Hands up – when Cyndi Lauper appeared on Top Of The Pops in 1984 for that iconic performance, it was er… fun, but she was just a Poundshop Madonna, wasn’t she?
Well, True Colors rather put paid to that judgment, as do an Emmy, two Grammys and a Tony sitting on the mantelpiece. (Now I take a dim view of awards, but Lauper broke something of a glass ceiling by becoming the first sole credited woman to win the Tony for Best Original Score in 2013 – just let that sink in, both for the scale of the achievement and the extraordinary fact that it took that long!)
It’s possible to trace a clear line from that True Colors’ musical style and themes to the sublime, subtle and deeply moving Not My Father’s Son from Kinky Boots, for which the New Yorker wrote the songs that won her the Tony.
In the Jerry Mitchell-directed musical, the song cements the relationship of drag queen Lola with footwear factory owner Charlie Price, finding common ground in the need to assert their own identity, stepping out from the shadows cast by their fathers. But I haven’t seen the Broadway show, which returns to the UK later this year, and this piece is not really focused on the song’s role in it.
The musical is based on a 2005 British film, written by Geoff Deane and Tim Firth and inspired by true events. It spawned a book by Harvey Fierstein of Torch Song Trilogy fame – and Lauper’s winning score, a major project which followed the acclaim for her Memphis Blues album in 2010.
Not My Father’s Son speaks to me, as the villain of the piece, as the man with a lesson to learn. It starts with the piano picking out a single note, the straight line Lola’s father wanted the drag queen to pursue, before Billy Porter’s extraordinary guttural falsetto leaps from it, seizing the melody, demanding we pay attention to his plaintive narrative.
But the narrative is, as yet, as thin as the voice is rich. We hear of the impact that a domineering father can have on a son, of how expectations can crush a youthful spirit and the pain a parent’s love can inflict, driven by fear of The Other – a bogeyman now in the heart of the family – as cultures, attitudes and neurologies clash.
Look at me powerless and holding my breath
Trying hard to repress what scared him to death
It was never easy to be his type of man
To breathe freely was not in his plan
And then, the line that is literally bringing me to tears as I type – a line that any father must hold in their heads at all times because, well, sons are not smaller versions of us.
And the best part of me
Is what he wouldn't see
Perhaps even as recently as a generation ago, that ‘wouldn’t’ would have been ‘couldn’t’, but, true to her LGBT+ activist roots, Lauper doesn’t let the father off the hook so easily. We always have a choice in how to behave towards another and the choices we make when challenged are the most important choices of all.
I don’t have, as yet, any problems with my sons, but I’m not such a fool as to believe that things will always be this way. And when the road they travel goes off in a direction that may not be the one I’d take, that line (with its ‘wouldn’t’ not ‘couldn’t’) will be there, blazing in its simplicity and its truth. Because they’ll sure feel that they’re doing the right thing and who am I to doubt them?
Lola finds her way…
The endless story of expectations swirling inside my mind
Wore me down
I came to a realisation and I finally turned around
That I could just be me
This is, of course, the message of La Cage Aux Folles' I Am What I Am, but we’re 45 years on from that anthem and the divaesque stridency has been done, so we get a more nuanced, no less powerful, assertion of individuality in the face of hostility. I’d suggest it’s all the more affecting as a result, never more so than when Lola introduces herself by birth name, Simon, the person inside the drag queen’s carapace of protection laid bare.
Simon/Lola needed ‘the strength of Sparta’ to get through childhood – my boys won’t. And neither should yours.
Cyndi Lauper talks about the song and Billy Porter and Stark Sands sing it here
Gary Naylor writes about cricket at the Guardian and about theatre at Broadwayworld.com. He tweets at @garynaylor999