Oklahoma opens with a song celebrating the morning. Matilda opens with a bunch of kids telling us they’re miracles. Kinky Boots, on the other hand, opens with something a bit more pedestrian (pun intended): a celebration of the shoe as “the most beautiful thing in the world.”
Many, women especially, would agree. On Broadway, as in Kinky Boots, however, a shoe has to be much more than beautiful. It’s a hardworking component of an actor’s performance, the base of the choreographer’s art, and even a career-lengthening tool. Even when the shoes aren’t the title characters, on Broadway, they have to stand up to eight performances a week of walking, tapping, executing a perfect grand jeté, even climbing multiple floors to a dressing room. When you consider all this, you may develop a new appreciation of shoes on Broadway as the ultimate supporting performers — literally.
Designers, shoemakers, choreographers, and — of course — actors know what it takes to get a shoe that serves the character, the show, and the performer. And while no two shows, or pairs of feet, are identical, there are many considerations that go into footwear that’s functional and fabulous.
Like so much in the theater, building the perfect shoe is a collaborative art. While the costume designer and the director perfect the look, they also work with the choreographer whose dances influence how the performers’ feet will move, which in turn affects the design and construction of the shoe. For that reason, the vast majority of all the shoes seen on the Broadway stage have been custom-made to fit both the design and the individual actors. Understudies, too, have their own; stepping into a star’s shoes on Broadway is exclusively metaphoric.
For costume designer William Ivey Long, currently represented on Broadway in Cabaret and Bullets Over Broadway, for which he’s nominated for both Tony and Drama Desk Awards, there are many things to consider. In a musical, he starts with the question “Who is the choreographer?” because that will have an impact on the construction of the shoes. “When I’m designing, I start from the ground up. Interestingly, Bullets and Cabaret both take place in 1929, and I design from head to toe — all the way down to the stockings and shoes. First, you decide what the look is historically, and then you figure out the socioeconomic considerations.” Long says he delves into the characters down to the point of where they’d shop, whether or not they’d be wearing last year’s — or older — shoes, the time of day, and so forth. “For example, I need to know which characters in Bullets would shop in Sears and who from Vogue,” he says.
Long says that nine times out of 10 when he’s designing for dancers, he has the shoes made. He does say that there are times when you can buy what he calls “walkabout” shoes. But in those cases, the heels may need bracing, which can’t always be on the inside and invisible to the audience. “Most dancers can’t wear [traditional] pumps,” Long continues. “They’d walk right out of them. So there are two straps: the T-strap and the Mary Jane. And mostly they have a ‘stubby toe,’ which is unlike a pointed-toe pump. You can only do a pointed-toe pump if the actors aren’t dancing. They need to be able to feel and touch the end of the foot.” Ultimately, Long says, “the foot has to look normal. You want the shoe to continue the line of the leg.”
Doing that is no mean feat. It requires knowledge of construction and materials, such as which leathers, or combination of leathers, will make the most responsive and supportive shoe. The trick is to balance elegance and style with sturdiness and safety. After all, Long adds, a dancer’s ankles are fragile. And then there are things one wouldn’t normally consider, such as the tracks that are in the stage for set pieces. It’s not the place one would want to get a heel stuck in a production number. Long says when he was working on Crazy for You, he had to come up with a special heel to take the physical stage into account as well.
Once the shoes are designed, they have to be built. And there are at least two specialists in the Theatre District trusted by designers and adored by actors: T.O. Dey and Phil LaDuca.
Dey makes the title footwear for Kinky Boots. Every pair is different depending on the foot and requirements of the actor wearing them. LaDuca began his career as a dancer and was keenly aware of the limitations of shoes at the time. And he notes that with the advent of more athletic dancing, shoe design has changed. LaDuca is credited with creating the first truly flexible character shoe, and today he’s the go-to guy for sturdy tap shoes and loafers that allow the foot to be pointed. “I am the link between the designer and the choreographer,” is how he describes it. More importantly, dancers know he’s got their backs — and the balls of their feet and their ankles and knees. LaDuca says that the right shoe has helped dancers extend their careers. “I know the human body, and I know how dancers think and choreographers think,” he says, adding that he didn’t get into this business to get rich but to make the best shoe for dancers that he could. His shoes are prized by Broadway performers, and he’s currently making the shoes for Katy Perry’s tour and has been called “a hero” by Liza Minelli.
And the actors return the love. Gayle Rankin, who is currently appearing as Fraulein Kost in the revival of Cabaret, says of her LaDuca shoes: “They feel so special. We wear these shows. I mean, we wear them. When I tried on my shoes for the first time, I thought, I can do the show now. I can do it. The shoes change how you walk and how you act how balanced you are. Much of what we do is angular, so it’s really important to be comfortable.” Rankin adds that for many actors, the shoes are an essential part of the rehearsal process, which is why so many actors ask for their show shoes as early as possible.
Benjamin Eakeley, who plays Max and understudies Cliff and Ernst in Cabaret, has worn a mix of shoes in his career, from the custom platform shoes he wore in On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, designed by Catherine Zuber, to the adapted, off-the-shelf shoes with rubber heels he wears in Cabaret. Eakeley is not primarily a dancer, but has heartfelt appreciation for the designers who pay close attention to the shoes as a component of the character and the physical demands put on actors who often require physical therapy to overcome the wear and tear on a body in a demanding show.
Timothy J. Alex, a veteran of 11 Broadway shows and currently in Motown The Musical, has worn a variety of shoes on stage, from the fully flexible loafers he wore in The Sweet Smell of Success because choreographer Christopher Wheeldon wanted his dancers to be able to point, to the LaDuca boots he wore in Elf that had curled toes and doubled as tap shoes. Alex’s stage shoes have run the gamut from fully shanked shoes (with a metal bar running under the sole) for stability to half-shanked and no shanks, which are the most flexible.
All the actors, designers and cobblers note that feeling safe and confident in the shoes is critical to individual performances and the show as a whole. What may appear simple — and maybe overlooked — is a very technical piece of design and construction that’s critical to keeping a show on its toes.
So the next time you’re at a Broadway show, spend a moment taking in the footwear as well as the footwork and appreciate that you’re seeing something very special when the company kicks up its heels.