Stage preview: Billy Porter comes home as star of 'Kinky Boots'
August 2, 2015 12:00 AM
Billy Porter in his Tony Award-winning role as Lola, the stylish drag queen of “Kinky Boots.”
Billy Porter, star of the Broadway hit "Kinky Boots," performs songs from his latest album and other favorites for his PBS "Live From Lincoln Center" concert in April
By Sharon Eberson / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
It’s almost time for heels-down in Pittsburgh, and Billy Porter is giddy about being homecoming king — and drag queen — for a week.
“It’s the ultimate moment,” said the Tony- and Grammy-winning star of “Kinky Boots,” who was born, reared and schooled within the Pittsburgh city limits.
He is taking a timeout from Broadway to spend one week here in his career-defining role as Lola, a bighearted drag queen who inspires a factory owner to save his business by making those high-heeled kinky boots of the title.
Mr. Porter and the star of the national tour, Kyle Taylor Parker, will swap places when the best musical of 2013, with award-winning songs by Cyndi Lauper and a book by Harvey Fierstein, arrives at the Benedum Center Tuesday and runs through next Sunday.
Where: Pittsburgh CLO at the Benedum Center, Downtown.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 and 7 p.m. next Sunday.
Tickets: $40.75-$140.75; pittsburghclo.org or 412-456-6666.
“This is what I set out to do, and it took me a long time to do it. A lot of people felt like it was never going to happen,” Mr. Porter said.
The mega-success of “Kinky Boots” has rocked his world as attitudes have changed around him. It’s a marvel that the musical’s slogan, “You change your mind when you change the world,” has come to pass not just inside the confines of a Broadway theater, but in the chambers of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Mr. Porter has spoken openly about the pains of growing up a black gay Christian, who began singing in the Pentecostal church. Acceptance has been hard-fought for most of his 45 years.
“I just cried,” he said of hearing the recent Supreme Court ruling in favor of same-sex marriage.
“I realized, and I’ve been realizing it more and more inside of this conversation, that for many years I drank the Kool-Aid of ‘My love doesn’t matter.’ This evolution that we’re seeing has cracked open inside of me in a way that I didn’t even know could exist,” he said.
Early in his career, Mr. Porter’s powerhouse voice carried him from a win on television’s “Star Search” to Broadway. He worked in hits such as “Miss Saigon,” “Grease” and “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” throughout the 1990s before Broadway roles dried up.
Before “Kinky Boots” and a caseload of awards came his way, he earned his master’s, taught, wrote, performed and did whatever he could to stay in the game.
“I always say, ‘I spent so much time trying to fit in because that was all I knew.’ My dreams were based on things I’ve seen before. My mother always said, ‘God has bigger plans for you than you have for yourself. I never dreamed it would look like Lola. I never dreamed it would look like ‘Kinky Boots.’”
In Pittsburgh, he taught future Tony winner Patina Miller at Carnegie Mellon University and created shows such as “Ghetto Superstar” before his friend, director-choreographer Jerry Mitchell, thought he would be the perfect Lola, and he entered into a fruitful musical collaboration with Ms. Lauper.
The success of “Kinky Boots” has bred more opportunities.
He visited his friends and family in Pittsburgh as often as time allowed during a Broadway hiatus last year, in which his semiautobiographical play, “While I Yet Live,” debuted at New York City’s Primary Stages in October. He directed “The Colored Museum” for Huntington Theatre Company in Boston, and his “Live From Lincoln Center” concert aired on PBS.
He also had a small role opposite Al Pacino in the Barry Levinson film “The Humbling” and has filmed the pilot for the Baz Luhrmann Netflix series “The Get Down,” about the rise of hip-hop culture in New York.
Mr. Porter wanted to perform “Kinky Boots” here because not everyone can make it to New York, and he won’t be playing Lola indefinitely. His “Kinky Boots” contract is up in January, and he’ll be back on Broadway next year but with a new, original musical — it’s all hush-hush until an official announcement is made, he said.
Facing an audience full of friends and family with a show that delivers messages of perseverance and acceptance is particularly sweet.
“To be able to be a representative of the idea that hard work and patience pays off is what makes me so thrilled about it. … Where I came from, I’m supposed to be a statistic, and I’m not. And just that representation alone is the reason for me to come,” he said.
Mr. Porter, an active member of the social media crowd, recently posted a letter from first lady Michelle Obama, who raved after she took her daughters to see his performance on Broadway.
He often posts pictures of backstage visits by celebrities who have fallen hard for Lola.
“There have been a lot of people that have blown me away — Quincy Jones, Diana Ross. … Shirley MacLaine was wandering backstage and nobody knew she was there. And [Tony nominee] Annaleigh Ashford saw her and was like, “Why are you standing here? You’re Shirley MacLaine!’ And she brought her into my room, and she was crying and I was crying, and I didn’t even have my clothes on, and I don’t really let people see me backstage before I’m dressed. That was spectacular.”
Without a prompt, he continued, “I missed both Oprah and Aretha Franklin, because they waited too long. They just came. I’m like, ‘Listen, it’s three years in? I can’t make no promises.’”
He laughed a hearty laugh. As busy as he is, as much as he enjoys being with loved ones in Pittsburgh, he can’t get enough of his Harlem apartment, a two-bedroom rental that was featured in The New York Times.
“Oh my God, it’s the best thing,” he said. “I didn’t have a home for 13 years; now the only thing I want to do is sit at home. If I’m not at work, if I don’t have anything to do, I am home, and it’s wonderful to have a place to want to go that you can call home. That’s what roots us. I feel grounded again in the world.”
And Mr. Porter owes it all to a drag queen named Lola, a role he has embodied for four years.
“Lola will always be in my body; it will always be in my spirit,” he said. “She and the show have changed my life. … It’s a tent post, one of those things I’ll be able to look back on and say, ‘That was the moment when it changed for good.’ It’s so rare there are iconic characters in the theater that transcend the people who created them. And that has happened with ‘Kinky Boots.’ To be able to say I was the person who created that … I’m speechless.”
Sharon Eberson: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1960. Twitter: @SEberson_pg.
To report inappropriate comments, abuse and/or repeat offenders, please send an email to
email@example.com and include a link to the article and a copy of the comment. Your report will be reviewed in a timely manner.