life Lesson here) manage to create a real sea change within an outdated institution and, in some respects, a pocket of culture. If the show has heart, much of that is because of Lauper. I had seen the show in Chicago last fall, pre-Broadway, and it was already a fascinating spectacle in that it successfully mastered the art of evoking both emotion and titillation. Lauper’s musical nuances create a kind of mood that lingers long after you leave the theater. Only a handful of art films and film musicals possess that kind of vibe—something which can be both delightfully addictive and a bit hypnotic, too.
“I like that the story shows that people can change their minds,” Lauper tells me. “Gandhi said, ‘If you want to change the world, you change yourself,’ right? But I am here to serve the story. And to serve the story, I always try to do musical things that I think are interesting. Every character has their own unique style and I try to write that in the music.
“And yeah, I knew how to write a hook. But this was really inspiring to me. And, you know, I grew up in Queens by the Singer Sewing Machines factory, and, walking further down, was the Gordon’s Milk factory with Elsie the iconic cow—that was really big in my brain as a kid. My friend Skipper and I used to live around the corner from that when I was 5, and we used to put on a lot of plays with cardboard boxes and things, and I was always in them. I used to do my impersonations of all the stars. I was also doing all the Broadway music my mother had on records. We never went to a play because we could never afford it, but we could go see a movie. So this … was like being a little kid again.”
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Her Hat …
Still Full Of Stars
Born Cynthia Ann Stephanie Lauper in June 1953—she turns 60 this month—Lauper’s upbringing in Queens certainly shaped her indelible what-you-see-is-what-you-get persona. Honest to the bone, she is said to have grown up listening to the greats—Judy, Ella, Billie, The Beatles. It was her mother—who went by the stage name “Catrine Dominique”— that encouraged her to explore her creativity and she began to play acoustic guitar at the age of 12, writing and composing her own songs shortly thereafter.
She had a fondness for art but music kept luring her back into its spell, so much so that by the time the 1970s rolled in, she began singing cover songs from popular groups of the era—from Bad Company to Jefferson Airplane. Some time in the late ’70s, she and sax player John Turi joined forces and formed the band Blue Angel. The album won critics over but didn’t necessarily create an avalanche of cash. A rather bizarre swirl of drama unfolded when the group’s manager, Steve Massarsky, was dropped and he sued the posse, something that sent Lauper in bankruptcy.
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Welcome to the
“I got my ass kicked in Blue Angel and then I had to go bankrupt,” she admits. “Because [another] manager who wanted to make a deal … I said, listen, ‘I’ll get another record deal and then I’ll pay you (Massarsky) off. You don’t lose. It’s a win-win.’ No. So I had to go bankrupt and I remember in the end, the judge looked at me and looked at everybody, slammed the gavel down and said, ‘let the canary sing.’ That’s the real truth. You can’t make that shit up. Well, I guess you could, but I didn’t.”
And so it went … but Lauper ventured forth and by 1983, already having wowed audiences with her distinctly original persona and voice—a stunning singing range of four octaves—she had signed on with Portrait Records and released her first solo album, She’s So Unusual. It hit the Top 10 and stayed there for a long, long spell. Suddenly revered for her spunk and hybrid of punk/rock/pop flash, the singles she gave birth to would become the stuff of legend—“Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,” “Time After Time,” “She Bop” and “All Through The Night” all climbed the charts.
Touring happened. And at the end of 1984, Lauper had become the very first female to have four consecutive Billboard Hot 100 Top Five Hits from an album. It’s interesting to note, too, that She’s So Unusual sold more than 16 million copies and managed to park itself in the Top 200 charts for more than 65 weeks. Awards followed, most notably Best New Artist at the 1985 Grammy Awards.
In the years that followed, Lauper’s other releases, although not as financially lucrative, were well received, including: 1985’s “The Goonies R Good Enough” (from the film, The Goonies), “We Are The World “ (on which she is featured), her second album True Colors, 1989’s A Night To Remember, 1993’s Hat Full Of Stars (which boldly took on the issues of homophobia, racism, abortion and spousal abuse), Twelve Deadly Cyns … And Then Some (the reboot of Girls, “Hey Now … Girls Just Want To Have Fun” was a hoot), 1997’s Sisters of Avalon and 2008’s dance hit single, “Into The Nightlife.”
But ask Lauper about those early days back in the ’80s, and she candidly admits that it was, indeed, unusual—at least from a business standpoint.
“As the ’80s went on—and the ’90s—there were [musical] outbursts, like in Seattle, but it you were part of the industry, established, everybody wanted to put braces on your brain,” she says. “The late-’80s was the time of the celebrated A&R person and the celebrated record company person, not the artist so much. So it was very difficult to create any-fucking-thing.
“You know, I did Hat Full of Stars and even the press had braces on the brain,” she goes on. “They looked at Hat Full of Stars—the tour—and because it was so integrated—I had women, I had black people, I had white people, an Asian person, and these were all my friends—and they said, well, ‘It’s like watching United Colors of Benetton.’ And I am thinking: ‘You fucking idiots. Don’t you understand that if it is integrated, and it was integrated all along, it would make it better?’”
The memory thrusts Lauper right back to the present—and “Kinky Boots.”
“So here comes a play, and a story about integration,” she beams. “The guy [Billy Porter as Lola] has passion for so much that it inspired a guy and it solves everything. They can change the product [shoes/boots] and sell it; find a niche market. So the other guy wears a dress. Who gives a shit? It doesn’t fucking matter. It matters that people—all kinds of people—think all kinds of ways. And it’s our differences—our differences—that makes us stronger. And that is what hooked me [about the play]. That here’s a guy in a day and age where people are losing everything, and you must think outside of the box.
“You think our country could stand up on its feet again by shoving down, shoving down, shoving down? No! Think outside of the box. Hell, yeah! The AGL [the nation’s second-largest energy retailer] just closed and lots of jobs were lost—they shut down. Less, less, less. Hell, yeah! But what do we need? We need energy, right? Oil is going to be out of here, too, and then we’re going to be piss out of luck. We can’t make that. So whatta ya gonna do? You gotta think outside of the box!”
Lauper: Such a stream-of-consciousness kind of gal. But other issues remain close to her heart, too.
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All around the country, the month of June is typically designated as Gay Pride Month. Santa Cruz just held its memorable festival honoring the LGBT community several weeks ago. San Francisco launches its fiery celebration the last weekend of June. For those who know Lauper’s work and activism well enough, it’s become common knowledge that her hit single “True Colors” helped launch five years ago one of the nation’s most progressive nonprofits—True Colors Fund.
Its mission is to engage individuals, “especially straight people,” as its website notes, “to become active participants in the advancement of equality for all.” One of its main tasks is to raise awareness about and eradicate LGBT youth homelessness.
“Nobody was opening their fucking mouth,” Lauper remarks about the genesis of the foundation. “And I thought that straight people were going to stand up and say something. What? You’re not going to stand up? What about all the brothers and sisters and uncles and what have you? Stand the fuck up and say, ‘Hey—these people are part of my family. You can’t mess with my family!’”
Lauper, whose sister, Ellen, is gay, is quick to note that she always knew she would, for lack of a better phrase, “give back.”
“During ’84-’87, I was so hung up in my relationship with my manager that—well, I was chasing that around … everyone wants to be ‘loved,’ dahhling, you know? So in the [late] ’90s, I was having my son, and all of a sudden I was getting these letters on the Internet … and I was a sizeable whale …”
She pauses. “Where was I going …?
“Oh yeah—all I kept reading was, ‘When you came out with the song ‘True Colors,’ it saved my life. I was going to commit suicide. I had nobody.’ So, when they came out, these people lost their friends, their family, and their jobs. They lost everything. Totally disenfranchised. And it wasn’t one letter, it was almost every single letter. And I was like, ‘Oh my God. I didn’t know that song meant that to people.’
Lauper immediately called her sister to brainstorm.
“Well, I knew the song must have meant something because I had done Gay Pride in 1994, and my friend, an artist, called me up and said, ‘It’s gay pride—we need a float, Cyn.’ And I said, ‘How the fuck am I am going to get a float?’ He said: ‘You’re Cyndi Lauper. You call them up and say, I am Cyndi Lauper and you want a float.’ I am like, ‘Whatta ya kiddin’? What if they say no?’ He said, ‘Tell them you’re Cyndi lauper.’ I said, ‘Yeah, that and a nickel …’
She called her publicist and got that float in two weeks—homemade and decorated in a gold motif.
“And all my friends were on the float—my sister and her partner—and it was fun. And I sang the whole time, and they told me told me I won’t be able to sing in front of St. Patrick’s Cathedral [in New York City]; that ‘they will shut you down.’ I said, ‘Please let me sing, and please let them shut me down. Do you realize what the papers will say? Let them do it.’ The headline would have read: Cardinal O’Connor Just Didn’t Want to Have Fun.”
So she sang in front of the church—and they didn’t shut her down.
“See, I know those Catholics,” Lauper muses. “All those times, kneeling on that marble, trying to do penance, and thinking, ‘Man, this is a hard floor. Honey—that’s shiny. They must have waxed this thing.’ Oh my God.”
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(Stay With Us … Eventually She Gets Back On Point)
“So in ’97, when I read all the emails, it really dawned on me that we should do something so I called my sister, and I said, ‘Listen: we gotta do something. Will you do it with me?’ And she said, sure. I kept remembering what Harvey told me back in ’92. He said, ‘Happy people have respect for each other. If you love somebody, you are not going to endanger them. You don’t self-destruct.’ And I thought, yeah, it’s about pride, all right—and respect and unity.”
Most recently, True Colors Fund birthed The Forty to None Project, a unique program designed to “raise awareness about and bring an end to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender youth experiencing homelessness.”
That’s an ambitious undertaking in and of itself, considering that an estimated 500,000 and 1.6. million youth go homeless each year and that nearly 40 percent of those individuals identify as gay or transgender.
“I am part of the community,” Lauper proudly admits. “You’re not going to be getting rid of me anytime soon.”
As for what lies on the horizon—beyond the cross-country summer concert tour she’s just embarked on—Lauper sighs, more than hinting that, perhaps, she may need to allow some of the creative stardust to settle a bit, especially after spending several years working on her memoir (“Cyndi Lauper: A Memoir”) and then “Kinky Boots”—and, not to be left out, her successful reality TV outing, which aired on WETV earlier this year, Still So Unusual.
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About that …
“Let me make myself perfectly clear,” Lauper tells me before we part. “I want to reiterate: I never thought I was ‘unusual.’ I always thought it was everybody else.”
Catch Cyndi Lauper at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, June 19 at Mountain Winery in Saratoga (mountainwinery.com, 408-741-2822). Hunter Valentine opens. Learn more about True Colors Fund at truecolorsfund.org. Check out “Kinky Boots” at kinkybootsthemusical.com. Photos: cyndilauper.com.