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Cyndi Lauper struts onto Broadway with ‘Kinky Boots’

Cyndi Lauper at Sardi's Restaurant in Manhattan, NY.
(Jennifer S. Altman, For The Times)

NEW YORK — Cyndi Lauper, garlanded in enough jewelry to make the Queen of Sheba jealous, is wondering if she should add yet another bauble.

“It’s a whatchamacallit, like a Sicilian good luck charm. Whaddya think?” she asks a coterie of assistants buzzing around Sardi’s restaurant in Manhattan preparing her for a photo shoot.

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“Less is more,” someone pipes up.

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Lauper fixes her with a self-aware gaze. “Look who you’re talkin’ to,” she says.

Indeed, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, nothing succeeds like excess in the world of the 59-year-old Grammy-winning artist. In the last couple of years she has recorded a blues album, toured globally, written an autobiography, launched a reality TV series, and has written the songs for a new Broadway musical, “Kinky Boots.” The show, with a book by Harvey Fierstein and directed and choreographed by Jerry Mitchell, was scheduled to open Thursday.

The glitzy musical, based on a 2005 British comedy film, deals with Charlie, a young straight man whose failing shoe factory gets a boost thanks to Charlie’s chance encounter with Lola, a flamboyant black drag queen who needs pumps strong enough — and big enough — for a man.

“Sometimes a man doesn’t dress up like a woman because he wants to be a woman,” says Lauper of the fetishistic footwear. “He dresses like a woman to make him feel more like a man.”

Lauper’s crossover to Broadway is a natural for a pop star who once featured 50 drag queens in a video of her biggest hit, “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” and who has been a longtime activist for gay rights.

“I am a drag queen,” she asserts as she settles into a banquette at Sardi’s.

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What does being a drag queen mean to her? She sweeps a bejeweled hand over her short black dress and up to hair that evokes “Sweeney Todd’s” Mrs. Lovett by way of Vivienne Westwood.

“It’s performance art. You think I’m putting on a corset, changing the color of my hair, and not thinking about what star from what movie I’m emulating in a photograph?” says Lauper.

“You don’t put makeup on to enhance what you got. You draw the mouth you always wanted, the eyes you always wanted. Find out who was very glamorous who had your shape face even if your shape face isn’t very popular right now. Create yourself! That’s another way that I’m a drag queen.”

Lauper’s belief in the power of artifice fused with steely discipline is what made Fierstein think of her for “Kinky Boots” after he was recruited to write the libretto. They had known each other since the writer had burst onto the scene with “Torch Song Trilogy” in the early ‘80s, just before Lauper brought her own outsized theatricality to the pop world.

Once she started working with Fierstein on “Kinky Boots,” he demanded that she address him as “Mommie Dearest”; he called her “Christina.” But behind their camp personalities, the boy from Brooklyn and the girl from Queens recognized in each other an outer-borough resilience and love of craft.

“The music business is so tough on women; Cyndi had to fight for everything she’s ever gotten, just like the characters in the show,” says Fierstein. “She wasn’t sure she could do this. But we never doubted it. She has such heart.”

Fierstein says the original plan was “to ease” Lauper into the process by giving her a dance number to write, since Lola is a club performer. And, in fact, Lauper wrote “Sex Is in the Heel,” a song that rose to No. 6 on the Billboard dance charts, the first single from any Broadway show with that distinction.

But from the outset of “Kinky Boots,” she jumped into the deep end. She wrote “The Most Beautiful Thing,” an ensemble number that moves from a drab factory to a club to a fashionable London street.

Lauper says that the first thing she did was to go to a friend’s basement studio, determined to avoid what she calls “the Broadway sound.”

She asked him to lay a track of the song “You Are a Star” by the late disco artist Sylvester on top of a track of “With a Little Bit of Luck” from “My Fair Lady.” And then she got to work, marrying the sounds for some of the numbers in “Kinky Boots.”

“I’d play a song over the phone to Harvey and the others and they’d either say, ‘Wonderful, wonderful,’ or ‘horrible, horrible!’” She recalls. “I didn’t know what I was doing. But you gotta take chances, know what I mean?”

Taking chances is what Lauper has been doing since childhood — one part dreamer, two parts ambition. Her parents divorced when she was young but she inherited from her Sicilian American mother — who goes by the stage name Catrine Dominique — a love of art, music and the movies. (“Broadway was where all the rich people went,” she says.)

The family couldn’t afford to go to Broadway, but Lauper listened to and sang along to original cast albums. “I wanted my mom to see ‘Kinky Boots’ so she’d know that all those records I requested were kinda worthwhile.”

Her late father, Fred, was more taciturn. He played xylophone, slide guitar and harmonica. “He was a sad, lost soul at times,” says Lauper, adding that she felt “the loneliness between the notes” of his songs. He inspired her to teach herself to play a dulcimer.

FULL COVERAGE: 2013 Spring arts preview

The sweet mournfulness of the instrument has her thinking about another creative venture: a new musical about the music of Appalachia, the lives of the “back porch” women, coal miners and suffragettes.

The tender relationship between Fred Lauper and his daughter came into play in “Kinky Boots.” One of the show’s themes is articulated in the desperate attempts by both Charlie and Lola to please their respective fathers.

“Harvey said to me, ‘Write a song called “I’m Not My Father’s Son,”’" says Lauper. “And you know, sad stuff happens to you. And angry stuff too. And all that goes into a song. But you gotta choose happiness.”

As a child, she’d launch paper boats into the East River, filled with wishes. “I’ve always had one foot someplace else and one foot right on the ground,” she says. The airy Cyndi is circling the fifth ring of Saturn, dreaming up another incarnation and a different hair color. The grounded Cyndi lives on the Upper West Side of Manhattan with actor David Thornton, her husband of 22 years, and Declyn, their 15-year-old son.

“He’s into hockey,” says Lauper of her son. “And don’t they put those hockey rinks in the middle of nowhere!”

She takes a sip of wine — she had asked for “biodynamic” or organic wine, to no avail — and asks the waiter to wrap up her uneaten beet salad.

“I always tell Declyn that the difference between people who are successful and those who are not is not giving up,” she says. “You can’t listen to what somebody tells you: ‘You’re not all this, and you’re not all that.’ I love it when somebody tells me that. I just sit there thinking, ‘You know what, darling? Watch me soar. Then sit back and eat my dust.’ And maybe, just maybe, they’ll say, ‘Hey, I was wrong about that dame.’”

calendar@latimes.com

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