Saturday, April 11, 2015

Broadway Buzz: Designing Kinky Boots

In a show called Kinky Boots, “you’ve gotta get the boots right,” says Gregg Barnes, costume and footwear designer for the Tony Award-winning musical. The show, based on a real story and independent film about a failing English shoe factory which turned its fortunes around by niche-marketing sturdy boots for drag artists, has become a sold-out Broadway phenomenon. With a book by Harvey Fierstein and a Tony winning score by pop icon Cyndi Lauper, Kinky Boots relies heavily on its visual designs, both fabulous and gritty; sets by David Rockwell and costumes by Barnes. Both creators credit Jerry Mitchell, the director and Tony-winning choreographer of the show, for pushing them to come up with creative solutions to difficult tasks; in Rockwell’s case, creating a realistic factory setting, which could also become a nightclub in London and a runway in Milan, and, in Barnes’ case, making everyday clothing for factory workers, fantastical frocks for drag performers and, of course, those boots. 

“This is my seventh collaboration with Jerry,” says Rockwell. “We just get together and play and respect each other’s opinions and listen. I try to come back with what he asked for, plus some sort of surprise. I think in a good design process, one plus one doesn’t equal two, it equals four or five.” Barnes concurs, adding that the director did a lot of research on the real shoe factory in Northampton, where Kinky Boots takes place: “I have to tip my hat to Jerry Mitchell. He’s really good about doing his homework.”

Mitchell provided both Rockwell and Barnes with photos and stories, which they incorporated in their designs. For a show as joyous as Kinky Boots, it’s surprising that its primary setting is a factory. But Rockwell wanted to create a realistic world for the storytelling. “I was inspired by the kind of romance of late 18th/19th century factories and ours is an abstractive collage,” says Rockwell. He created upper windows which are tinted in slight colors, to “create a place that can be very optimistic when it’s back-lit or very atmospheric when it’s saturated in darker colors.” 

Jerry Mitchell also came up with the idea of using conveyor belts, which are used as part of the workaday setting, and turning them into treadmills, which the cast dances on for the raucous first act finale, “Everybody Say Yeah.” Rockwell says it “took eight or nine months of R&D to get right,” adding that it’s his favorite moment in the show. “It is magical, because it enables Jerry and the cast to take something that you bought into throughout the show up to that point as a conveyor belt for making shoes, and turning it into this unbelievable production number.”

Likewise, Barnes found inspiration from Mitchell’s snapshots of factory workers, like an Elvis-obsessed stitcher in a mullet and colorful outfit. “What was fascinating was that – this light bulb goes off – every single person in the story, be it drag queen or factory worker, has a very unique thing to add. If you think of the recipe, they’re all ingredients.”

But Barnes’ biggest challenge turned out to be those thigh-high boots with six inch stiletto heels. “What’s really funny about our experience with Kinky Boots is that my team, and the cobblers who made the boots, we had the exact same story as in the musical,” explains Barnes. “Everything they talk about, in terms of reinforcing the heel and all of that stuff, we had the same learning curve!”

And those boots need to be durable, to support the six-foot tall dancers doing elaborate routines. Says Barnes: “We’re asking them to do slam splits and dancing and quick changes, being carted up and down stairs in baskets. And we have to make them look as if they’re brand new every night, yet survive eight shows a week.” Barnes adds that, after lots of experimentation and broken heels, they ultimately came up with designs that are so reliable, they’ve barely had to replace any boots in the musical’s Broadway run of over a year.

As for this touring production, both David Rockwell and Gregg Barnes promise it will be very much the same show as on Broadway. “We always say that the tour looks better than the original production,” jokes Barnes. “I don’t know if that’s always true, but you learn so much.” Barnes is taking the opportunity to redesign and improve many of the outfits. And Rockwell has worked to “maintain the real quality of the set,” while making it lighter, so it’s easier to assemble and take down and fit into the six trucks which will accompany the cast and crew on its cross-country journey. Certain elements have changed, but Rockwell says “none of those are things that an audience member looking at New York and looking at the tour will discern.”

Both men say they enjoy the enthusiasm audiences have shown for Kinky Boots. “You know, it’s amazing,” says Barnes. “I feel the same way. You can feel it walking into that theater. I think the audience comes so primed to have this joyous experience and it always rewards that.”


See the conveyor belts, boots and more in action May 19-24 at the Orpheum. Click here for tickets and more information.

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