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  • Subject area(s): Marketing
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  • Published on: 14th September 2019
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Musicals, in all its glorious shapes, are very much living forms of art. Despite its developments over the years, musicals have stood the test of time. This is apparent in an episode of the 2017 'superhero' television series The Flash, in which musicals were incorporated. The main character, Barry Allen attributes this to musicals capacity of being utopian. Kinky Boots, the musical is based on the book written by Harvey Fierstein and it has been adapted from the film with the same name. The musical has garnered popularity since its inception on Broadway and during its time on West End and now it takes the shores of Australia by storm. Therefore, this essay will center its analysis on the popular performance of Kinky Boots, which I was fortunate enough to catch on the first night that it opened at the Capitol Theatre. I will begin the essay with a detailed background of the performance, focusing on audience participation and experience, methods of operation, cultural meanings, and story lines. The essay will then proceed to give a brief history and analysis of musicals, and how Kinky Boots adheres to this particular category of popular performance. It will also examine the development of the musical Kinky Boots, as well as its role in society. Finally, the essay will analyze the significance that the musical has today as well as its prospects for the future.

The hit musical Kinky Boots made its debut at the Capitol Theatre in Sydney on the 12th of April 2017. The musical began its Australian tour in Melbourne and will go on to Brisbane after its stint in Sydney.  The musical carries a star-studded creative team that includes Tony award winner Jerry Mitchell who directed and choreographed the musical. The music and lyrics were composed by pop icon, Cindy Lauper. The musical tells the story of Charlie Price who is struggling to keep the family business from going bankrupt until he meets Lola, a drag queen, who gives him a radical idea that helps him save the factory he inherited. The story revolves around struggles such as striving in the face of economic challenges and more importantly, the search for acceptance.

It is not surprising that Kinky Boots has been a phenomenal success. The success of musicals depends on the extent that it touches audiences and Kinky Boots has embraced the qualities to do so. For example, the musical encompasses a great message about accepting people for who they are. A line from the musical that stood out was stated by Lola who was quoting Oscar Wilde in saying 'Be yourself, everyone else is already taken!'. The musical challenges mainstream perceptions of drag while telling a heartwarming story. One of the main characters, Lola is a black male who dresses up as a transvestite and is portrayed as 'other' and an underdog. The focus on a 'woman's' story and the emphasis on friendship are also appealing to audiences. This convention was first seen in the production of the musical Wicked.  The relationship between Charlie and Lola that is bound together by their shared search for human dignity is a strong and powerful spine to the story. Their friendship is underpinned by the conflict between pleasing others and staying true to themselves, which is a key message of the musical. Kinky Boots attracts a huge range of audiences, including families and young people for whom it serves as an exemplary purpose for, as they are struggling with defining who they are. The musical highlights the importance of being true to one's self and it conceptualizes a future for them in which they can be different, without being disfavored. Kinky Boots also has some 'daddy' issues that run through its narrative, as both Charlie and Lola are under the pressure set by their respective fathers.  The story line and moral messages of the musical makes audiences identify with the characters, allowing them to become invested in the musical.

Like many other musicals, Kinky Boots serves as a form of escapism for the audience. The only form of participation that the audience had to partake in was engaging with the story. It became the part of their day when they didn't have to deal with work or other distractions. By the end of Kinky Boots, we can understand audience participation in the musical as we observe them being fully immersed in the musical. When the musical arrives at the resolution, audiences were standing on their feet, cheering and clapping for the characters. This shows that they were very satisfied with their experience of being at the musical.

Apart from these attributes, the success of Kinky Boots is marked by its recognition of being a mega-musical. Mega-musicals like Kinky Boots tend to have a large presence outside the theatre as a result of substantial advertising through logos and theme songs.  Kinky Boots is easily recognized by the red glittered boots that are plastered all over billboards, TV advertisements and brochures along with the theme song 'Raise You Up/Just Be' that can be heard in promotional videos.  Furthermore, the musical was internationalized by adapting it to local Australian culture by launching a campaign that helped to spread the musical's message of acceptance. In partnership with beyondblue, the Australian community was encouraged to don the iconic boots with the intention of inspiring people to be themselves.  Hence, methods of operation were critical in ensuring the success of Kinky Boots.

Musicals have been changing over the centuries. Even its origins are largely debated over. Edith Borroff acknowledges in her anti-theory that musicals can be seen as having taken root in comic operas, operettas, minstrel shows and the intermingling of many other forms of entertainment.  It can be difficult to distinguish musicals from the different forms of entertainment. Thus, a checklist can be formed in helping to identify a musical.

Firstly, musicals can be identified by the parameters that they are productions that utilize songs to tell a story.  Unlike the grand aria of operas that encompass a disruption to the flow of song, song and dance are well integrated into the story of musicals. Song and lyrics in musicals encode meanings that drive the narrative forward. The interruption of music and song has the potential to be either good or bad.  In Kinky Boots, certain numbers worked for the musical while there were several that did not. For instance, the opening number of Kinky Boots titled 'Price & Son Theme/The Most Beautiful Thing in the World' sets up the story for the audience by giving them an introduction to the story. The song informed the audience of Charlie's relationship with the shoe factory and his father. This song and dance was well incorporated into the story, as it was necessary for the progression of the narrative. On the contrary, the number titled 'The History of Wrong Guys' performed by Lauren, a factory worker and Charlie's love interest was merely an interruption. Although the song gave the audience new information, the dance and movements were largely repetitive and did nothing to advance the story. Nonetheless, the songs in Kinky Boots were full of charisma that it would make you want to get up, dance and sing along with the cast. This is definitely a trait of musicals.

Secondly, musicals since the 20th century are known for incorporating serious social issues.  Musicals that tell stories of significance to humans are engaging with the audience. Kinky Boots has a really important message not only about the queer world, but also about acceptance in general. The musical confronted the issue of the position of drag queens and transvestites in society. This remains a controversial subject in society even till today and the musical has done well to put the matter at the forefront of its story. It gives the audience a glimpse of what life looks like for such a community as well as shed light on the common misconceptions that have developed. The musical also addresses a more common issue that more audience members could relate to. At its heart, Kinky Boots is a story about inclusion and accepting people for who they are. This is a serious social issue that many people in the audience likely encounter in their own lives. Getting to see how it plays out in a musical serves as a utopia for the audience by providing them with the image of something better.  

Character development is also an important element present in musicals. Since the seventies, linear story lines have been replaced with a focus on stories that are more reflective of real life.  Character development is prominently seen in Kinky Boots, especially in the form of conflict between confidence and crisis. At the start of the musical, Lola makes a grand entrance, proudly flaunting her role as a headlining drag queen. However, by the end of the first act, we see that Lola is uncertain about her identity as she faces disapproval from some of the factory workers. This is an attractive feature of musicals as it successfully gives the audience what they want whilst still addressing issues that they care about.

The musical may have different effects on different people. In any case, it definitely does more than entertain. Musicals are historically known for being a form of entertainment.   Although they are known for their utopianism, musicals these days do more than envision an ideal place that may not exist. Instead, it portrays how wonderful life can be, even in the face of difficulties. Kinky Boots uses comedy to deal with underlying issues of sexuality of transvestites trying to be comfortable with their eccentricity. The audience watching drag queens feels comfortable with identifying with the characters as a result of realism. As Jonathan Bollen asserts in his essay, the quality and realism relayed by female impersonators is inspiring to audiences.  By the end of Kinky Boots, audiences were very uplifted by the character of Lola. A large group of audience members, including myself, were all gathered at the back stage exit, waiting to meet and greet Callum Francis, the actor who played Lola. The group was in awe and absolutely star struck when they finally got to meet the inspiring actor and snap pictures with the star. The rise of feminism has helped to increase audience awareness and interest towards 'girl power' as well as the acceptance of being different. Hence, the musical reflects that society is now open to sexuality being made comical. Furthermore, the fact that the underdog of the story is a transvestite who becomes the hero of the film also shows how musicals have become more open-minded.

Musicals also challenge the audience as it makes us think about the moral messages that the story conveys. In Kinky Boots, audiences are made to think about the way they treat other people as well as themselves. It can also be seen as a medium in which to educate people about gender stereotypes that are present in society. It can also be seen as a form of protest as it deals with controversial issues up front instead of tiptoeing around it.

Even in this age of technology, musicals still matter largely today. The vast repertoire of musicals can testify for the success of musicals. The advent of films and YouTube videos has not eroded the position that musicals have in popular culture. Every popular performance carries a different significance at different points in time. Musicals have undergone transformations as mentioned above, in order to persist within popular culture. For instance, Kinky Boots addresses issues that are still largely relevant to society today. It has adopted the onset of technology into its marketing strategy. Audiences were encouraged to share their experience of watching the musical through photos and texts via social media.  Perhaps soon enough, musicals will garner even more popularity, as it is live telecasted over the web for more people to enjoy.

The future of musicals has been a cause for concern due to the belief that spectatorship has been dwindling. However, the future of musicals is not as dim as it seems. Musicals continue to hold an important role in popular culture today as they are increasingly being integrated into other forms of popular entertainment such as films and television shows. Musicals are incorporated into contemporary stories. This is evident in the case of the film La La Land (Damien Chazelle, 2016), in which the concept of musicals is weaved into a modern day narrative. Furthermore, musicals are no longer only present in famous theatre districts such as Broadway and the West End. It is also thriving in Hollywood today. This can be attributed to the fact that older musicals are being revived. This has been achieved by adapting them into film musicals. Examples of this would include Jersey Boys (Clint Eastwood, 2005) and Into The Woods (Rob Marshall, 2014), which have been adapted into musical films in recent years. Thus, it can be said that the success of film musicals is linearly related to that of musicals. Australia's musical theatre scene is also on the rise. Just in 2017 alone, The Bodyguard, The Book Of Mormon and Beautiful: The Carole King Musical will be premiering in Australia. This shows that there is a great diversity of musicals and plenty of options available for audiences to pick from. The entertaining element of musicals has ensured its longevity in society.

Kinky Boots in particular still has a bright future ahead of it. Not only does it continue to address relevant social issues, the music and dance that it comprises is still enjoyable to the society today. The musical opened up on Broadway in 2013 and is a hit that is still going strong. This is proven by the fact that it has won six Tony-awards. Kinky Boots is a model for other modern musicals. The magic of the theatricality and the upbeat numbers that makes the musical fabulous is what draws audiences in. Furthermore, Kinky Boots is still being referenced to in popular culture as well. In an episode titled 'Beach House' of the hit TV series, Girls, the main character talks to her friend about someone who worked on the marketing campaign for Kinky Boots.

In conclusion, Kinky Boots plays an important role in popular culture today as it conveys values and concerns of the culture and society. This essay has attempted to answer the three most important questions about the genre of popular performance of musicals. The essay has described where musicals come from, who participates in it, and where it is headed, with a core analysis on Kinky Boots as well as references to several other examples. This essay may have postulated where musicals originated and how the have evolved, but there is still plenty of room for it to examine its relationship with film musicals, primarily in the case of Kinky Boots. It is not only important to consider where musicals are going but it is also necessary to pay attention to where it is taking our culture. The longstanding popularity of musicals is attributed to the fact that we all wished that our lives were like a musical. It sure would be a lot more fun if you could burst into a song and have a chorus of passersby singing along with you.

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