Ever since my soul and flesh slammed into New York City (which is another story involving a blizzard of the century), I have loved her fiercely. She a magical beast that you can lose yourself in and reinvent yourself as many times as you wish, so a visit with NYC never fails to make me giddy. I recently had the chance to spend a few days in New York City, and, against my usual modus operandi, I did almost no planning, which is sometimes the best kind of planning. The only thing on my must-do list was to see a Broadway show, because that is the one non-negotiable with any of my trips to NYC. I decided to let NYC plan the rest, and so I ended up attending two vastly different, but both masterful, shows on the same day: Kinky Books, a fully-realized musical production with music and lyrics by Cyndi Lauper playing in the gorgeously ornate Hirschfeld Theatre, and Drunk Shakespeare, a froliking kind-of interactive and improv happening involving a cast of 6 wearing their own street clothes that takes place in a small library on the 4th floor of a nondescript building. How the stars aligned for me to experience both is not the point, the point is that I was struck how both shows were expert examples of the absolute importance of theatre on both personal and social levels.
For the spectator, theatre allows us to indulge our imaginations and escape for a short while. The same is true of movies and books, of course, but there is something special about being transported merely through sets, costumes and actors. Kinky Boots is the quintessential Broadway musical experience. Stepping into a theatre is, for me, like stepping into another world. I never feel as disconnected (in a good way) from the outside world as I do when I’m sitting on that red velvet chair. It’s like my own personal magic carpet.
Theatre is storytelling at its heart and allows us to experience other times, places, and cultures that we may have not otherwise been, or will ever be, exposed to. By bearing witness to others’ triumphs and struggles and ways of life, we expand our world references and can increase our capacity to relate and empathize. It can also help us make sense of ourselves and the world around us. Kinky Boots is set in the conservative town of Northampton, England, where our protagonist, Charlie, inherits his father’s failing shoe factory. Although the last thing Charlie wanted was to inherit his father’s business, he now feels loyal to the workers and responsible for keeping the factory running. The only problem is, how? Through circumstance, enter Lola, a black drag queen entertainer from London who challenges Charlie and the town to expand their minds and their world. Charlie and Lola team up to start manufacturing a new kinky boot of, as Lola says, “2 ½ feet of irresistible, tubular sex” instead of an outdated, stodgy men’s shoe.
The road to success is not easy for Lola or Charlie: Lola initially experiences physical and verbal assaults from one of the factory workers and Charlie splits with his fiancee, who can’t, bless her cold, corporate heart, figure out why Charlie wants to a) stay in Northampton and b) save his father’s factory. Everything rests on Charlie, Lola, and the workers having a new line of shoes ready in time for the a fashion show in Milan. But, while Milan is important to the story in that it does, indeed, save the shop, the real heart of the show beats around Charlie and Lola, and what we learn by watching them interact with each other and the town. It is through watching these different struggles and situations play out that theatre becomes relatable and teachable and, in the case of Kinky Boots, at times wonderfully witty and hilarious.
Peppered with fantastic music and lyrics by the iconic Cyndi Lauper and book by Harvey Fierstein, Kinky Boots challenges our thoughts about what love and self-love really means, having the courage to be true to ourselves, friendship, sacrifices, our sometimes soul-crushing fears, and ugly preconceived prejudices about strangers, and the real notion of what being a family means.
From the inspirational song “Take What You Got” about taking the risks worth taking to the hilarious “The Sex Is In the Heel” about the re-uh-vamping of Price & Co’s shoes to the tear-inducing “Soul of a Man” ballad co-sung by Charlie and Lola about their fathers, with whom they both had strained relationships, to the funny and adorable “History Of Wrong Guys” sung by Lauren, Charlie’s loyal, longtime friend/factory worker, upon realizing her long-heald crush on Charlie. (spoiler, of course they end up together) The showstopper, though, is the final song: a feel-good, motivational power ballad that finally busts the heart. “Raise You Up/Just Be” is a 6 minute plus booster shot of encouragement, self-acceptance, and inclusion that we all need right now. In fact, the cast breaks the ‘fourth wall’ and gets the audience on their feet to take part in the feel-good fun, eliciting my favorite of emotions, happy tears through laughter. And, yes, it is the bigoted and narrow-minded macho factory work who had previously given Lola (and Charlie) hell that unties the workers in the end to save the factory, having learned some necessary lessons along the way. This is the kind of show that is as entertaining as it is food for thought.
Since I was letting New York plan the day, I had not predetermined what I was going to do after Kinky Boots. Good thing, too. It was about 4:25 as I exited in my usual post-musical high, and I immediately knew I needed another hit of theatre. I quickly made my way through the crowd at Times Square towards the TKTS booth, which sells day off theatre tickets at 40-50 percent discounts. Though musicals are my weakness, I’m definitely not opposed to other theatre experiences, so I chose the off-Broadway Drunk Shakespeare at 8pm. And then New York, and theatre, get even more magical. I go to pay for the ticket and am told that it’s cash only for that particular show. My ticket is $36. “Oh no,” I say, crestfallen, “I only have 29 dollars on me.” The man looks, smiles and winks, saying, “That’s ok, I’ll make it work, babe.” Say what you want about New York City, it can deliver small miracles and mercies faster than lightning. Ticket in hand, I practically skip the 4 blocks down to Carmine’s (the touristy but just oh so fun pre-theatre Italian joint I first experienced in 1998). I secure a seat at the bar and pass the time with a glass of wine, food, and chatting with the bartender.
But back to another reason I believe in theatre: it’s ability to be absolutely contemporary in its content and be able to create what Brene Brown calls “collective effervescence”, best described as that warm-fuzzy feeling one gets by simply being part of a group experiencing something great, like a concert, or the second show I ended up seeing, Drunk Shakespeare. Maybe my standards aren’t as high as they should be, but I loved this show as soon I showed up to the address and the only signage was written in red paint on the wall on the first floor of the building: “Drunk Shakespeare” and an arrow pointing up. Two flights of stairs brings you to the “theatre”, which has a small gathering place/lobby with a bar. Behind a curtain is the performance space, a small theatre-in-the-round creation that holds maybe 75 people, made up to resemble a ‘library’ in that the walls are lined from floor to ceiling with books. I literally gasp at the adorableness of the space. Then I get handed a light shot of some kind of bourbon, and I again gush. To make a long story short, the show is called Drunk Shakespeare because it involves one member of the troupe, in full view of the audience as the show is starting, taking a few shots of tequila. They also choose one audience member to take one shot along with the actor, to verify that said actor is, in fact, drinking alcohol. Like I said, it’s an interactive experience, and a side-splitting hilarious one at that. This show, while loosely following the plot of Macbeth, does not (save for a few of the great original lines/soliloquies from the Bard himself) use the original language, but instead is largely improved and infused with (a lot) of tangential audience participation, contemporary rhetoric, cultural references and witty, on-point social commentary. This can also be a secondary aim of theatre as it was in Shakespeare’s time – to “hold the mirror up to nature” as he says – to show us who we are as individuals and as a collective society. Theatre, used in this way, is a tool of education, not just entertainment, and I love the ‘escape’ of a Broadway musical as much as I cherish a lush, immersive experience such as Drunk Shakespeare.
It’s been proven by studies from the University of Arkansas that live theatre increases a person’s social perspectives, tolerance and vocabulary! So the next time you’re scrambling for a gift idea, try grabbing a couple of seats at a local production of anything! I promise you won’t regret it! Theatre can make us a happier, more peaceful, and smarter society!