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SOMETIME IN 1983, THE world sat up and noticed on TV a petite redhead dancing like a crazy person in an MTV video. She had a voice like no other - a big expressive lyric-soprano that verged on shrill screaming. And the song that would thenceforth be played at every female-dominated event from fashion shows to women conference after-parties was Girls Just Want To Have Fun.
Cyndi Lauper was her name, and she would follow up her monster hit with three other hits from her aptly-titled album She’s So Unusual. They earned her the Best New Artist award at the 27th Grammy Awards in 1985, and turned her into a new wave music and feminist icon who didn’t pander to mainstream tastes by streamlining her sound or looks.
After the enormous success of her second album True Colours in 1986, Lauper saw her career wane. Subsequent albums didn’t match the record-topping sales of the first two. And her penchant for tackling difficult issues openly in her music, such as racism, homophobia and spousal abuse, didn’t sit well with listeners who loved the carefree, wild-child persona of her first decade.
In this decade, however, Lauper has found her second wind. Her 2010 album Memphis Blues became the most successful blues album of the year, with a chart success trailing only behind She’s So Unusual and True Colours. And in 2013, she became the first solo female composer ever to win a Tony award for Kinky Boots, a musical that’s grossed US$297million on Broadway alone. Now 65, Lauper is seeing it storm across the world, from England and Germany, to Japan and now Singapore.
Kinky Boots is based on the true story of a man trying to revive his family's failing shoe business. At his wit’s end, he meets Lola, a drag queen and cabaret performer whose big feet need some sturdy stilettos. The two team up to design and sell kinky boots, deftly turning the business around.
You had never done musicals before, but when you were asked to write the music and lyrics of Kinky Boots, you said “yes”. Why?
I was drawn to the story, the idea of two men who on the surface appear to be the opposites of each other. But they become friends because of the commonality of their human experiences, the humanity they both share. Also, it’s a story that doesn’t progress in a normal way, but all kinds of ways. One minute you’re laughing, the next minute you’re crying. And if you know anything about me, you know I like things that are out-of-the-box.
You’re now working on the music for another film-to-musical adaptation, the 1988 Oscar winner Working Girl. Both Kinky Boots and Working Girl are about underdogs who win against all odds. Is this a theme you’re drawn to?
I don’t think of them as underdogs as much as real people whom I’ve crossed paths with in my life. These are stories about what’s going on in the world, the struggles of real people and how they find redemption. And I’m a real sucker for that, you know, the idea that we all evolve and find redemption somehow.
You do sad songs (True Colours, Time After Time) very well. But even in your uptempo songs, like Girls Just Want To Have Fun and The Goonies ‘R’ Good Enough, there’s always a shade of loss, longing or melancholy in them. For instance, in Girls, there’s a line that goes: “Some boys take a beautiful girl / And hide her away from the rest of the world” – although the rest of the song is spunky and celebratory. That’s something distinctive about your music. Why are you drawn to the sad side?
Well, that’s just life. Joy and sadness are just two sides of the same coin. When I do a song, I try to do both sides.
Is that perspective shaped by your early struggles? (Before becoming a star, Lauper endured years of hardship and poverty, even once skinning and cooking a squirrel because she was broke. In her teenage years, her stepfather sexually harassed her, forcing her to leave home.)
That’s the funny thing about making songs. You take something from your life, and then take someone else’s story – or even a scrap a dialogue you chance upon as you’re walking down the street – and you mix them all in to create this new world of a song. And if you can somehow make that world simple, relatable and yet deep – which is very hard – you can touch another human being.
Why is it “very hard”?
Because you don’t know if something will work. There's no formula to it. It’s such a fine line between silly and profound. Sometimes I’m working with a team and we’re throwing up ideas and we think, “Wow, we’ve found something good here.” And then the next day we come back to the studio and realise what we thought was good was actually kind of silly. So it’s really hard to find something that’s simple but real and deep.
What are the challenges of creating songs for an album versus a musical?
When you’re working on an album, each song is kind of impressionistic. It can be what you want it to be based on what you’re seeing or experiencing at that point in your life. But when you’re doing a musical, there’s a story you’re following and every song has to move the plot forward; how you feel goes out the window because you’re servicing the story. And no matter how many times you write a song, the director always wants you to redo it. And after that the actors come in and sing it, and then you have redo it again – and that’s why the process of creating a stage production takes a long time.
Is there one song that you're extremely proud of, that perhaps your fans have overlooked?
Not so much song, but album: I thought Sisters Of Avalon, my fifth album released in 1996, was very good. It was musically different and dealt with serious issues such as discrimination against women, gays and minority groups. A lot of critics praised it. But the record label for various reasons didn’t promote it. So it didn’t do very well and didn’t reach a lot of listeners… But, well, as artists, our job is to just create something and put it out there in the world and then, who knows?
Kinky Boots is now showing at Marina Bay Sands till Oct 14.