Jerry Mitchell on the healing power of Kinky Boots

Jerry Mitchell, acclaimed Broadway musical theatre director and choreographer, is no stranger to Australian audiences. His work has been Tony and Helpmann Award nominated (he’s won a few of each!), proving that he knows how to translate themes across continents, no matter the background of the viewer.

In the following interview, Mitchell talks to us about Kinky Boots (his latest Australian hit) and tells us why the social climate surrounding the Australian production is nearly identical to when the show opened on Broadway, why the show has the ability to unite and reconcile audiences on issues of social difference, and why theatre is such a strong medium when it comes to discussing change and promoting advocacy.

Have the characters or scenarios in Kinky Boots taught you anything about yourself? What aspect of the show resonates most with you?

Jerry Mitchell, Harvey Fierstein and Cyndi Lauper, the original creative team of Kinky Boots.

I think it has taught me to be more tolerant and to accept myself for my failures and successes, and I think that’s part of what the show teaches you. By doing that, by accepting yourself, you can accept others. I think the theme of fathers and the relationship you have with your father is highlighted in the show, and whether that’s a good or a bad relationship, it’s one that each and every one of us has, and every one of us has to acknowledge in our lives in order to move forward and become the person we’re supposed to be. That’s the story of the show. I think it really makes you think about your parents, or parents think about their kids.

Looking back on your goals at the start of your career, were your aspirations lofty enough to predict that one day you would be opening a production of your Tony Award winning show in Australia?

Oh, I’ve got one even better for you! Looking back at my career, and the things that I wanted to do, did I ever think that I would come to Australia three times with three shows, and win Helpmann Awards from when Legally Blonde was here? No, I never thought that in a million years. You don’t think about that when you’re young and starting out, all I thought was, oh god, I want to do a Broadway show! And then suddenly I got a Broadway show, and then another Broadway show, and then one of the shows became a hit (the first hit was Hairspray for me), and then Hairspray was being done all over the world and I got to go to all of those places… You go to those places and it opens up your eyes to, “oh my god, there’s a whole group of actors down here that I didn’t know existed, I could work with them on anything!” Korea, London… You realise that Broadway isn’t the only place where you’re going to find top quality, top rate actors and musicians and composers, and people who love doing the exact same thing you love. Why not open yourself up to the possibility of collaborating with them?

What message do you want the average Australian audience member of Kinky Boots to take away from the show, and what do you want a young audience member who is perhaps questioning their gender identity or sexuality to get out of the show?

The show isn’t really about gender identity (it’s not the theme of the show), but you’re dealing with a character that loves to wear women’s clothes. There’s something powerful in that, seeing such a positive character on stage… For young people, I hope it inspires them to not be afraid to be who they are.

The first part of your question is really interesting to me, because your marriage equality is something that is very much in the [public eye]. You’re dealing with the exact same issue that we were dealing with in America when Kinky Boots opened on Broadway. Marriage equality was not a right in America when we opened. Although this show is not about marriage equality, this show is about accepting yourself and accepting others for who they are. That message applies to marriage equality, because people who don’t want people to have marriage equality are people that are afraid that it will somehow take away from their marriage [rights], but in reality it only adds to the equation! The great thing about marriage, the actual ceremony of marriage, is that marriage strengthens relationships and it strengthens communities because people make a commitment to each other, why wouldn’t you want everyone in your community to have that same chance at being a strong part of your community?

I loved the video from Kinky Broadway that skewered the trans bathroom bill issue. You’ve just discussed marriage equality, do you believe that the theatre industry should be involved in political advocacy, especially with issues that affect a large portion of our colleagues?

Should the theatre industry be involved? The theatre industry can’t help but be involved, because what we do as artists is take issues that are important and we shine a light on them. We look at stories from both sides of the fence and we try often to be the arbiters, the ones who are trying to help people on both sides come together. The arts are all about bringing people together. It’s what we do, it’s what our lives are… We share these experiences in a dark place, and [audiences] have the opportunity to respond with a room full of strangers, often in the exact same way. So the theatre automatically breaks down all of the barriers and affects us on the most human level.

I’ve heard stories of gay or trans kids taking their unaccepting families to the show on Broadway and suddenly experiencing a revolution in their relationships. We live in a world split between progressiveness and regression from conservatives, do you believe that this show has the power to bring both groups of people together?

Two of the guys who played the role of Lola in productions had no relationship with their families and their fathers, and this show healed those relationships and brought them back together. I’ve seen what you’re talking about affect cast members in the show, and it’s exactly what I’m talking about. People often fear what they don’t know and this musical is giving everyone a chance to maybe see some things that they don’t know or maybe that they fear. I don’t know anyone who would fear coming to this musical because you walk out on such a cloud of joy, with such a positive feeling about yourself… I think for the people who come to see it who don’t know what to expect, is that they will see themselves on stage, and will say, “Well if Don can do it, so can I.” They’re going to walk out happier than they were when they walked it.

I hope Australian audiences have the kind of reaction that everyone seems to have… It doesn’t matter what country they live in or what their personal beliefs are, they go to this show and they find a personal show about acceptance and tolerance and joy, and they walk out feeling that energy.

Kinky Boots opened last week at the Capitol Theatre in Sydney, AussieTheatre wishes the cast, crew and creatives a big chookas for a successful season. Tickets can be purchased at kinkyboots.com.au.

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Author

Maddi is a performer who has been too scared to stand in the spotlight for the last few years, so she channels her need for love and appreciation into writing about the theatre instead. An energetic consumer of musical theatre, she is currently earning a degree in journalism and teaches voice in her small hometown. Maddi is normally covered in cat fur, has an opinion on everything, and in the words of Lin-Manuel Miranda, is not throwing away her shot.

Maddi has written 81 articles on AussieTheatre | Read more articles by

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Jerry Mitchell on the healing power of Kinky Boots
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