You would not exactly tag Cyndi Lauper as one of those old-school composers who work on a Broadway show, see a musical number that's not working, scurry back to their hotel room to stay up all night writing a new song by breakfast, and, that following evening, sit there surviving on coffee and cigarettes as it goes straight into the show. Stephen Sondheim or Jule Styne, back in the day, sure. But Lauper?
Well, if you are heading to the Bank of America Theatre to see the final weekend of the Chicago tryout of "Kinky Boots," the headed-to-Broadway musical adapted from the British movie of the same name, penned by Harvey Fierstein and composed by Lauper, you will be hearing a song that none of us heard on opening night.
"I Come to the Rescue," the Act 1 song for the character of Charlie Price, the owner of the family shoe business that gets saved by drag queens and their love of a nice, red, kinky boot, is now out of the show. In its place is a whole new Lauper number, "Step One." It was orchestrated last weekend. The first time it was heard in public was at Tuesday night's performance.
It would be overstating the romance to say that Lauper sat upstairs in the Hampton Inn with her No. 2 pencil (she actually went back to New York for a few days), but she was back in Chicago last weekend, working away. The new number, director Jerry Mitchell says, is a major change.
"I challenged Cyndi to come up with a new song," Mitchell said Tuesday, just before he watched audiences react to the new number for the first time. "The other song, metaphorically and lyrically, just wasn't taking me to where I wanted to go. Now I am hoping this song will make audiences love him right from the start. Every time I've asked Cyndi to kick it up a notch, she's always come through."
The new number is not the only change that has been made to "Kinky Boots." Fierstein has also been working on the script. Mitchell said. "Harvey came up with 37 new pages right after opening night. They've already gone in to the show."
Fierstein's new material involves the crucial Act 2 sequence when Charlie's life starts to unravel; it lacked clarity and specificity at the Chicago opening. Scenes now have been reordered and intensified.
As out-of-town Broadway tryouts go, "Kinky Boots" generally was regarded as being in very good creative shape by its Chicago opening. It's hard to get an accurate read on the box office; the producers have not reported their grosses in Chicago as they will on Broadway. The show has been discounting tickets (which is not unusual but also not, of course, true of "The Book of Mormon"). Still, readers report sitting in generally full houses, especially in the last two weeks.
Artistically speaking, it was clear on the Oct. 17 opening that the area that needed the most attention was its lead character, Charlie, whose trajectory through the story was being eclipsed by the ebullient transvestite Lola, played with great vivacity by Billy Porter. It wasn't so much the fault of the actor, Stark Sands; it was the way the show was structured. The need for the audience to invest in Charlie is what most of the changes have been trying to address — the new song, the new pages, the work with Sands himself.
"We're trying," said Mitchell, "to focus in on Charlie Price."
Mitchell said he also has "stuck a pin" in other areas of the show that need tweaking, including the boxing match (which already has been made to look different and now has a changed ending), the finale of the show and the "Beware the Black Widow" sequence. Much of that, he said, will have to wait until the show goes back into rehearsal (briefly) prior to its New York opening.
All in all, Mitchell says he is glad he went out of town with "Kinky Boots." And that's not just because it took his show, and its people, out of the eye of the East Coast storms.
"Chicago audiences," Mitchell said Tuesday, "really have been unbelievably truthful. We've gained such great information. It is going to help us be as a great as we possibly can be."
Information, especially corrective information, is what out-of-town tryouts are supposed to yield. But these days, they're a rarer breed. The revival of "Annie," which opens on Broadway next week, chose to open cold.
Up next for Chicago? "Big Fish" in the spring.
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