Kinky Boots director and choreographer Jerry Mitchell discusses the story that captured his imagination, and why he thinks art can change the world.
As an art form that combines words, music and movement, and frequently technical wizardry, musicals are well placed to turn their gaze to some of society’s complex and conflicting issues, and also to change minds. From South Pacific, West Side Story, Book of Mormon or Broadway’s new War Paint, musicals are laced with concepts such as acceptance, belonging and understanding. Whether tragic or humorous, at their best they remind us of what is to feel part of something bigger.
Kinky Boots Director and Choreographer Jerry Mitchell has a slew of hits and awards. What was it about this story that captured his imagination, and why does he think art can change the world?
UNMET PARENTAL EXPECTATION…
So, Harvey (Fierstein, author Kinky Boots musical) was very interested in the common ground that Charlie and Lola shared… both of them were disappointments in their father’s eyes. In the bathroom scene in the film when I watched the original source material, I got very emotional and I thought “Well there’s another place”. When emotions are heightened in a musical, it’s often a place for song. It was a place where I wanted that scene to be turned into a beautiful song about not living up to the expectations of a father and also how the two men discover at that moment that they’re on common ground.
That was the request to Cyndi Lauper, (music and lyrics Kinky Boots musical) – can you write a song that says we are the same? She came up with “Not My Father’s Son” which was perfect. It was just perfect. It was one of the first songs she wrote on spec for the musical. She sort of auditioned to do the show for Harvey and I by writing a few songs and that was one of the songs she wrote. It wasn't complete, but the heart of the song was there. I knew at that moment that Cyndi would be great for this musical.
HOW ART CAN CHANGE PEOPLE’S MINDS…
Last night, I had the night off here in Sydney and I went to The Australian Ballet at Sydney Opera House because when you're in Sydney, you go to the theatre; you go see things. I love seeing things. It’s not the first time I’ve seen the Company and I'm quite a fan of them. I saw a modern ballet called Bach and there were three pieces to it. I was interested in watching the audience respond.
That’s what makes the theatre and arts so spectacular because you have a community of people sitting in a dark place not under a spotlight. They don’t have to look around and see how their friends are reacting. They’re actually visually reacting to what they’re seeing and often as a group they find the truth in a very common way because there are no – what do you call it? – there’s no one telling them how to react. They’re just simply reacting.
I think the reason leaders, particularly leaders who want to be dictators, are resistant to the arts is because the arts talks about things that they don’t want talked about. We are kind of the loudmouths of society, if we want to be, and also the unspoken heroes in a lot of cases. We get up and we see it as we see it, and if the society is a free society, we can't be taken to task for telling the truth.
Our truth in art is there for everyone to come in and judge it on their own terms.
READING AN AUDIENCE…
Well you know, as a Director and Choreographer of musicals, when I’m working on a new musical the audience, if I pay attention to the audience and I don’t fall in love with my own stuff, they’ll tell me.
They’ll give me all the clues I need to make that piece a better piece or a clearer piece for them, to understand what it is I’m trying to say or how I’m trying to guide them in a direction I want them to go. If they clap, if they don’t clap, if they get bored and rustle about, if they cry, if they don’t cry, if they laugh, if they don’t laugh. The clues are all there. All you have to do is pay attention to how are they responding to the material.
I first met President (Trump) when he was dating Marla Maples. Marla Maples and I were dancing together in The Will Rogers Follies. So, I actually met him on a personal level in the basement of the Palace Theatre.
I watched him as a person and I experienced him as a person.
I could be a president. I could be as much of a president as he is a president. The resistance to him is I think based on simply that there are many people who think he could be a great president and there are many people who think they could be a better president.
RESISTANCE AS LIVED EXPERIENCE…
I must say that one of the most rewarding days in the past six months was the Women’s March day, for me personally. Many of us were feeling alone or betrayed or lost and “What can we do?”, “How do we respond?” I decided I needed to go to the Women’s March which was on 42nd Street then coming up Sixth Avenue there was a Broadway contingent. I thought “Well I'll go for a few hours and I'll march and I'll maybe feel better to see others”.
When I got to the Women’s March it was breathtaking because there were 10 times as many people who had shown up. They expected, I don't know, 50,000 and there were 250,000, or they expected a million and there were five million. I don't know what the number was, but it was 10 times more than what anyone expected. I'm talking just in New York City. Then to see not only what was in New York City, but what it was in every major city in America and in every major city in the world. The world responding to this event and where we are as a society. We have become more than just a country.
We’ve become a world and part of that is because of the way we now communicate through the internet and how it has brought us closer together; sometimes for great cause and sometimes for terrible reasons. But there is no turning back.
The one thing about life and about the world is change happens and we have to learn to live with the change as it’s happening and hopefully make the best choices with that change. That day, that march day, was truly one of the most powerful days. I remember going to that march and how it made me feel better just to be surrounded by people who were feeling the same way I felt. That’s what happened on the day, the Women’s March day. You couldn't help but feel suddenly “Oh, I'm not alone”.
Photo Credit: Robert Catto
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