The Wilde Side of Kinky Boots

Oscar Wilde, and the cast of the hit musical Kinky Boots
Oscar Wilde, and the cast of the hit musical Kinky Boots

By Matt Skwiat, Editorial Assistant

The message of the biggest show on Broadway is subtly inspired by Oscar Wilde.

Kinky Boots, playing at the Al Hirschfeld Theater, has taken New York by storm. Winner of the 2013 Tony award for Best New Musical, it also won best new musical at the Drama League Awards and the Outer Circle Critic Awards. With an ad campaign proclaiming “Everyone say yeah!” it was clear from the start that the musical was going to be a whole lot of fun. But little did I suspect that it would be so emotionally compelling, or that the show’s heartbeat emanates from a very Irish source.

At face value, one would be hard pressed to detect anything Irish from the musical, which is set in the North of England and stars two Americans, with a score by Queens native and first-time Tony winner Cyndi Lauper. The plot centers around Charlie Parker, played by Tony-nominated Stark Sands, as he tries to come to terms with his father’s legacy and rescue his failing shoe business. Lola, a drag queen played by the excellent Billy Porter in a Tony award-winning performance, befriends Charlie after he rescues her from a brawl outside her nightclub, and is hired as a designer of glamorous shoes for larger feet to boost the shoe business.

The Irish angle comes from none other than Oscar Wilde. In the first act, the sparkling Lola tells the down-on-his-luck Charlie to “be yourself, everyone else is already taken.” Wilde’s oft-quoted lines reveal the glittering message at the heart of this truly revelatory musical, namely that we are all unique and we shouldn’t be afraid to be ourselves.

Wilde’s plays of the 1890s broke with conventional theatre and were infused with a witty satire that set Wilde apart from the other playwrights of his day while commenting on issues of gender, sexuality, and class; all themes which Kinky Boots also explores. Kinky Boots does not go as deep as any of Wilde’s plays, but the character Lola shimmers with Wildean complexity. We first meet her at a nightclub decked out in glamtastic heels belting out “The Land of Lola” as she dances around the stage. Her lines are both witty and direct as can be seen in another Lola inspired number “The Sex is in the Heel.” With this wit, however, comes a surprisingly sensitive center as she reveals that trapped beneath the makeup and heels is a man looking for his father’s approval, which Porter beautifully reveals in “I’m Not my Father’s Son.”

Lola’s character owes a great deal to Wilde’s genius. In plays like “Woman of No Importance” and most wittily in “Importance of Being Earnest,” the reversal of roles and the androgyny of identity are center stage. Women, like Lady Bracknell, appear masculinely strong and intellectually superior, choosing the study of philosophy over housework, while the men femingly prance around creating clever catch-phrases while enjoying cucumber sandwiches. At its heart, Importance of Being Earnest is about finding one’s true identity in a world of suffocating sameness, a theme Kinky Boots shows off in sequins.

Porter is indeed a highlight of the show, but not the only highlight. The music is everything you could want, from foot tapping dance numbers to powerhouse ballads. Wilde’s whole life was about preaching the importance of the uniqueness of the individual, and Kinky Boots supplies this in stride. It’s an exhilarating musical from start to finish that leaves you feeling good, with a message of acceptance Wilde would be proud of.

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