BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
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This week, the Broadway musical Kinky Boots swept the nominations for the Tony Awards, with 13, among them, the best direction by Jerry Mitchell, best book by Harvey Fierstein and best score by Cyndi Lauper.
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The New York Times noted that if she wins, she’ll become the first woman ever to win solo in the category. The musical is based on the 2005 British movie about a real-life struggling shoe factory that finds new life in producing quality boots for a transvestite, which makes perfect sense as a subject for Lauper, not just because of her advocacy of LGBT issues, but because it hits, yet again, the guiding theme of her life, as recounted in her new memoir and in her work, since her emergence as a pop artist in the eighties.
Be whoever you choose to be: a simple message, tough to carry out, which she knows all too well.
[CYNDI LAUPER SINGING “GIRLS JUST WANT TO HAVE FUN”]
Recently, I had a long conversation with Cyndi Lauper before a live audience in the Greene Space here at WNYC, and we started by playing the video of the song that introduced her to the world.
[CLIP: “GIRLS JUST WANT TO HAVE FUN”]
CYNDI LAUPER: If it’s just a radio show, are they watching it-
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The people listening to the webcast are watching it and can watch it in –
CYNDI LAUPER: Oh!
BROOKE GLADSTONE: - perpetuity. But you didn’t really want to sing that song, did you?
CYNDI LAUPER: Not in the beginning because, you know, it was written by a guy and, of course, a guy’s not gonna sing about what I’d want to sing about. It’s a guy! Could you imagine? So, you know, when he said, you know, “Father dear, we are the fortunate ones,” you know, my little rebel heart took issue with it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: We have a little snippet of Robert Hazard’s Bowie-esque original.
CYNDI LAUPER: Uh – do you, do you know, there is something cool about this that nobody else ever heard.
[CLIP/ROBERT HAZARD SINGING: “GIRLS JUST WANT TO HAVE FUN”]
Rick Chertoff collected these songs and was looking for a singer. He didn’t know he was gonna – get – me.
You know, it’s like a dress, you go to the department store, you try on a dress? Let me tell you, not every dress fits good on you. Same with a song. You put a song on, you have to know the story that you are tellin’, you have to come from a place where you own the story because you know it. And when you connect to it and you tell the truth, you will resonate the truth to a listener. And when it came to “Girls,” they couldn’t get “Girls” to sit right. Rick said to me, “Listen.” He said, “Think of what it could mean if you sang it.” And I thought about it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You wrote that you had the faces of a lot of sad women in your head when you were reconstructing that song, and it's not by accident that your mom was in the video.
CYNDI LAUPER: Well –
BROOKE GLADSTONE: She was caught in – the kind of trap that you didn't want to be in.
CYNDI LAUPER: It wasn’t just me. You look at all the women of that time, or even women now who still struggle all over the world, you don't always get the fair shake that everybody thinks you get. In fact, you get a half a handshake, basically. And I just felt like when he said, “Think of what it could mean,” I saw my grandmother, I saw my aunts and I saw my mother. These were women that were disenfranchised. You gotta understand, my family came from Sicily.
In Sicily, they don't look at women like an opportunity for a life. They look at women as two opportunities: You marry ‘em off to somebody wealthy or they stay home as free domestic help. You know, they don't go out and get educated. They weren’t allowed to write, you know, stories.
So I did it, and when I did it, I made sure I got as many multiracial girls as I could in the lineup, so that no matter where it played in the world or the country, any little girl of any color could look at themselves and see themselves and know that they too should have a joyful existence and are, you know, entitled. And we did it under the guise of fun. While we were all laughing and I was the big idiot, the big thing was everybody, every woman is entitled, not just some. So I felt proud that we were able to get by the gatekeepers, you know?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You left Ozone Park at 17.
CYNDI LAUPER: Yes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You stuffed a change of underwear, an apple, and a book in a paper bag.
CYNDI LAUPER: Yes, and a – and a book called Grapefruit.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: By Yoko Ono.
CYNDI LAUPER: Yes, it changed my life. The Beatles, Joni Mitchell, the Rolling Stones, Sly and the Family Stone, all of those wonderful songs that helped me exist, and my mother’s beautiful books. You know, she always had the Rubaiyats of Omar Khayyam. You know, she took us to see Shakespeare at the Delacorte Theater. She never took us to see Broadway. It was – she thought it was too expensive, but I learned all her records, ‘cause that’s what I sang. At four years old, I played “The King and I” every day, every day –
- so much so that my grand – and I knew every word and every breath and every character – my grandmother came from upstairs, she walked downstairs, opened the door, took the record off of the little red record player, went back upstairs with it, without saying a word.
And then when “Funny Girl” happened, she gave up.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I know that you were hitchhiking around. You had to train yourself on how not to be hungry.
CYNDI LAUPER: That was –
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You had some really bad experiences –
CYNDI LAUPER: Yeah, but I did not want to have success on somebody else's terms. Everything I wanted to do, I wanted to own it. I wanted it to be mine.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You wrote in your book that from the very start you were hell-bent on mixing art and music, the visual and the sound and the story. “I wanted to be larger than life, to look completely different. I wanted to be a painting.”
CYNDI LAUPER: I am still a painting. They painted me for hours.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you feel a kinship at all with Lady Gaga?
CYNDI LAUPER: Well, I think that she grew up watching me and Madonna and Annie Lennox and Boy George, and I think all of it influenced her her. And also, she was an art major.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Madonna emerged just a little bit after you, and her record company and the media tried to cook up some kind of rivalry.
CYNDI LAUPER: Well, you know, it's always that way with women. They always have to pit one against the other. You know, not very imaginative, is it? And I didn't like to be pit against another woman. I couldn't do that. And I just felt kinda lost because I thought they appreciated my art and, all of a sudden, it was this contest. And I just felt like, you know, I want to make great music and I want to kick some butt. And she was a wonderful businesswoman you never – I don't know that she really got into fights with anyone. She was much smarter, where I lost my allies and I said like all the wrong things to the right people.
And I never explained how I felt. I would find myself in situations and then be like, “Yeah, well, you know, F.U.” I can’t say that, can I? It’s public radio.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: We can bleep it.
CYNDI LAUPER: Well, I just said “F.”
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Oh, that you can totally say.
CYNDI LAUPER: All right, so –
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But we’ll bleep it anyway, just so it sounds more authentic.
CYNDI LAUPER: Oh – well, you know, like the first record company I went to – and maybe that’s why it probably took so long – I was signed by this German company. They said to me, “We’re gonna make you into the next Streisand.” And I looked at them, I said, “Why you want to do that for?”
I’d say, “What kind of lobotomy do I need?” I said, “Listen, why don’t you find somebody else and do that?” And I think everybody at the table choked ‘cause he happened to be the president. But, you know what, if you can't be honest, why you wanna live a life where - why would you suffer so long to finally get to a place where you couldn't tell the truth and be yourself - in the arts and in music? You know, everybody said, “Well, what happened to the music?” Yeah, what happened to your music? It became full of sh [BLEEP]. It became not truthful.
In the eighties, all those crazy outfits and hairdos, yeah, they were rough and wild and weird, but it originated with the people who were singing and performing; it originated with the performers. And there’s some idiot come in and say, “Well, I don’t think you should do that.” You know, somebody told me, they said, “Oh, I think your makeup, it shouldn't be like that.” And I'm thinkin’ to myself, “That's right, biatch – soon as you’re outta here.”
And then it just – from then on it became war paint. That’s what turned me around. You know, in 1989 they used to say to me, well, what the hell is that you’re wearin’? Why can’t you wear jeans and a t-shirt like Katrina and the Waves?
I’d be like – oh my God! You know -
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You weren’t walking on sunshine?
I, I wanted to take some Sunshine.
You know, the problem was that they also threatened you because George Michaels, when he tried to get out of the contract, they sued him and said they were gonna tie up his career, and look how his career is ruined. You will be ruined! They always threatened me with ruination. And after a while, when I was ruined, I figured, hey, I could do whatever the hell I want now because, you know, once you’re on the bottom what are they gonna do, put another nail in the coffin? Obviously, it didn’t work, did it, because they keep coming back, so what the hell!
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What always struck me about your singing, the whole honest thing that you do, is its fearlessness and its generosity. And I found this 1985 clip of you with Patti LaBelle.
[CLIP: “TIME AFTER TIME”]
I wish I could play the whole thing.
CYNDI LAUPER: Truthfully, when I heard sing “Time after Time,” I cried inside. I felt like well, it’s one of the greatest voices, ever, and she’s singing one of my songs. And I was always told – you know, I had to fight so hard to get my – my own songs on my own record because I was told that I wasn't a good enough writer. And I was always told most of my life that a, a woman with a big voice sings, not writes. And then Mariah Carey came along she gave ‘em one for, good for her.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: After that, obviously, it was smooth sailing, except for –
CYNDI LAUPER: No, it wasn’t.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: - the bankruptcy and losing your voice and –
CYNDI LAUPER: My path was never like anybody else's, even after I freakin’ became famous, when I thought, okay, now it’s easy street. The easy street I have not found, except for when Harvey Fierstein called me up, and I’d finished a punishment tour, which I thought, oh, do a rough ride and go to – go to Europe, it doesn’t matter, get on a smelly stinky bus, you know, sweat, be grungy. I don’t like dirt!
So when Harvey called me and he said, do you want to write for me, this was Harvey Fierstein who is a great storyteller. I admire him so much, and he called me and asked me if I want to write for him, of course, I said yes. It's been a - an unbelievable experience for me. And I chased over the whole world and I felt like Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz, you know, the Lion, the Tin Man and the Scarecrow; I had all three of ‘em walking me through: Steve Oremus, Jerry Mitchell and Harvey Fierstein – you know who’s who –
And I realized at the end, after I chased the whole world, what I shoulda just looked at was my own backyard because Broadway is a very comfortable place for me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: “Kinky Boots” is based on the British film about an old school shoe company passed down three generations. It’s going under. The son can either fire the employees he grew up or reinvent the company. What they have to do is find a niche market.
CYNDI LAUPER: And he happens to bump into Lola, a drag queen, being attacked. And she had pulled off her shoe and said, “I can handle the likes of these guys” and knocks them out with her shoe. And then he told her later on, “Oh, I could fix this, cheaply made.” And she says, “No, expensive shoes, cheaply made,” Lola said. So he went back and he was still struggling, and all of a sudden he realized the niche market was sittin’ right in front of him on the chair. He could make a kinky boot, you know, or a boot. He didn’t know how kinky yet.
You know, it’s a development thing for him.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Yeah, that goes on. Now let’s play –
CYNDI LAUPER: “Step One.”
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The revelation, “Step One.”
CYNDI LAUPER: Are they gonna see this?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Yes.
CYNDI LAUPER: On the radio?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ah, no –
[STARK SANDS SINGING “STEP ONE”]:
This is time for a shakeup
Look at me, wake up
This is a new beginning,
My gears are spinning
Let’s rock ‘n roll
Just put one foot onward and forward
Used to be a zero
But now I really feel that I may be the hero
Who reinvents the heel
I may be facing the impossible
I may be chasing after miracles
And there may be the steepest mountain
But this is step one
This is step one.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: A member of the audience asked what were her sources of inspiration over the years.
CYNDI LAUPER: It doesn’t matter. You know, it comes from someplace excellent. Who cares? You know, just be open to anything, ‘cause when you’re creating, it feels – it feels bigger than yourself. And it’s better to be involved with things that are bigger than yourself sometimes. And also, you have to always, always remember - and me too, I’m, I’m like a bully – I have to remember kindness and generosity. And with that, things come. Knit, for goodness sakes, if it makes you feel good. Do creative things. It feeds the other side of your brain. You know, do any kind of music. Play a freakin’ instrument. It’s joyful. It's joyful. It makes you feel better. I play a dulcimer because them open fifths, when you strum it, ahh, it’s so soothing. You know? It’s just soothing. And, you know, that’s scientific ‘cause there’s a doctor that worked in maybe Creedmoor – no, not Creedmoor, Bellevue!
And he worked with tuning forks. I got them tuning forks. And they have the open fifths, very soothing. So I thought, ahh, it’s scientific.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: My conversation with Cyndi Lauper lasted more than an hour. What you just heard is a heavily edited construction, based on a wide-ranging journey through her mind and heart. It stops in the recording studio, various churches, grunge fashion, the music industry, reality TV, her mother’s womb, the White House, and much, much more. Plus, video. To take it all in, go onthemedia.org.
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