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Paw Paw-bred director gave "Kinky Boots" its kick
It didn't take Jerry Mitchell long to see how "Kinky Boots" could work as a hit Broadway musical.
The 2005 film was based on the true story of conservative Charlie Price, who's inherited his family's struggling shoe factory. In a bid to save the business, he forms an alliance with drag queen Lola to manufacture a line of footware far more flamboyant than the straight-laced men's dress shoes the company was known for.
An odd fit for the stage? Michigan native Mitchell -- who won his first Tony Award for choreographing the 2005 stage adaptation of "La Cage aux Folles" and subsequently took home another Tony for "Kinky Boots" -- didn't think so.
"Something inside of me said, 'There is a chance with this story," explains Mitchell, 54, a native of Lincoln Park who was raised in Paw Paw, Mich. He was nominated for another Tony for his direction of "Kinky Boots," which also won Best Musical and Best Score for pop singer Cyndi Lauper.
"Kinky Boots" opens an 11-day run this week at Detroit's Fisher Theatre.
"I thought that the relationship between Charlie and Lola was amazing," Mitchell adds. "There was a scene in the film in the bathroom where the two guys find they're very much alike. They come from completely opposite ends of the Earth but find out they have a lot in common. That, to me, brought the possibility of a universal theme that we all are much more alike than we are not alike, and I thought if there was a way to capture that, that could really mean something."
The factory setting also resonated with Mitchell.
"Factory workers represented a big part in my life," he says. "I grew up in a small town in Michigan. My family had a family business, a bar that their parents had but neither my brothers nor myself took it over. But the people that worked for my parents all the years growing up were like family and substitute parents, almost, when my parents weren't around.
"So in ('Kinky Boots'), Charlie has that relationship with all those people in the factory. There was just so much for me to draw upon, it felt like it was a really grounded idea for a musical."
With other credits that include "The Full Monty," "Legally Blonde: The Musical," "Catch Me If You Can" and revivals of "Grease," "You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown," "The Rocky Horror Show" and "Gypsy," the Great White Way is certainly a long way from Paw Paw. But that's where Mitchell -- also an athlete who played basketball and football and ran track -- developed his love for theater and dance.
"When I was playing sports I was dancing or hanging out at the (Paw Paw Village Players) playhouse. It all went hand in hand for me," he recalls. During his senior year of high school he toured with the Young Americans company's production of "West Side Story" and then won a scholarship to study Fine Arts at Webster University in St. Louis.
When director Michael Bennett hired him for the touring company of "A Chorus Line," however, Mitchell's career was fully launched. He eventually won roles dancing in "The Will Rogers Follies," "Brigadoon" and "On Your Toes" and began his choreography career with the 1990 world premiere of "Jeckyll & Hyde" -- and hasn't looked back since.
"I think that my niche is stories that inspire and leave audiences with hope," he says. "The musicals that do that are the ones I tend to gravitate towards." He felt that way about "Kinky Boots" after producer Daryl Roth bought the rights to the film after seeing it at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival, partnering with Hal Luftig. The two approached Mitchell, who in turn suggested Harvy Fierstein to write the book. Fierstein's brother, meanwhile, was the one who suggested Lauper for the score.
"We gave her two scenes and she wrote 'Not My Father's Son' and 'the Most Beautiful Thing in the World.' When I hear 'Not My Father's Son' I started to cry; it really spoke to me," Mitchell says. "That's when I knew she understood those characters. She had a built-in connection with them and we started working, and she was great."
Mitchell says he was surprised by "Kinky Boots' " success but had an indication it would work during the final presentation for investors in New York. "Harvey and I and Cin were at the back of the rehearsal studio, and we saw straight, grown men who have a lot of money crying," he remembers. "They usually don't applaud at these presentations let alone actually get moved by the story. So we knew we had something."
"Kinky Boots" has more in its future, too. In addition to the U.S. a Canadian touring company will hit the road this summer with a London production slated to open some time this year. It remains a strong seller on Broadway, and a Korean version of the show has also opened.
As far as a trip back to the big screen, Mitchell says "there has been no talk that I've heard of," although that was broached around the time "Kinky Boots" opened on Broadway in 2013. "Immediately after we opened I said, 'This is a perfect show to make into a musical now," says Mitchell, who's currently working on the musical "On Your Feet" about Gloria and Emilio Estefan and "Gotta Dance," an adaptation of the film documentary about the New Jersey Nets basketball team's senior citizen hip-hop dance corps.
"I think I know the way in. The character Lola, because he performs in a club, offers you the opportunity to bring music to any telling of the story. Movies are tricky; there has to be some reality in the music, but I think this has it."
Fisher Theatre in the Fisher Building, 3011 W. Grand Blvd., Detroit
Call 313-872-1000 or visit www.broadwayindetroit.com for showtimes and ticket details.
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