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Michael Coveney: Tales from New York in Kinky Boots

By • West End
Broadway is in the grip of awards frenzy, with this Sunday night's Drama Desk bonanza in the Town Hall - sponsored by Whatsonstage.com's new parent company, TheaterMania - followed in three weeks' time by the Tonys in Radio City.

The big fight on both occasions is in the best musical category between the new hit tuner Kinky Boots, and Matilda, the first with 13 Tony nominations, the second with only twelve!

I piled into Kinky Boots last night on a most glorious early summer evening in New York - not even a two-hour plane delay could keep me away - and found myself sitting behind Cameron Mackintosh and two of his top Broadway colleagues.

Nobody was saying much - beyond speculation as to the sexuality of the drag queen chorus line (two of us had been kidded into thinking that one of the "he's" was a she) - but the show is already in discussion -- with or without Cameron, who knows -- about a London opening some time next year.

For like Matilda, Kinky Boots is a very British-based show anyway, derived from Tim Firth's delightful movie about the turn-around in a failing shoe manufacturing business in Northampton, England (where the local football team is known as "The Cobblers," and not just because they're a load of rubbish), when they move into custom-made thigh-high leather red boots for show-time stompers and stalkers.

Pop queen Cyndi Lauper has written a feisty, if slightly utilitarian throwback pop score, a lot of it Bonnie Tyler-light, and the story of how Stark Sands as the company heir, Charlie Price, and Billy Porter as the outrageous drag queen, Lola, turn things around - and, on the way, deal with their respective daddy problems - has been given a huge breathy shove in Harvey Fierstein's libretto.

Jerry Mitchell's production places the show firmly in the camp (sic) of other British musicals with regional, working-class industrial backgrounds hovering between screen and stage - Billy Elliot, Brassed Off, The Full Monty, Calendar Girls (a musical version of the play of the film coming soon, apparently) and they all hark back in their old-fashioned way to shows of the 1970s such as Billy (based on Willis Hall and Keith Waterhouse's Billy Liar) and many others, including something I wish I'd forgotten called Pull Both Ends, set in a Christmas cracker factory.

What on earth Broadway audiences think of the fact that Lola is really called Simon and comes from Clacton-on-Sea in Essex, I've no idea; but Billy Porter is most affecting in the show when he forsakes his Shirley Bassey and Whitney Houston moments for pulling on a three-piece suit and playing straight from the heart.

The show's a blast, no question, but you just wonder where the Broadway musical is now heading: all the way back to No, No Nanette and Flower Drum Song? You can't legislate for originality or genius, obviously, but you do look at Kinky Boots, and Matilda for that matter, and do pine, just a little, for a touch of Michael Bennett, Hal Prince, even Maury Yeston, not to mention Andrew Lloyd Webber. Well, I do.

In the interval, Cameron treated us all (with his producer vouchers) to a boot-sized plastic beaker of red wine, part of the show's merchandise, selling for a mere $17 a go. And as my companion was the Financial Times New York office manager, Rivka Nachoma, we could reminisce about another Broadway show which really was touched with genius: Hair. Rivka was in the original Broadway cast, while Cameron bade his farewell to the stage (as a performer) by removing his clothes in the first UK touring production in Glasgow. Happy days.


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