You are here

Jerry Mitchell boots Kinky into Sydney

Features - Musical Theatre & Cabaret

Jerry Mitchell boots Kinky into Sydney

by Jo Litson on April 19, 2017 (April 19, 2017) filed under Musical Theatre & Cabaret | Comment Now
The director-choreographer talks about working on Kinky Boots and his next "biggie" with Jennifer Lopez.

A couple of weeks ago Tony Award-winning director-choreographer Jerry Mitchell jetted into Sydney from Dallas to oversee the Sydney opening of the musical Kinky Boots. He had been in London the week before Dallas, and New York the week before that. Two hours after landing in Sydney he was at a media lunch looking bright-eyed and bushy tailed, and charming everyone with his infectious enthusiasm.

“Jerry Mitchell jet-lagged has more energy than I have after eight hours sleep and a big breakfast,” quips Toby Francis, who plays Charlie in the Australian production.

Kinky Boots, Jerry MitchellJerry Mitchell at the Los Angeles opening of Kinky Boots. Photograph © Chelsea Lauren

By all accounts, Mitchell is just the same in the rehearsal room. “He likes to have fun and be high energy and have everyone enjoy it. There’s no doubt he wants to work, so you put your work hat on and get the job done, but he loves it so much that it’s infectious,” says Toby.

A former Broadway hoofer, Mitchell has a reputation for leaping up during rehearsals and demonstrating what he’s after. A New York Times journalist watched him rehearsing the San Francisco out-of-town try-out of Legally Blonde in 2007 ahead of its Broadway season and described how he even pretended to be a moving piece of scenery at one point.

“By the time he got down on the floor to demonstrate the role of Bruiser – a Chihuahua who accompanies the seemingly ditzy sorority girl Elle Woods to Harvard Law School in a matching pink outfit – it was clear that Mr Mitchell could have performed the whole show himself, if only there were enough of him,” said the writer Jesse Green.

Francis and his Kinky Boots co-star Callum Francis (no relation), who plays the drag queen Lola, know exactly what she’s talking about.

“There are so many images I have in my head of Jerry up on the travelators and throwing the boots around. When he’s got an idea that he wants to express, he doesn’t sit in a chair and say: ‘I want you to try this’. He takes his glasses off – and as soon as the glasses are off, it’s like, ‘OK, it’s down to business!’ He’s up on the floor and running around,” says Callum.

“He’s super hands-on,” agrees Toby. “There’s a Jerry Mitchell one-man Kinky Boots somewhere in the future, I’m sure of it!”

Mind you, adds Callum, he gives you plenty of room to find your own version of the character. "Jerry is brilliant with the fact that with every Lola, he allows us to put ourselves into it and he works with that as opposed to saying: 'this is what Billy Porter did.'"

The two-time Tony Award-winner (best choreography for La Cage Aux Folles in 2005 and Kinky Boots in 2013) has worked with some legendary names over the course of a career spanning nearly four decades, including Jerome Robbins, Michael Bennett and Agnes de Mille. For Kinky Boots he collaborated with Cyndi Lauper and Harvey Fierstein. Next up, he and Fierstein are working with Jennifer Lopez on an NBC Live production of Bye Bye Birdie – all of which is worlds removed from the small Midwest farming town in which he grew up.

Kinky Boots, Jerry MitchellJerry Mitchell in rehearsals for Kinky Boots. Photograph © Monica Simoes

Mitchell was born and raised in Paw Paw, Michigan: “four corners and two light stops when I was a kid,” he says. His grandparents on his father’s side ran the town’s restaurant-cum-bar, as did his parents after them, where his mother cooked all the food each day.

“I have two older brothers and none of us wanted to take over the business. But my parents were very supportive of all of us going and doing what we wanted to do. They eventually sold it,” he says.

Having taken tap classes as well as playing sport, Mitchell left school to perform as a dancer in a touring production of West Side Story. He was later chosen by Michael Bennett and Bob Avian to join the national tour of A Chorus Line. He made his Broadway debut in the 1980 revival of Brigadoon choreographed by Agnes de Mille and went on to appear in productions including On Your Toes, Jerome Robbins’ Broadway and The Will Rogers Follies.

He also assisted Robbins on Jerome Robbins’ Broadway, having previously worked as Bennett’s assistant on the unproduced Scandal. Moving into choreography, his credits include shows such as You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown, The Full Monty, The Rocky Horror Show, Hairspray and La Cage Aux Folles.

Legally Blonde was the first Broadway production that he both directed and choreographed, as he did for Kinky Boots.

“I didn’t purposely think to myself ‘oh my god, I have to be the director and choreographer’ when I was younger but all of the people I’ve worked with and all of the people I’ve admired – Jerome Robbins, Michael Bennett, Bob Avian – they were directors and choreographers and I learned from them. You realise very quickly that as a choreographer you are a director of a different sort of text. Your text is steps and body language, and often lyrics in a musical number, so [when you direct as well] the only thing you are adding to your plate really is the written text in a musical. And in many musicals that written text is very small because it’s ‘get me to the next song’,” he says.

“The great thing about a musical is you’ve got three ways to tell the story – dance, music or speaking and they all matter so that’s kind of your job. And it’s easy to be both [choreographer and director].”

Both Bennett and Robbins were known to be exacting and could be ruthlessly demanding. “Michael once said, ‘human rights have crept into the theatre.’ I will never forget it!” says Mitchell with a laugh.

His other great mentor is director Jack O’Brien – a completely different personality, with whom Mitchell worked as a choreographer on productions of The Full Monty, Hairspray and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.

“Jack is the most collaborative and the most inclusive of everyone in the room in order to get to the final result. So for me as a director, it taught me a little bit of the other side of that coin and has certainly shaped the way I work as a director-choreographer,” he says.

“Ultimately the director is in charge. [Michael] did it by hitting people over the head if they didn’t listen to what he had to say sometimes. Jack did it by encouraging people and then convincing them that his way is the way. What that does is empower them to take part. If I have to lay down the law, I’m happy to lay it down. I just hope I never have to do it in such a way that there’s no fun, because ultimately I want to go to dinner with everybody after it’s done.”

Kinky Boots, Jerry Mitchell, Harvey Fierstein and Cyndi LauperJerry Mitchell, Harvey Fierstein and Cyndi Lauper. Photograph © Gavin Bond

Mitchell was involved with Kinky Boots right from the very beginning, coming on board shortly after producers Daryl Roth and Hal Luftig picked up the rights to the 2005 British film starring Joel Edgerton and Chiwetel Ejiofor. Fierstein then came on board to write the book, and Fierstein’s brother suggested Lauper write the songs.

The show opened on Broadway in 2013 winning six Tony Awards. The West End production followed in 2015, while the Australian production opened in Melbourne in October 2016 to glowing reviews.

Set in Northampton, Kinky Boots centres on Charlie Price who reluctantly inherits his father’s shoe factory which is fast going down the gurgler. A chance meeting with Lola, a drag queen in London, inspires the idea of designing “kinky boots” for cross-dressing men.

Given his own working class upbringing, Mitchell related easily to all the characters. While researching the show, he went to Northampton. “I went to all the factories, I hung out at Trickers the most. I didn’t have the luxury of taking the New York company but when we opened the show in London we took the whole London company up to see the place and toured the factory and brought everyone from Trickers to London for a preview. It was really special,” he says.

The show remains close to Mitchell’s heart. “The message is about something that is still very important not just in America but probably everywhere – accepting yourself so you can accept other people. And the story that Harvey hit on at the very beginning [when adapting the film] was these two guys who are failures in their fathers’ eyes. That’s such a universal idea. Our parents expect things of us. Sometimes we do it, sometimes we don’t but [it’s about] how we go on to be proud of whatever it is that we decide to do and become our own person. That’s an important story,” he says.

Mitchell is full of praise for Fierstein with whom he will collaborate again on Bye Bye Birdie. “He’s the best. He’s a great writer and he doesn’t hold onto stuff. He is willing to cut and rewrite. He is really about the end-product: what are we doing now? What needs to be done?" he says.

Kinky Boots, Cyndi Lauper and Jerry Mitchell Cyndi Lauper and Jerry Mitchell at the Tony Awards. Photograph supplied

As for working with Lauper, Mitchell is quoted in the Australian press kit as saying: “[Her score is] pop-infused, and yet it’s very theatrical and tells great stories. Cyndi was eager to learn the craft. She didn’t come into the process thinking she was just gonna write what she wrote. She wanted to write for the theatre. And she wanted to bring her knowledge of pop music, but yet she also wanted to learn to tell stories. And she was led by Harvey and myself – hopefully, we were there to guide her. I think she would say that. And you know, we had an amazing collaboration, all three of us.”

One of the lessons Mitchell learned early was that no matter how much you love a song or a piece of stage business, sometimes you need to cut it for the good of the show. During the final week of rehearsals for the San Francisco season of Legally Blonde, he apparently made 37 cuts.

“On Kinky Boots with Cyndi I think there were a total of nine songs that I cut during the process that were rewritten. Five of them went back into the show, the others never saw the stage,” he says.

In March, the current Broadway Kinky Boots cast, along with some of its previous stars including Billy Porter and Stark Sands, the original Lola and Charlie, performed in a charity concert.

“I had them sing three of the songs that were cut including a song for Lola. When I heard it, I thought, ‘oh my god! That was a good song. Why did I cut it?’ But it was because the audience was ahead of us. I tried as hard as I could to make that song work but the audience didn’t need it. So that’s part of the process with a new musical, figuring it out... Your job is to tell the story. And every time you look at the show, every time you go back to see it, you look at it with fresh eyes and say, ‘is the story adding up?’ And if it isn’t, you make it add up.”

From Sydney, Mitchell goes back to New York. “I have workshops of two or three new musicals that I’m doing but basically this year is getting Bye Bye Birdie ready for NBC,” he says.

It follows the success of Hairspray for NBC last year. “Harvey had written the script and was starring as Edna and they asked me to choreograph. I had an amazing experience and the show was successful on television, and lo and behold a couple of months later I get a phone call saying, ‘we want you to direct and choreograph next year’s show Bye Bye Birdie starring Jennifer Lopez’,” says Mitchell.

“I flew out and met her and her team and everybody was on the same page. It was a love fest so we agreed to do the show and that’s sort of where it’s been. Now we are in the process of getting the design worked out and getting the cast together, and it will be full steam ahead starting in September.”

Lopez is not only Executive Producer but plays Rose.  “I went to see her show in Las Vegas and she was sensational. She’s a dancer at heart, that’s where she started, so for me it’s very exciting because I’m going to get her up and moving and doing a lot of stuff. I’m really excited about that,” says Mitchell. “So that is going to take most of the [northern] summer and fall. It’s going to be a biggie.” 


Kinky Boots plays at Sydney’s Capitol Theatre until July 23, then the Lyric Theatre, QPAC in Brisbane, August 22 – September 17

BOOKINGS  

Subscribe to Limelight, Australia's Classical Music and Arts Magazine