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Jerry Mitchell, Harvey Fierstein, and Cyndi Lauper sitting on a chair in front of a bright red background.

Fierstein, Lauper, and Mitchell on Kinky Boots: The Happiness Factory

While Harvey Fierstein was getting the Tony Award–winning musical Kinky Boots on its feet, he and a few collaborators coined a term for the show: “The Happiness Factory.” As everyone now knows, the long-running Broadway hit, which librettist Fierstein and composer/lyricist Cyndi Lauper adapted from a film of the same title, is indeed set primarily in a factory, where working-class inhabitants of Northampton, England, make shoes. But the joy exuded by these and other characters extends beyond the gleaming stiletto heels they eventually craft, or the exhilarating production numbers that regularly bring audience members to their feet and send them dancing out into Times Square.

“We created this show out of so much love,” says Fierstein, who conceived its nickname with Lauper, director/choreographer Jerry Mitchell, and music supervisor/arranger/orchestrator Stephen Oremus. That simple virtue, in various and sometimes unexpected forms, is manifest in all the exuberant, entertaining features that have made Kinky Boots an international hit. The musical’s Olivier Award–winning London staging is now in its fourth year, there’s a U.K. tour, and a Japanese production is returning to Tokyo and Osaka for a second season this spring. Germany, Korea, and Toronto have also hosted the musical to great acclaim, and a North American tour is currently in its fifth year.

As Broadway’s Kinky Boots nears its final performance on April 7, just a few days after the sixth anniversary of its opening at the Al Hirschfield Theatre, plans have also been announced to stage a version of the show on Norwegian Cruise Lines’ next “megaship,” Norwegian Encore, due to set sail in November. For Fierstein, the massive success of a show boasting a drag queen as its flamboyant hero is no surprise.

“With Kinky Boots, you have a friendship that develops between two men because they both think they’ve been damaged by their fathers,” Fierstein says, referring to the drag queen, Lola, and the more conventionally dressed and mannered Charlie Price, who inherits the shoe factory from his dad but has no passion for the profession until Lola’s fabulous style inspires him. “What they both realize is that their fathers did love and accept them, and now they need to accept themselves. That’s a strong message that I hadn’t seen in a musical before, and I’ve sat in that house for the last years and watched men tear up. And that’s wonderful. It’s phenomenal.”

Adds Mitchell, “I think the message of Kinky Boots is just, Be who you want to be. Lola never defines herself sexually, but she is a man wearing a dress, and the audience gets on her side.” Mitchell points to the moment in the finale when the character of Don, a factory worker who initially regards Lola with suspicion and resentment, straps on his own pair of kinky boots: “We were all in tears when we first saw that — a man who defines himself so much as a man in certain terms, making that reversal.”

Says Lauper, “I hear from a lot of women who had to drag their husbands to the show because the men in their lives didn’t want to see a ‘drag queen musical.’ And of course, their husbands were standing and cheering and dancing by the end. I also hear from a lot of people that it’s just a happy pill in these sort of dark times, and it makes me feel great that the show can help change people’s moods and add a little joy to their lives.”

Kinky Boots’ central message, that self-acceptance breeds acceptance of others — and that, to quote one of Lauper’s most beloved lyrics (adapted from a speech Fierstein delivered earlier), you can help “change the world when you change your mind” — has been embraced in areas less cosmopolitan than its home base. “When I see the show in more conservative cities, they can get on board even more quickly. Everyone wants someone like Lola to root for.”

This has proven true even in restrictive cultures outside the United States. Mitchell’s associate choreographer, Rusty Mowery, recalls first working with the male dancers cast as Lola’s Angels in Korea, and witnessing “how they came to life” when “I told them they should be who they are and express themselves that way.” Lauper points generally to “young LGBTQ kids who have brought their parents to come see the show and used it to help their loved ones accept them for who they are, which is always so special to hear.”

Mitchell notes, “I think this show has changed the lives of a lot of people. I get messages from young people all the time, now on social media. And for almost every actor who has played Lola, starting with Billy Porter” — who won a Tony — “not just in America but all over the world, it’s been life-changing for them, and often for their families. It’s changed those relationships.”

The men and women who brought Kinky Boots to Broadway also use the word family when referring to their relationships with each other, including producers Daryl Roth, Hal Luftig, and James L. Nederlander. The closing-night company will feature more than a dozen original cast members. Mowery has worked with Mitchell on several shows, first as a swing and dance captain; Kinky Boots associate director D.B. Bonds performed under Mitchell’s helm in a touring production of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Bonds and Mowery currently also work with Mitchell as associate director and associate choreographer, respectively, of Pretty Woman: The Musical.

“I’ve grown as an artist because of their trust in me to be able to take the keys to the car,” says Bonds. “Jerry is extremely collaborative. I remember one point in Chicago,” during Kinky Boots’ pre-Broadway tryout, “where we stopped the finale for dialogue between Lauren,” Charlie’s love interest, “and Charlie because people wanted to hear more from her. And Jerry said to me, ‘Do you think that’s going to step on Don’s entrance, in boots?’ I said, ‘Jerry, that is one of the best entrances in musical theater, and nothing’s going to step on it.’”

Oremus describes a similarly synergistic relationship with Lauper, who’s “like my crazy Italian aunt from Queens,” fondly recalling how the popular singer/songwriter surprised him one day by entering a rehearsal with a pile of recordings by the Argentine tango master Astor Piazzolla. “Cyndi is an expert at delivering many different styles of music authentically, and it was important to her that whatever style we were presenting” — from folk-pop to electronic dance music, which Kinky Boots inserted as boldly and seamlessly as any hit musical to date — “was done so legitimately. So it was my job to translate that to the characters and give it theatrical build without encroaching on the style or song.”

Though the Kinky Boots team is predictably wistful about the show’s departure — “It will be emotional walking past the Hirschfield and not seeing it on the marquee,” Bonds says — all are optimistic about its life beyond Broadway. “If Kinky Boots is anything like La Cage (Aux Folles),” says Fierstein, citing another of his enduring classics, “and it seems to be, that show has really never closed, it’s always playing somewhere. I could see [Kinky Boots] coming back to New York before too long, because the audience for it is so strong. To know you have written a show that will never go away is truly humbling.”

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